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Why do those in power find it impossible to apologize when they do wrong?

Sep 9, 2016

I am a little overweight. Not grossly fat, but I could certainly lose a few pounds. I could say this is because I was bullied as a child, because I heroically work too hard and don’t have time to eat properly, or because of my existential angst.

Actually, existential angst sounds like a good, all-purpose excuse for everything, especially given the current climate, political and otherwise. But the fact is that I am overweight because I eat too much and don’t exercise enough.

It is my fault.

We aren’t conditioned these days to take responsibility or admit when something is our fault. Yesterday, we were treated to the repellent spectacle of four of the crooked Detroit school principals groveling before a federal judge and making excuses for why they took kickbacks and conspired to steal from impoverished children.

They all told U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts that they didn’t belong in jail.

Perhaps the most contemptible of these was one Ronald Alexander, who took $23,000 in bribes, and who told the court: “Ronald Alexander is a hero, whether anyone believes it or not.”

The defendants, all of whom had made six-figure salaries, had the amazing temerity to whine to the judge about their personal financial troubles and ask not to be sentenced to jail.

The judge did send them all to prison, but none for more than a year.

I’m sorry they didn’t all get at least 20 years.

These are people who stole money from a system that can't even supply toilet paper and textbooks to kids who sometimes don't even have adequate winter coats.

These are people who stole money from a system that can’t even supply toilet paper and textbooks to kids who sometimes don’t even have adequate winter coats. What disturbs me most about all this is that some of these characters really seemed to think their actions were justifiable.

This scandal sent so many bad messages to so many different audiences in so many ways it would be exhausting to list them all. What the whining principals apparently didn’t get, however, is that the American public is, by and large, of a forgiving nature.

But like those old Irish Catholic priests in those 1930s movies, we just want our sinners to say they are sorry and ask for our forgiveness, and then we will mostly grant them forgiveness.

But for some baffling reason, those of us who screw up mostly find that nearly impossible.

Essentially, we’ve needed a metaphorical truck with a trailer hitch to drag out of Hillary Clinton something resembling an admission that she violated both government rules and common sense in the way she handled her emails while Secretary of State.

Even when she made a half-hearted apology, it was coupled with the claim that well, Colin Powell did it too, an excuse unworthy of a six-year-old. These people could learn something from the late Ted Kennedy, who spent nearly half a century as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

Back in 1994, his years of boozing and womanizing had finally caught up to him and he seemed in real danger of losing to a bright young challenger named Mitt Romney. Kennedy went on statewide TV, confessed his failings and promised to do better.

He won easily, and stayed in the Senate for the rest of his life. There’s a lot today’s politicians could learn from his example. But sadly, they mostly won’t.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.