Used Cars and Politicians

Does anybody really believe it when a used-car salesperson says: “This baby is in top-notch condition–like new!” Or this: “You want a smooth ride? Slip behind the wheel of this peach.” And have you ever been told this: “Nobody beats our prices. Nobody.”

One would be foolish to take the vague claims of a used-car salesperson literally. In the climax of the 1980 comedy classic Used Cars, a villainous used-car lot was suing the good-guy lot in court for claiming that it had a huge inventory, “a mile of cars!” The heroes had to scramble and assemble a parade of cars literally a mile long in order to defeat the false-claim lawsuit and keep their lot from falling into the hands of the ruthless bad guys. What made it funny was the absurdity of the premise: If a used car lot actually did advertise “A Mile of Cars!”, no one would take the claim literally and it wouldn’t provide the basis for a lawsuit.

I’m not picking on the used-car crowd; people selling other products exaggerate too. There’s even a legal principle that protects them when they do so. It’s basic contract law that a buyer cannot reasonably rely on the imprecise claims a seller makes about a product. The law calls it “puffing”, reasoning that a buyer has got to expect a bit of exaggeration during the sales pitch.

I mean no disrespect to people who sell cars for a living, but doesn’t that principle apply to politicians too? One would be equally foolish if one took a politician’s statements as the gospel-truth or believed all the promises made during the election campaign. Just as buyers must reasonably expect some “puffing” from a seller, so we must expect hyperbole from those seeking our votes. One of the plot lines in Used Cars involves the good-guy used-car salesman (played by Kurt Russell) running for State Senate. He must have thought it would be an easy transition.

But there’s a line that must not be crossed. Whether you sell cars for a living or you’re a politician selling yourself, you shouldn’t lie and you shouldn’t make outright misstatements of fact. This, for example, is one of the fraudulent techniques employed by an ace salesman in Used Cars.

If I’m buying a used car, I should be able to expect that my salesperson won’t lie to me, claiming that I’ve just run over his precious pet dog Toby. And if a politician states a fact, I should be able to expect that the politician is not lying about that “fact” or has at least checked things out enough to be reasonably sure that her factual assertion is correct.

All of this brings me to the Supreme Court’s recent controversial birth-control decision and Nancy Pelosi. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that Hobby Lobby did not have to offer post-conception birth control to its employees under its health-insurance plan because the family members who own the business have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. (Hobby Lobby objected to four things, among them the “morning after” pill and an IUD that prevents implantation of the fertilized egg.) This was Ms. Pelosi’s response: “Really, we should be afraid of this court.  The five guys who start determining what contraceptions are legal. Let’s not even go there.”

The decision, of course, did not make post-conception birth control illegal. The Court’s opinion–signed by those “five guys”–actually states that “women … have a constitutional right to obtain contraceptives”, upholding a 49-year-old precedent. Female employees of Hobby Lobby are free to purchase post-conception birth control on their own. Yes, some of those women won’t be able to do so; getting an IUD can be complicated and expensive. Had the ex-Speaker said “The five guys who start limiting a woman’s access to contraceptions”, then no one could complain: the decision certainly does that.

But she didn’t; she said that those five guys determined “what contraceptions are legal”. Big difference. (And she wasn’t the only politician who misrepresented the Hobby Lobby decision. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column said the Democrat response was “untethered” from the facts.) We should expect Nancy Pelosi to engage in a bit of political bluster and exaggeration. It’s part of her job, after all. But blatant misrepresentations of fact cross the line.

Again, we have a right to expect that a politician has at least checked things out enough to be reasonably sure that her assertion is not a gross misrepresentation of the facts. And if a politician fails to do so, we should expect the politician to accept responsibility, own up to the mistake, apologize for it and set the record straight. Nancy Pelosi didn’t. Instead her spokesman issued a statement that Pelosi “misspoke”. Too tepid. Too little. Not enough.

Would it have been so hard for her to say this:

 I’m sorry. I was so worked up about the Hobby Lobby decision that I didn’t check my facts carefully before I opened my mouth. The points I should have made were that the decision limits a woman’s access to birth control and seems to signal greater limitations from the Court in the future. But that’s not what I said. In mischaracterizing the Court’s opinion, I unnecessarily added fuel to the fire surrounding this topic and misinformed people who have a right to trust that what I say as a public servant is well-researched and true. I’m sorry I let all of you down. I’ll do better in the future.



