Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Post No. 89: The High Price of Stubbing Your Toe

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Owning up to one’s mistakes seems to be one of mortal man’s most difficult acts.

In January 1998, for example, Bill Clinton famously said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky,” though months later, after surviving the ordeal of impeachment, he admitted that his relationship with the young woman had been “wrong” and “not appropriate.”

A cloud of presidential hanky-panky has hung over him ever since, likely diminishing his legacy, though it’s possible that his efforts around the world will offer some degree of redemption.

Lately, a new parade of politicians, celebrities, business people and athletes has come forward to face the white-hot glare of public scrutiny.

The former governor of Illinois, for example, a man seemingly caught red-handed in blatantly illegal activities, stonewalled and attempted to make the case for his innocence on America’s talk shows, at the same time the impeachment machine moved forward unimpeded.

Earlier this month, we saw Michael Phelps admit, without hesitation, that he made a mistake. Despite this, lucrative sponsorship deals that resulted from his eight Olympic gold medals were immediately withdrawn, and law enforcement conducted an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

Not long ago, another athlete, Alex Rodriguez, arguably the best baseball player of all time, admitted to using performance-enhancement drugs, sullying his past accomplishments and calling into question whether any records he may break in the future will be legitimate achievements.

In Washington, a respected former Senator, Tom Daschle, up for a key cabinet post in the new administration, ran into a buzz saw when it was revealed that he hadn’t paid taxes on benefits he had received in the position he had held prior to his nomination.

Daschle’s mea culpa was “too little, too late,” according to his critics, though the same comments were not levied against Timothy Geithner, now Secretary of the Treasury and head of the IRS, when his nomination was questioned over his back taxes owed.

Later, Geithner, in a pro-active sleight of hand, said that mistakes would be made in the Administration’s effort to stimulate the economy.

Watching all these large and small melodramas unfold – believe us, Michael Phelps’ mistake was a small one in the big picture – it occurred to us that immediate benefits ought to accrue to those who admit fault and accept responsibility.

We admire our new president’s forthright response to the Daschle incident.

“I screwed up,” he said.

And take note. He said, “I,” not “we” or “my people in charge of vetting cabinet nominees.” Like the small placard that sat on Harry Truman’s desk, the one that read “The buck stops here,” he took ownership of the problem.

Unfortunately, public reaction to admissions of culpability suggests that we, as a society, may be at risk of making it more and more difficult for people, as the expression goes, to fess up.

We have become a society that, in many ways, salivates for red meat from the mouths of talk show pundits and late night comedians.

As children, our parents and teachers encouraged us to tell the truth, even if it meant punishment.

As we matured, we appreciated that doing the right thing, while not always rewarded at the time, would ultimately prove to be in our long-term interests.

Somehow, society must create an environment in which citizens, particularly our elected officials, are permitted, even encouraged, to stand up and admit mistakes, with society viewing such admissions, not as signs of weakness but instead, as individual strength.

At some point, we have to change the culture of denial. Revisiting the potential legal liability associated with acknowledging mistakes might be a start.

We applaud the Obama administration for initiating the climate change, however underappreciated the effort may seem.

While the costs to our pride and social standing in the short term may appear to be high, the failure to pay that price up front may have a far greater cost over the long haul.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just plain Common Sense.

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense


  1. Very timely, since just today a friend of mine admitted in her newsletter how she had failed to be as "responsible" as she might have been and now understood a powerful message about healing a situation. That drew from me, in response to her an admission, how I consciously chose NOT to deal with an issue of depression even though I knew what I needed to do. Both of us are involved in what could be considered "healing professions," yet, here we were admitting to our own short-comings in our own healing efforts.
    I don't think this is much different than some of the examples you sighted. There is power in admitting an error because it cracks the wall of self-protection and allows you to get through the problem.
    Finally, we all seem to have that streak that loves the "bad news" someone else is caught up in. Perhaps efforts such as you cover in your blog will help gain a more healthy perspective and give others a break!

  2. Thank you Dan. This piece has provoked some interesting responses from our readers, all "off the record" and sent via e-mail.

  3. Those losers that didn't openly comment didn't read your blog then. Mistakes make people human, the problem is that where do we draw that line when a mistake is so bad that it deserves publi scrutiny?

    When your high profile like those mentioned above, the real question is " does there mistake teach them what have they have done wrong?" Time will tell because if they do it again or not will answer the question.

