FLINT - Mitt Romney's recent apology for bullying a classmate back in his high school days was flat-out awful. But it was also a teachable moment for presidential candidates.
If you missed it, he said, "I don't remember that incident and I'll tell you I certainly don't believe that I - I can't speak for other people of course - thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from my mind back in the 1960s, so that was not the case. But as to pranks that were played back then, I don't remember them all, but again, high school days, if I did stupid things, why I'm afraid I got to say sorry for it."
Politicians, I've noticed, are often bad at saying sorry, and yet it's a primary skill these days if you're running for president. Reporters interview everyone you've ever known. Your opponent is eager to turn any verbal misstep against you. You've got to understand how to apologize gracefully.
Enter me. I'm a great apologizer. If there's one thing 28 years of marriage teaches you, it's how to say I'm sorry. So I decided to call up Mitt and offer my services as an apology consultant. He eagerly accepted.
Me: "The first thing you have to do is tell the truth."
Mitt: "You mean people thought I was lying when I apologized?"
Me: "Oh, c'mon, who doesn't remember holding a kid down and cutting his hair?"
Mitt: "But it was a lot of years ago."
Me: "Can it, Mitt. You remembered. You need to own up to it and just say, 'Yup, I did it. I was a dumb kid and I'm sorry.' That's the only way to apologize - abjectly and fully."
Mitt: "But a presidential candidate can't admit that he was a callow, shallow fellow."
Me: "Wow, you really do talk like that. Listen, people will forgive bad behavior, especially in youth. But they never trust someone they sense isn't being up front with them. And your whole apology reeked of disingenuousness."
Mitt: "Really? I had my best spinmeisters craft it."
Me: "Then you need new spinmeisters. That part where you said, 'I certainly don't believe that I - I can't speak for other people of course - thought the fellow was homosexual,' that wouldn't fool a second grader. That's clearly a fib, which makes you look bad. Even worse, you threw your buddies under the bus."
Mitt: "What should I have said?"
Me: "Again, just tell the truth. Something like, 'We picked on the kid because he was different. Teenage boys can be incredibly cruel and dumb. I've matured since then, but I wish I could look that young man in the eye and say I'm sorry.'"
Mitt: "Hmm, candor. Interesting concept. Anything else?"
Me: "Yes, don't call cruelty a 'prank.' And lose the 'mistakes were made' stuff. No one likes that kind of apology. It sounds like you're not taking ownership."
Mitt: "Interesting. I'll certainly take your suggestions under advisement. And by way of practicing, let me just say that if mistakes were made in my previous apology I'm very sorry if they upset anyone."
Clearly, I have a lot of work left to do.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979.
For more of his work, visit his blog at the website blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.