Top Ten Excuses Made by Politicians

OK, the election is over and the nation is facing at least two more years of government gridlock. I hope I’m not bursting your bubble, but politicians will not keep all the promises they made during campaign season. And here’s another shocker: don’t expect to hear a full acceptance of responsibility when politicians break those promises. Expect instead to hear excuses.

If I had a super-computer at my disposal and used it to perform a massive data search of political excuses, my guess is that it would spit out this top ten list.

10. I wish I could comment, but that’s a matter of national security. 
Whenever it appears that someone dropped the foreign-policy ball, and the USA suffers an embarrassing failure overseas, “national security” provides a convenient shield against responsibility for that failure. A somber-looking official will step up to a microphone and say some nice-sounding words which add up to this: “If you only knew what I know, if I could only tell you the super-secret stuff to which I have access, you’d totally understand that we did the best we could possibly do.”

9. That’s a great question.
Whenever a politician compliments a question, just stop listening. It means that he or she is never going to answer the question but will instead spout the preprogrammed answer to the question that he or she wanted to be asked.

8. I need more time.
Whatever the length of the politician’s term–2, 4, 6, or 8 years–it’s never enough time to solve the intractable problem on which he or she seems to be making no progress whatsoever. Re-election to another term will, however, magically provide the necessary time. So just trust me and give me your vote.

7. There’s no simple answer to that question.
Translated, this means: “I don’t really understand this issue myself. In fact, I didn’t even read the entire bill before I voted for it.”

6. I misspoke.
Never expect a politician to step up, accept responsibility and admit “I said something really dumb.” Closely related to “I misspoke” is its cousin: “My remarks were taken out of context.”

5. My staff is working on it.
This excuse is doubly beneficial to the politician. #1 It buys him or her more time during which it’s hoped that you forget and move on to something else. #2. It subtly transfers blame to the drones in the politician’s office who, if they were smarter or worked harder, would have an answer by now.

4. I won’t dignify that question with a response.
In other words, the answer would be way too embarrassing for me. Instead I’ll try to “blame the messenger” and focus attention on the person who had the guts to ask me the question.

3. Mistakes were made.
The passive voice is the time-honored grammatical favorite for a politician who is forced to admit that there was a mistake but who wants to obscure responsibility for that mistake. The beauty of the passive voice is that it allows the politician to avoid answering this difficult question: “Who made the mistake?”

2. I voted for it before I voted against it.
Am I picking on John Kerry? He voted for a supplemental funding bill for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan when it was coupled with a repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy. He changed his vote to “No” when the tax-cut repeal was deleted from the bill. Called out during his  2004 campaign for president, Kerry infamously said: ”I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” It became an instant classic.

1. I inherited a big mess.
When a politician is fortunate enough to replace a leader from the other party, he or she is provided with an almost inexhaustible excuse for non-performance. “I’m doing my best, but the problems I inherited from my predecessor were so massive, the situation so royally screwed-up, that no mere mortal could be expected to turn things around in [insert the length of the politician’s term here] years.”