  4. As someone who has made mistakes throughout his life, both legal (but stupid) and illegal (and stupid), I can relate to the article quite well. Public figures may make mistakes and the public, in a seemingly finicky way, will forgive or condemn them. It is up to the public to judge whether the mistakes are sufficient to warrant more than simple public humiliation. Unfortunately, the public must do that indirectly in the case of appointees. And, unless the mistake is revealed close to an election (see Mark Foley) or is easily sufficient for impeachment, it becomes a matter for the Spin Doctors to manipulate public opinion. In Clinton's case, sufficient time was gained in order to alter public opinion to avoid being ousted. His mistake was not in the dalliance, it was in the cover up. Who knows what he might have done for a foreign power in an effort to avoid having that dalliance revealed? We, the public, were directed to look at the left hand of the magician while the right hand was the one we should have been watching.

    In simple terms, we are at the mercy of the media and PR agents.

    What our parents tried to teach us was that honesty may mitigate but won't prevent punishment for mistakes so do your best not to make important ones. The best way to turn your child into a future criminal is to forgive all his mistakes and forego punishment if he `fesses up.

    What happens with public figures teaches us that good handlers and good timing can not only prevent punishment but can possibly make you a positive role model. Who better to run the Treasury (and the IRS) than a tax cheat?

    But, then, I am a cynic.

  5. LOL LOL "Who better to run the Treasury (and the IRS) than a tax cheat?" Amen to that. Just like the police are employing criminals to teach them how to stop crime. It works.

    Question: What kind of job would Bill Clinton's experiences qualify him for? Managing the Chicken Ranch perhaps? Bb

  6. LOL LOL "Who better to run the Treasury (and the IRS) than a tax cheat?" Amen to that. Just like the police are employing criminals to teach them how to stop crime. It works.

    Question: What kind of job would Bill Clinton's experiences qualify him for? Managing the Chicken Ranch perhaps? Bb

  7. Excellent post! Not long ago, the general public put celebrities and politicians on pedestals and felt betrayed when any faults were revealed. Those in the public spotlight have been given the arduous task of maintaining an infallible life. Once we learned they could bleed, the media pariah attacked to feed the public's frenzy. Granted, when someone is arrogant and self-righteous, there is some sort of macabre satisfaction in seeing their demise. Perhaps seeing someone famous be humiliated releases our own demons because we feel that whatever we have done is certainly not as bad as being hung out to dry in public.
    Regardless, it is time to redirect our criticisms and realize the honor in admitting mistakes. No one is perfect for if they were, they'd already be in a position to repair all of the country's woes. Real people are fixing real problems and anyone that is not part of the solution is part of the problem. Ridicule is not a solution.

  8. What you are talking about is honesty. These are not examples of just mistakes. George Bush mispronouncing words and names of world leaders are examples of mistakes. Fishing for bribes to sell a Senate seat is a criminal act.

    Every one of the people you referred have behaved in a dishonest manner in some measure and degree. Michael Phelps inhaling on a bong is no way near as dishonest as a :statesman: who doesn't pay his taxes but expects everybody else to do so.

    These folks owned up (and often not fully have done even that much)to things that they had been caught red-handed at doing. I am not saying that I have the need to see most of them prosecuted to the full extent of the law, although as role models and people who have been granted much the case could be made that they are collectively more culpable than the average Joe or Jane. Que sera,sera. Perhaps we are only getting what as a society we collectively deserve. No, I take that back. Society being rotten is no excuse for these persons to be as bad or worse than the average person.

    To the Institute for Applied Common Sense I propose it is not common sense to put trust in such people. If someone is genuinely sorry for what they have down they should not be crowding in the spotlight looking for forgiveness but quietly retiring from the center stage to repair what they can with their families and those whom they have wronged.

    I'll be arbitrary and exempt Michael Phelps from this because he has been chastised by losing the money of many endorsements, has otherwise seemed to have lead an exemplary life in his 23 short years, because he is both young and in some ways naive due to those long hours devoted to practice and study and because he cut loose with a substance less harmful than beer. Had he been drunk at a party nobody would have batted an eyelash.

  9. As is usual, June has applied common sense to this discussion. Thank you June. BB

  10. Thanks for weighing in Oritiorii: When one is a public figure, and places oneself in the spotlight or on the stage, one will receive public scrutiny. Additionally, there is a perception that the rich and famous like to pick and choose the level of attention which they receive, and when they receive it.

    The issue, from our perspective, is the tone and extent of the attacks, along with their self-righteous nature. (Clearly in some instances, to boost ratings.)

