Wednesday, November 01, 2006

On people who really shouldn't try to talk

Okay, so we had the privilege, in the 2004 presidential election, of voting on two men who really should try to aviod public speaking at all costs. The winner was a man incapable of assembling a cohesive sentence without a kit from Ikea and parental supervision. His opponent was a man whose lengthy, lofty, narcolepsy-inducing prose made for marginally effective speeches and should never have been translated into comedy.

But never one to say "never," Kerry gave it a try, resulting in this colossal stinker:
“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”


Yeah, it sounds a whole lot like he's saying that our troops are idiots who are only where they are because they didn't study hard enough to get real jobs.

Although the media don't report it that way, there is actually context to be had. What isn't shown in the video making its way through TV reports and the Internet is the runup to that comment, which was a string of one-liners aimed at Bush. As he explained long after the damage had been done, the joke was meant to play off of Bush's own failure to study and do his homework on the Middle East, the direct result of which is US troops being stuck in Iraq. The omitted punchline was to have been "Just ask President Bush."

Does that excuse what he said? No. Why not? Because it was stupid. Because he should have known better. Because he's not an Everyman, a Just-Us-Folks, and every time he tries to turn into one he steps in it. He meant to say something funny, and instead, it came out really, really, really insulting. And then, when people started saying, "Hey, that was really, really, really insulting," his response was, "Screw y'all, you know what I meant."

Here's something I learned from my parents: When you hurt someone, you apologize. Even if you didn't mean to hurt them, you apologize. Because "I didn't mean to hurt you" doesn't make the hurt any less. "I misspoke" doesn't make the words that you did speak any less insulting. And so, when you mean to say something and you say something else instead and someone is rightfully offended by what you said, you don't tell them that they shouldn't be offended. You acknowledge that what you said was insulting, assure them that it's not what you intended to say, and sincerely apologize.

I think Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog put it best:
It doesn't matter what he meant. It doesn't matter how a Republican would have been treated if he or she had said the same thing. It doesn't matter, in other words, whether this is fair. All that matters is what's actually happening. Kerry has to grit his teeth and accept it, then deal with it, for the good of the party. And if you can name a hundred more outrageous -- and deliberately outrageous -- things Republicans have said that passed without incident, well, reversing that imbalance is a long-term project. For now, Kerry has to show some contrition, in a conspicuous way that will put an end to this.

Kerry went on Imus this morning and did a reasonably good job of apologizing. He said that it was a botched joke, which is true, and that the Bush administration needs to apologize for getting our troops stuck in Iraq, which is also true. He also said,
Look, this is a great volunteer army. And the word "volunteer" army means you have to be smart to get in it. They know that. Everybody knows. You can’t get in the military today if you're not capable and not smart.

This comment couldn’t have been directed at them, because you can't get into the military by doing badly in school. This was directed at the people who didn't do their homework, didn't listen to history, didn't listen to their own advice, and they owe the American people an apology....

Which is a good start. But I think that in cases like these, a sincere and direct apology is always in order, and I'd like to see a press release or even press conference to this effect:
"I screwed up. I tried to tell a joke, and I screwed it up. I really shouldn't try to tell jokes, because I'm no good at them, and I know that I really, really insulted people. I didn't mean to. I wasn't trying to say that our troops are stupid; I was trying to say that Bush didn't do his homework, and like I said, I screwed it up. I have nothing but respect for our men and women in uniform, and it really bothers me that I've offended them so badly. I completely understand why they would take offense at what I said. I humbly apologize for it. I hope that our troops will accept my apology and that we can get back to the all-important job of resolving the conflict in Iraq and bringing them home. Furthermore, in the interest of avoiding such problems in the future, I solemnly vow never to try and tell a joke ever, ever, ever again.

Again, my deepest and sincerest apologies. Thank you."

Incidentally, that's a pretty good template for any sincere apology. Admit that you've screwed up, admit that the other party has a right to be hurt/offended, give any explanation (but not excuses) applicable, swallow your pride, and apologize. And promise not to do it again. And then actually try not to do it again.

Only then can you get down to the job of taking the Bush administration to task for their multitudinous screwups, because there's a man who needs to do some apologizing.

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