Top Ten Things To Never Say When Apologizing

  1. I didn’t mean to; I just reacted.
    Certainly one’s culpability for a poor choice is reduced if the choice was impulsive and not the product of a carefully considered plan. (That’s basically the difference between first-degree and second-degree murder.) But unless the harm was caused by my involuntary knee reflex, I’m responsible for my actions–spontaneous or not. And an apology is no place to argue my case for diminished blame. Save that for the judge. An apology is my chance to express my sorrow for the harm I caused to my victim and to offer to make things right. The person harmed by my bad choice doesn’t really care whether I acted impulsively or deliberately; the harm is the same.
  2. That wasn’t the real me.
    Yes, it was. It may be uncomfortable for me to admit to myself that I am capable of the action that caused the harm, but that doesn’t reduce my responsibility for the harm. Neither does a lifetime of good choices and remarkable kindness reduce my responsibility. The victim doesn’t care. And we are all flawed human beings capable of remarkable kindness and cold-hearted cruelty. Even me. I need to be brave and honest enough to admit to myself that “the real me” is a fallen soul in the line of Adam and Eve.
  3. I never intended to hurt anyone.
    One intends the natural consequence of one’s actions. When a cheating husband denies that he intended to hurt his wife, that denial has no credibility. He knows he’ll be found out, and he knows his wife will be deeply hurt when he is. Maybe he was not motivated by a desire to inflict pain on his wife, but he is responsible for that pain because pain was the natural and expected consequence of his choice.
  4. I was having a bad day.
    Who cares? We all have bad days and I am not absolved of responsibility for my poor choice just because I was a bit out of sorts that day or things weren’t going quite right for me. I’m responsible for my choices on my bad days just as I’m accountable for my good-day choices. Suck it up and apologize.
  5. But …
    Apologies are but-free zones; they are no place for excuses. I may have a great reason for my poor choice, but an apology is no place to offer it. Never, ever say “I’m sorry, but …”. Restrict an apology to an admission of wrongdoing, an expression of sorrow for it, and a promise to make things right (to the extent that I can).
  6. I made a poor choice of words.
    “You’re a tramp” might have a little bit less of a sting to it than “You’re a slut”, but both comments are hurtful and worthy of an apology. Better words, milder words do not relieve me of blame. It is not the words I chose but the thought behind those words that make my apology necessary.
  7. … if I offended anyone.
    I should apologize for my actions, not for the reaction that my actions produced in the person I hurt. Saying “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” implies (1) that there’s a possibility that my innocuous remarks might not have offended anyone who heard them and so (2) my victim must have been pretty darned sensitive to be offended by them. It’s a not-so-clever way to shift blame to the victim while seeming to take responsibility oneself.
  8. I was just doing as I was told.
    This classic responsibility dodge is a favorite of those in a hierarchical organization like the military, a corporation, or the garden club. They fail to understand that being a member of an organization does not divest oneself of responsibility for what one does as part of that organization.
  9. I misspoke.
    True story: I meant to say “cooperate” but it came out “copulate”. Twice. In front of my pastor. That was a true misspeak, meaning to say one thing but something else entirely different coming out of one’s mouth. (Yes, Freud would have a lot to say about my responsibility for that “misspeak”, but I have neither the space, the desire nor the expertise to go into that here.) For anything else I say, I’m responsible, and if my words hurt someone I should man up and say “I’m sorry”.
  10. My comments were taken out of context.
    Is this the coward’s last resort? It’s a variation of the blame-the-messenger excuse, in which I blame the person reporting my poor choice instead of accepting responsibility for that choice myself. Usually it’s readily apparent from the nature of the comments that there is no possible context in which the words would be in any way appropriate or inoffensive.

“I Said a Dumb Thing”

“I said something really dumb. I know now that I was wrong. Very Wrong. I realize that as a public official I have a responsibility to think before I speak, to carefully consider what I say, because what I say is a reflection not only on me but on those who chose me to serve them. But I didn’t. So I’m sorry that I hurt so many people with my remarks, and I’m sorry I let down the people who elected me. They deserved better. I’ll make every effort to do better from now on, starting with knowing what I’m talking about before I open my mouth.”

Those were not the words we heard this week from Todd Akin and Tom Head after their ill-considered remarks made national news. A clear acceptance of responsibility,  an unequivocal admission of error and a sincere apology would have been nice. Instead, they offered up mealy-mouthed excuses designed to extract foot from mouth. But the foot went farther down the throat.

Congressman Todd Akin–and Senate candidate from Missouri– is now world-famous not just for his insensitivity to rape victims but also his ignorance of reproductive biology. When asked if abortion should be available to rape victims who become pregnant, he said:

“It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

When I first read those remarks early last week, my immediate thought was: “Hmmm, I guess dinosaurs still roam the earth. And one of them is running for the Senate.”

In the face of an ensuing media firestorm and the demands from virtually everyone that he bow out of the Senate race, Akin offered this initial attempt at damage control. “In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview … .” When that didn’t work, his PR team came up with this follow-up response: “I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize.” That didn’t work either.