    It is almost as if we expect those in the public eye to maintain a higher standard of conduct than ordinary citizens, or even higher than that which we apply to ourselves.

    That arguably might be appropriate in the case of elected officials, in whom we place our trust. However, for entertainers and athletes, and perhaps, even business executives, this double standard is a bit perplexing.

    The "role model" burden placed on athletes is not one which they negotiated when they signed their contracts to give their best on the field or the court, or that they considered while playing little league.

    We suspect that because of the money that top celebrities make, and the favors they are granted in society, society feels that they owe something to society, and thus deserve more intense criticism when they make mistakes. We also suspect that many feel, rightly or wrongly, that with such a high level of income, and privilege, they should use it prudently and avoid embarrassing situations.

    There is frequently a certain maliciousness and viciousness that accompanies the criticism. The issue arises as to whether this somehow advances any interests in society. Arguably embarrassment or shame ought to be a sufficient deterrent. And then there is the act of beating the dead horse….

    Arguably, we never really know whether people learn from their mistakes. As some who have made mistakes have noted, the crime may not have been the event itself, but getting caught.

  11. Douglas, you said something in your comment about which we feel compelled to respond.

    "In simple terms, we are at the mercy of the media and PR agents." One of the reasons that we were motivated to start this blog, and partner with the Institute for Applied Common Sense, is that we were absolutely floored by some of the allegations uttered during the presidential campaigns. It was absolutely wild. People applying common sense have their antennae go up when certain allegations are made, and they instinctively say to themselves, "Does this make sense based on what we know?"

    What was amazing during the campaign was how many people did not have their rabbit ears extended, and actually believed some of this crap. Since we believe in freedom of speech, the only contribution we felt that we could make was to contribute to the educational process, by creating a forum where people of all viewpoints could hash out their differences, civilly, and while employed common sense.

    We just hate rigidity in thought. As we have always said, we don’t care where people come up, as long as they go through a logical process.

    The Laughingman always arrives at the same conclusion when we express our concerns about this "gullibility." The only way to attack it is through education. Always has been, always will be.

    One other thing Douglas. Classic movies sometimes provide classic lines. We heard this one recently, and believe that it is applicable to this discussion.

    “There ought to be more to a man, than the worst thing that he has ever done.”

  12. Brenda, you've obviously doing better these days. Welcome back.

    You chimed in with Douglas about the "tax cheat" and the philandering Bill Clinton. While not apologists for these fellows, we do question whether it is fair to label someone by the most notorious thing they have ever done.

    Consider this, let's say that Bill Clinton is 60 years of age, for ease of calculation. Let's say that he spent an entire year of his life engaging in questionable sexual conduct. Is it fair to judge him based on 1/60th of his life's activities? Even assuming that you consider that 1/60th to be of such a despicable nature that it really amounts to 15/60ths or 1/4 of his entire life. Shouldn't the other 3/4ths, if they are good and positive in nature, outweigh the other 1/4th?

    Consider this, at age 50, all of us were required to register with some authority, and place on file for public consumption, the most egregious conduct during the preceding 50 years. Should society make decisions about the value or quality of those individuals based on one indiscretion? Or two, or three, or based on the length of time in which the conducted was engaged. Would you like to be judged in that manner?

  13. Thanks Iris. Out of curiosity, do you think that there is any jealousy involved? Do we, the not so famous, resent those who are famous and enjoy its benefits?

    We'll say this: Give us the person who immediately admits that they made a mistake any day. More importantly, we need to create that environment which encourages such an admission, if for no other reason, then for the kids.

  14. Interesting analysis June, by focusing on honesty. Your analysis would seem to suggest that there may be an affirmative duty or responsibility to come forward when one has committed an "unacceptable" act, or perhaps withdraw from the public eye. So you're saying that the issue of honesty does not just arise when questioned about the act? Should a cheating spouse immediately disclose to their spouse that they cheated?

    You threw us another curve ball by inserting the placement of trust factor. Assuming that all humans engage in some form of dishonest behavior, then theoretically, we should not place our faith in any humans, correct?

  15. Brenda, on your compliment paid to June: We're loving it! We'll say no more; however, we'll closely watch your comments going forward to see how many things there are on which you agree. We may have stumbled on something here. Maybe common sense really is "common."

  16. "Consider this, let's say that Bill Clinton is 60 years of age, for ease of calculation. Let's say that he spent an entire year of his life engaging in questionable sexual conduct. Is it fair to judge him based on 1/60th of his life's activities? Even assuming that you consider that 1/60th to be of such a despicable nature that it really amounts to 15/60ths or 1/4 of his entire life. Shouldn't the other 3/4ths, if they are good and positive in nature, outweigh the other 1/4th?"

