Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Post No. 135b: The High Price of Putting One's Foot in One's Mouth

Yesterday, we re-posted an article dealing with how society might respond to "offensive" or "inappropriate" comments made by those in the public eye. We suggested that the same principles might be applicable to Rep. Joe Wilson, tennis stars Serena Williams and Roger Federer, and entertainer Kayne West.

Some of these individuals have since made apologies, or have attempted to do so. Back in February of this year, we generated another post, "The High Price of Stubbing Your Toe," which focused on apologies by public figures, and whether society's response to "apologies" truly motivated others to apologize.

It occurred to us that there is a difference between "embarrassing conduct," and "offensive" or "inappropriate" comments. We are therefore re-posting our earlier piece on apologies, and we have changed its title to "The High Price of Putting One's Foot in One's Mouth."

© 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 Despite this, lucrative sponsorship deals that resulted from his eight Olympic gold medals were immediately withdrawn, and law enforcement conducted an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.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. Sadly, it's a thankless job when you are an elected official.

    While they should be criticized for whatever blunders they make, the bitter pill goes down much easier for the public if they admit to the mistakes right away and not prolong the situation, claiming innocence while really guilty, that caused the blunder.

  2. The next time someone puts their foot into mouth they can use the apology generator---

  3. If a politican, celebrity or anyone else commits a crime, it's the law's business. If they commit a so-called immoral act, it's between them, their spouse and God. In no way is any of this the public's business. The public's business is to get on with their own lives.

  4. I really like this post. I think there is this urge within public figures to test boundaries. It's almost like they want to see how much they can get away with. But then again, we are all human; we make mistakes.

  5. TimeObserver:

    Thank you for visiting our site. You said it better than we did, and more succinctly. Thanks, and do visit again soon, or explore some of our other articles on personal responsibility.

  6. Thanks Nothing Profound for weighing in on this issue. We can not really argue with your reasoning and the resultant position, although there are some additional nuances that we would address in the analysis.

    If only approach to such issues were as simple as that statement. One issue is obviously that a uniform federal law is not applicable to most of the crimes of which you speak, and sometimes civil actions must be pursued. States have different views of the same.

    As for immoral acts, our society has been attempting to legislate morality for quite some time now, and that generally varies from state to state also.

  7. Zobop Republic: Thanks for taking the time to digest the article and providing the entertaining link.

  8. Ayodeji d wrote: "I think there is this urge within public figures to test boundaries. It's almost like they want to see how much they can get away with."

    Thanks for visiting and the compliment. It has always been our sense that politicians are a different breed, with different motivations and needs. In this day and time of intense scrutiny of public officials, it takes a different type of person to still pursue life as a politician, and subject his or her family to the complications associated therewith.

    You've actually given us something to think about further in terms of their make-up. Pushing the envelope.... Hmmm

  9. I really like this post. I think there is this urge within public figures to test boundaries. It's almost like they want to see how much they can get away with. But then again, we are all human; we make mistakes.


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