And this is why those weasel words didn’t work: they didn’t address what was wrong about his statement. He didn’t misspeak. His words weren’t wrong. It was his facts that were wrong. Pregnancy from rape is not “really rare”; about 5% of all rape victims become pregnant. A woman’s body has no way “to try to shut the whole thing down”; nothing about the trauma of rape makes pregnancy less likely to result. And it was his division of rape into two classes–legitimate and illegitimate–that betrayed his belief that some rape isn’t really rape after all. Apparently not statutory rape. Not date rape either. Maybe nothing without blood, bruises or broken bones to verify the legitimacy of the rape claim.

Judge Tom Head also had a bad week. The Lubbock jurist* was doing something no Texas Republican should ever do: asking for a tax increase. He wanted the extra money to beef up the sheriff’s police force. And this is why he said his county needed the extra deputies:

“[President Obama is] going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N., and what is going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations. We’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy. Now what’s going to happen if we do that, if the public decides to do that? He’s going to send in U.N. troops. I don’t want ’em in Lubbock County. OK. So I’m going to stand in front of their armored personnel carrier and say, ‘You’re not coming in here’.”

As with Congressman Akin’s ill-considered remarks, a hue and cry resulted. Texas Democrats are now calling for his head on a platter or at least for his removal from office.  The judge responded that the revolution/invasion he warned of “probably isn’t going to happen” and that his comments were taken out of context.

OK, I’m wondering in just what context it would be appropriate for a county official to ask for extra money to prepare for armed insurrection to “get rid” of the President and protect his county from a United Nations invasion? Judge, let’s hear those remarks in their full context so we can see what you really meant, not the way the media cleverly twisted your own words to make you appear foolish at best and dangerously irresponsible at worst. I suspect ‘taken out of context” meant what it frequently means: “I said something dumb and now I want to take it back.”

What makes Akin and Head’s responses to their unwise remarks so sad is not just the terrible example they set in failing to accept responsibility.  It’s that the responses only served to deepen the big hole that their big mouths had already dug. Had their responses been anything like the first paragraph of this post (“I said something really dumb.”) they may have been able to quickly recover.

Everyone says stupid things. Haven’t you had the experience of wanting to snatch out of the air ill-chosen words that have just escaped from your mouth? When my mouth gets me in trouble there is only one way to proceed. Admit I said something stupid. Explain why it was stupid and how it was wrong. And apologize without excuse to anyone whom I harmed by the dumb thing I said. Is that so hard?

*In Texas they do things differently. Judgeships are no exception. A county judge in Texas not only hears cases but also acts as a county administrator, performing executive-branch functions like setting the county budget.

The No-Apology Candidate?

Rick Perry wants to be your next president. The Governor of Texas is the kind of guy who says what he means and means what he says. And he does it all with a good-old-boy twang. Things like this:

  • During an anti-tax speech to the Tea Party in 2009, Gov. Perry said that if the federal government didn’t get its act together, Texas just might think about seceding from the union again: “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.”
  • In a recent Iowa speech about the economy, Perry said that it would be “treasonous” for Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke to increase the money supply. “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don’t know  what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in  Texas.”
  • Moving on to New Hampshire, the Governor asserted there that global warming was all a big hoax. “Yes, our climate has changed. It has been changing ever since the Earth was formed. But I do not buy into a group of scientists who have, in some cases, have been found to be manipulating data.”

Despite the fiery reaction to each one of these statements (see links below), Perry offered neither a retraction nor an apology. One blogger dubbed Perry the “no-apologies candidate”, saying “he is brash, bold and unapologetic about being so. … Put simply: Rick Perry doesn’t apologize — and it’s worked for him politically.”*

Hold on a minute. Let’s not confuse being weak-kneed with being apologetic. Running away from one’s comments just because they meet with less-than-unanimous praise is not being apologetic; it’s being cowardly. In Washington, cynics say a  “gaffe” is what happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth. It’s their way of saying that politicians rarely tell us what they really think; they tell us what they think we want to hear.

