Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Chris Christie virtually defines the “political apology”

As most of you know by now, the New Jersey Republican governor, Chris Christie used the political apology to extricate himself from a controversy over a pretty blatant case of political payback in his state engineered by, at least, one of his senior staff members.

By “political apology” I mean a mea culpa that accepts responsibility for the actions of others while making it clear you don’t plan to accept any of the negative consequences that might follow such actions. It’s not really a phoney apology like the one Rob Ford made to Toronto’s city council recently or the I’m-sorry-I-got-caught type with which we’ve become so familiar. It’s more clever than that.

To be effective, the political apology has to seem like it comes from the heart, and one must seem contrite and offer media representatives a plausible narrative and ample opportunity to exhaust themselves asking questions of diminishing levels of pertinence. All this, of course, while promising listeners or readers that you’ve fixed the problem so nothing like it can ever happen again. Sound familiar?

Pundits here in Canada, especially those on the left, are saying Prime Minister Stephen Harper—regarding his role in the Senate Spending Scandal—could well learn a thing or two from Christie’s style of crisis management. You know, get out in front and come as clean as you dare without permanently damaging your brand.

I disagree.

For what has Prime Minister Stephen Harper to apologize? Chris Christie’s office has been caught in a serious act of petty political retribution, one that could very well be criminal in nature. The PMO has been involved in a payback of an entirely different stripe. The “crime” of PMO’s boss was his offering of an act of extreme personal generosity that was, apparently, intended to minimize the damage to his party’s brand being inflicted by a reckless high-profile appointee.

Michael Wright, the most powerful unelected political operative in Ottawa—and someone with a long-held reputation for integrity—apparently made an error in judgement and quickly acknowledged his mistake, apologized, took full responsibility for his actions and resigned, thereby accepting the consequences for them. End of story.

For our PM to also apologize would have been over the top. The responsibility of the PM was to provide an explanation of his role in the affair, and he has done that…repeatedly.

Chris Christie and his political handlers did not invent the political apology, though, they do seem to have used it skilfully. Let’s leave it at that and not try to apply it to our prime minister.