    Yet I believe we might all agree that one act of murder, though it takes far less than 1/60th of a persons' lifetime would still outweigh all the good that they might have done. Therefore we assume you believe that mere pecadillos should not outweigh a lifetime of achievments. President Clinton was no murderer, and I'm not implying that what he did was in that league yet I am also not foolish enough to believe that his "sins" in the case of Ms Lewinsky went far beyond infidelity to his wife and his marraige vows. We think it abhorent for a teacher to have sexual relations with a student not just because of age but because the teacher is violating a postion of trust. The power of influence over the student makes the situation inherently unethical. Well folks that of a President over an young intern is vastly more unethical than even the teacer-student relationship. Plus it is behavior he apparently engaged in throughout his life as an elected official-not just when he served as President. Plus shouldn't he get extra demerits for hypocrisy, poor judgement and poor taste? That was what all those comics were doing on late-night. PS A part of me still adores him. I didn't say I was always rational.

    Should a cheating spouse fess up? The result is torment for the one who has already been injured so the cheater can feel better. This is an instance when it is better to confess to God alone, never repeat the offense, and do all possible to make it up to the other.
    OK logistician-I was suggesting that "coming clean" when you are caught is not an indicator of honesty. The cheating spouse is dishonest from the moment they stray. Trust is broken. Who among us can say that after learning that their spouse was cheating on them they would be able to not only forgive but also forget. It taints a marraige. Sure, some people make do because they love the other and because marraige to them is forever but like a broken bone a broken heart will leave it's mark forever.

    I was not really speaking of simply ANY dishonest behavior but the more someone has been dishonest in their dealings the less trust I will place in them. It is the reason people do not like to hire felons unless they know them on a personal level and are sure they have changed.

    Some people live live of near total dishonesty. Pretending to be one thing and being another. You may feel sorry for them but would you place your trust in them?

    Faith goes beyond trust. For me there is only ONE in whom I place my faith. Don't worry guys, that doesn't make me in to a distrustful and fearful person. Quite the opposite. I know that whatever may come the outcome will be what is best for me. Might be painful, but still best.

  17. The new issue of Vanity Fair - the one with Barack Obama on the cover - has an article about the affair Joe Kennedy Sr. had with Marlene Dietrich in the late 30's.

    She was bisexual and slept with many men and women, including, according to the article, a quickie with JFK when he was in the White House.

    Here's a great line from the article:

    "When asked [by her daughter later in her life] why she had so many sexual partners, Marlene shrugged, 'They asked.'"

    The question is, does knowing about Joe Sr.'s dalliance with Marlene Dietrich (and others) or JFK's with Marlene (and others) diminish your admiration for their accomplishments and memory?

    For that matter, what about FDR's love affair with Lucy Mercer? Or Eisenhower's alleged wartime love affair with Kay Summersby?

    Public figures these days live in fish bowls. Accordingly, they should be circumspect about what they say and do not only in public but also in private, telling the truth at all times, even when it may be painful.

    Nixon lied. Clinton lied. John Edwards lied. Look what it got them.

    Much worse, I think, is pulling the wool over our eyes, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did or at least attempted to do by obstinately stonewalling various issues for eight years. Look what it got them.

  18. Curvin: Thanks for paying us a visit and providing a thought provoking comment.

    Upon reading your comment, we thought about all of the famous people in history who had extramarital affairs. In most instances, even though we are now aware of those indiscretions, they are treated as blemishes or stains on their reputations, and not as factors which nullify their contributions to society. FDR blatantly maintained such a relationship, and yet we still regard him as one of the top 2 or 3 presidents in our history.

    Today, such an affair is treated as a disqualifying factor, or one that outweighs the other positive contributions made by that individual. Are we applying a different standard? Have we become less tolerant of such behavior? Has the nature of the job changed over time such that we should be more critical of such behavior than we have in the past ?

    Finally, does anyone feel that the politicians of today are more or less moral than those of the past?

  19. In a recent post, a fellow blogger suggested that subjecting people to shame would serve as a deterrent to bad behavior. Do you agree with that point of view? There theoretically is a certain amount of self-imposed shame, but should we employ some mechanism to ensure that there is sufficient shame leveled against the perpetrator? Should we publicly post all indiscretions of people in society? Is there some value to doing so?


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