I’m glad that President Obama has retreated from his comment that Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in the Henry Lewis Gates incident, but I wish he had given an actual, unqualified apology. Saying “I’m sorry” sends a clear message. Saying “I could have calibrated those words differently” doesn’t.
I think President Obama seems like a decent, principled person. My guess is that he wanted to apologize, but his staff and advisors told him it would be politically harmful — so he gave the classic non-apology apology instead. We’ve all heard it. The individual who made the ill-advised comment or engaged in the unfortunate conduct says something like: “I didn’t intend to offend anyone by my words/actions. If anyone took offense at those words/actions, I regret that.” The phrasing makes it sound like it is not the speaker who is at fault, but the poor, addled listeners who for some obscure and unpredictable reason irrationally misconstrued the speaker’s prior statement.
I think being able to issue an honest apology is important because it reflects strength of character. My grandmother used to say “be a big person and apologize,” and I think there is a lot of truth to that. Confident people admit their errors and move on. Smaller people hedge and make excuses and seeks to avoid responsibility.
President Obama’s off-the-cuff statement that the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” was unfortunate and unfair to the police officers involved because President Obama did not have all of the facts. The proper course for him would be to simply say “I’m sorry” and admit to all that he made a mistake.