“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” noted Elton John.
On Monday, Hillary Clinton told the Associated Press there was no need to say “sorry” about her email set-up while Secretary of State. Twenty-four hours later she called the emails “a mistake,” telling ABC News, “I’m sorry about that.”
What changed? Very little, apparently, except that news media place so much emphasis on that single five-letter word - as if uttering “sorry” fundamentally changes anything.
ABC’s David Muir practically jumped from his chair. “I did hear a word there just a moment ago, and I’m curious,” he said, clearly sensing a breakthrough moment in Emailgate. “Would you acknowledge that you made a mistake here?”
Hillary Clinton has bobbed and weaved on this matter since the day the email story broke. She has parsed every word so thoroughly that nothing, not even “sorry,” means anything anymore. So she told Muir, “I’m sorry that it has, you know, raised all of these questions.”
On “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Clinton put it this way: “I’m sorry for all the confusion that has ensued.” She echoed those exact words in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
Any serial apologizer understands the translation. “I’m not really sorry for what I did so much as I’m sorry that it was discovered and that all of you reporters keep asking me about it, and if it keeps up it’s going to spoil my chances to be president.”
Many outlets - from The New York Times to Fox News Channel - characterized Clinton’s statement as an “apology.” I’m not hearing that. In fact, I don’t think an apology is what’s called for anyway.
Regardless of legal findings to come, Clinton is already guilty in the court of public opinion and, regrettably, there’s little she can say now to change that. In a way her apology or pseudo-apology only makes things worse.
Even more grating is Clinton’s dogged use of the phrase, “I take responsibility.” She said that even before the ABC interview, but what’s the point? Of course she’s responsible! Acknowledging responsibility only has purpose when, as Harry Truman put it, “the buck stops here” - in other words, if you had no involvement or awareness in the first place.
But taking responsibility for something about which you were personally responsible is the exact kind of political doubletalk that voters are sick of.
The timing of Clinton’s linguistic shift is made awkward by a report in The Times that she is trying to “shed her scriptedness” and be more spontaneous. Her latest interviews seemed anything but.
It will be tragic for Clinton and her supporters if her candidacy is ultimately undone by this unfortunate business. If she fails it won’t be because of how State Department emails were handled nearly so much as the way candidate Clinton has handled everything since.
Now the GOP’s campaign machine has what it has sought all summer: video of Clinton saying the word “sorry.” The fact that Clinton knows how it will be used is a key reason why she waited so long to say it. And by waiting so long, she’s played into the opposition’s hand while doing little to improve her situation.
Her tune sounds too much like the one from John Denver: “More than anything else, I’m sorry for myself.”
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker