In the novel Love Story by Erich Segal, the doomed Jenny says, “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.” The film version of the novel turned that line into the theme song. In American politics this week, we discovered something different, and a bit more cynical. Power means you never have to really be sorry, even if you might have to offer an apology after several months of evasions and deceptions.
Almost seven months ago, The New York Times broke the story that Hillary Clinton had exclusively used a secret, private e-mail server during her tenure as Secretary of State. The House Select Committee on Benghazi had stumbled across the truth while trying to track communications at State that would normally have been archived in accordance with the Federal Records Act. The discovery came more than a year after Clinton left the State Department, and after a number of FOIA requests, to which in response, State claimed to find no communications from its top official.
After getting caught, Clinton claimed in March to have done nothing wrong, and refused to apologize – or to allow a third party to inspect the server. She also claimed that no classified information went through or was stored in the server, that the use of a private server for official business was authorized, and that her team had wiped the server clean to secure it after deleting more than half of the e-mails in the system. Those 31,000-plus e-mails, Clinton claimed, were personal e-mails relating to her daughter’s wedding and notes to her husband.
One by one, these claims were debunked by emerging information. President Barack Obama and the White House had made clear at the beginning of his term that while occasional use of a private e-mail account might be acceptable for informal business-related communications, members of his administration were expected to conduct official business over official e-mail systems, in part to provide the transparency Obama promised in 2008. Hillary Clinton never even bothered to get an official State Department e-mail account.
The Benghazi committee found fifteen e-mails between Clinton and longtime crony Sidney Blumenthal that Clinton never turned over to State, raising more questions about the 31,000 e-mails that were deleted. Most critically, subsequent inspections and audits turned up hundreds of incidents where classified information was transmitted through and stored in Clinton’s secret server.
By July, Clinton had no choice but to turn over her server to the FBI, which has opened a probe into the exposure of classified intelligence in this system. Yet she still refused to apologize, insisting that she did nothing wrong while shifting the blame for national-security damage to “overclassification.” She briefly tried using jokes on the campaign trail to belittle concerns over her e-mail system, but all that did was make Democrats panic and start getting Joe Biden warmed up in the 2016 bullpen.
Last week, Clinton began sneaking up on an apology. At first, all she would say is that she was “sorry for the confusion” caused by the private server, in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. That was followed by a flat-out insistence that Clinton would never apologize over the weekend because a private e-mail server was “allowed.” By Tuesday, Clinton had reversed course again and offered an apology for the server to ABC’s David Muir . However, in an appearance the same day on Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous show, Clinton again only apologized for creating “confusion.”
These shifting apologies seem less than sincere and authentic, perhaps in large part because Clinton frames them – in their most expansive forms – for the “mistake” of having a private server. She talks about it as if it was an oversight or an inconsequential momentary lapse in judgment – for which one would have expected an apology seven months ago. But this was no momentary failure; the Clintons paid an IT tech out of their own pocket for years to build and maintain this system, allowing the State Department to deceive courts on FOIA requests and block Congress from their legitimate oversight into her official actions.
The insincerity of the apologies reflects the sudden decision to start offering them. Clinton only changed course, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reports, only after focus group testing informed the campaign that Clinton’s arrogant denials of reality were burying her politically. Ironically, Clinton decided to make the shift to some kind of apology just as her campaign decided that she needed to change her approach to demonstrate more spontaneity and authenticity . And nothing says spontaneity and authenticity like a series of focus-group-driven inconsistent apologies.
Neither strategy has succeeded, at least not at the moment. Mark Halperin couldn’t keep a straight face on Morning Joe when discussing the planned spontaneity campaign on Tuesday morning. An incredulous David Axelrod tweeted that the plan sounded like something from The Onion. After the apology dance, National Journal’s Ron Fournier demanded to know what Clinton was apologizing for, but also argued that apologies don’t actually address the issues.
“By any objective measure, the Democratic presidential front-runner has responded to her email scandal with deflection and deception, shredding her credibility while giving a skeptical public another reason not to trust the institutions of politics and government,” he wrote. “An apology doesn’t fix that. An apology also doesn’t answer the scandal’s most important questions.”
All true. But Team Hillary hopes that apologies might distract from Clinton’s actions, credibility, and the important questions raised by her conduct. Power means you may have to apologize, but it doesn’t mean you have to be sorry when you do. Call this the Self-Love Story.