In an op-ed piece in Sunday's New York Times we find still one more public apology, this one by New York's governor, Eliot Spitzer. Language Log has been alert to this speech act in its past posts on non-apologies here and here and here and here, as well as in Geoff Nunberg's assessment of what makes an apology work effectively. Now we hear from Spitzer about some recent events that happened in his office.
From what Spitzer wrote in his apology, I paraphrased his points in the sequence he said them, followed by my own brief comments in parentheses:
1. Nothing illegal happened on my watch.
2. What my staff did was wrong.
3. I've already apologized to the Senate majority leader.
4. What happened is not what we are about.
5. I warned my staff to avoid this.
6. Some forgot my warning and created the appearance of wrong-doing.
7. We acted at once and got rid of some fine, distinguished people even though they didn't break the law.
8. What happened should not deter our good progress.
9. Partisan politics should stay out of this.
10. We will move forward anyway.
You can reach your own conclusions about the effectiveness of this as a public apology but it's possible to note a few things that the governor might have done differently. First, nowhere are we told what the offense was (only that it was not illegal) and, despite the fact that he admits it happened on his watch, Spitzer tries to make it clear that he was not personally responsible for whatever this was, making "under my watch" a bit confusing. He says he warned his staff not to do whatever it was they did. They just "forgot" his warning (nothing intentional here) and gave the "appearance" (not specified how they managed to accomplish this) of doing something (still unspecified) that was actually wrong. He fired them for creating this "appearance" (maybe it's our fault for not recognizing this as only an "appearance") of doing something wrong (still unspecified) because "it" (creating such an appearance) is not what his office is all about. Nor will this unspecified, not-illegal event that led to the public appearance of something wrong stop Spitzer and his remaining staff members from continuing to do the long list of good things his office has been doing -- just in case we happened to forget these and need to be reminded. And finally, he gives a warning, which seems odd in an apology: his opponents better not try to convert this into political partisanship.
Applying Geoff's list of reported conditions that an utterance is said to satisfy if the utterance is to count as a true apology, we learn that the apologizer is supposed to regret the act, feel sorry about it, accept responsibility for it, and vow not to repeat it. It would have been helpful for Spitzer first to have mentioned the offensive act that he is now regretting. Maybe everyone in New York (and perhaps even beyond) already knows that his aides are accused of misusing the State Police to try to tarnish his political opponent, but an apology looks pretty lame when it fails to mention the thing for which the apology is being made. We can infer that Spitzer feels sorry about what happened, and he undoubtedly is. He apparently can't vow to not repeat this act because in doing so, he'd have to tell us what it was.
Maybe Spitzer's effort to apologize is better than Gonzalez' "mistakes were made," but it falls short in many respects. I like what Geoff said near the end of his post:
Update: Stacy Furrer writes that she tells her kids, "If you can't name what you did, you're not owning it."Posted by Roger Shuy at July 30, 2007 10:17 AM