So, whether you agree with Rick Perry or not (and the country seems to be split just about 50/50 on that), let’s applaud him for speaking his mind. We need leaders who will tell it as it as they see it, without regard to what effect it will have on their poll numbers. Harry Truman is now one of most admired Presidents, not for any great achievements while in office but because of his blunt, say-what-you-mean honesty. The guy whose nickname was  Give-’em-Hell Harry once said:  “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

But while we’re encouraging candidates to speak plainly to us, let’s not discourage them from apologizing. We know our leaders aren’t perfect; we know they’ll make mistakes. We just expect them to work hard for us, do the best they can and tell us the truth. We should also expect them to apologize to us when they–as they inevitably will–say something dumb. An apology is not an act of weakness; it’s a sign of courage. It takes a big man–or a big woman–to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” And we need our leaders to be big.


Texas might secede–again:

Perry warns the Fed against treason:

Perry claims global-warming scientists have manipulated data:

Not Intended To Be a Factual Statement

I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’ll try to check my facts more carefully next time.

There. Was that so hard to say? Yes, apparently it is, because so many people cannot spit out those words when they make a big goof. Instead, like an elephant stuck in the mud, they struggle and struggle to avoid accepting responsibility for their error, only to find themselves mired deeper and deeper in a muddy mess of their own making.

Take Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, for example. A couple of weeks ago in the midst of the brouhaha over the U.S. budget, he suggested that one way to reduce it would be to stop giving Planned Parenthood federal tax dollars. He took to the Senate floor to claim that abortion is  “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does” and argued that the government should not be spending funds of any kind–especially borrowed money that jacks up an already record deficit–to help pay for a medical procedure that so many of its taxpayers find morally reprehensible.

Shutting down the federal government is a big deal. When the Congress and the President can’t agree on how to spend our tax money, the government–an octopus whose tentacles touch our lives in countless ways each day–shuts down and bad things happen. Abortion is a big deal too. Americans have been at odds over its morality for decades, and the Supreme Court’s discovery in the 1970s of a constitutional right to abortion only intensified that debate. So, when a politician like Senator Kyl gets up on the floor of Congress in front of his colleagues and in front of TV cameras to talk about the federal budget and abortion, we expect that he knows what he’s talking about, that he checks his facts carefully. We hope he understands that he’s a senator, and his words have a huge impact on things that are a big deal.

Except that Sen. Kyl didn’t. Turns out that abortion is not 90% of what Planned Parenthood does, it’s only 3%. Not an insignificant error. When the senator was quickly called out for that huge mistake, that would have been the time to man up and say: “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’ll try to check my facts more carefully next time.” 

Except that Sen. Kyl didn’t. And he sunk deeper into the mud. He trotted out his press secretary who told CNN that the remark of his boss  “was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather, to illustrate that Planned Parenthood – an organization that receives taxpayer dollars – has performed well over 300,000 abortions.” “Not intended to be a factual statement” is destined to become enshrined in the Acceptance of Responsibility Hall of Shame, thanks to Stephen Colbert and a host of other late-night comedians who pounced on Sen. Kyl like–well, like hungry lions who find an elephant mired in the mud. That of course would have been the time to man up and say: “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’ll try to check my facts more carefully next time.” 

Except that Sen. Kyl didn’t. Out came his poor press secretary again, who jumped–or was pushed–under the bus. “Senator Kyl misspoke when he incorrectly cited a statistic on the Senate floor last week regarding Planned Parenthood,” he said. “Rather than simply state that in response to a media inquiry, I responded that his comment was not intended to be a factual statement; a comment that, in retrospect, made no sense. Senator Kyl neither saw nor approved that response.” There are a couple of problems with that lukewarm attempt at acceptance of responsibility. First, the senator did not make the statement; his underling did. The buck stops at Senator Kyl’s desk, and he should have admitted he’s responsible for the dumb things his staff member says that make “no sense”. Second, “misspoke”? Sen. Kyl didn’t misspeak. One misspeaks when one means to say left and says right instead, when one means to say red but says blue instead. The senator meant to say what he said; he was just wrong about what he said. This of course would have been the time to man up and say: “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’ll try to check my facts more carefully next time.” 

Except that Sen. Kyl didn’t. Instead, in an attempt to put the whole embarrassing episode to rest, he himself issued a statement:

Last week on the Senate floor, I incorrectly stated that well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is perform abortions. I was referring to a statistic that I had read in a report  by the Chiaroscuro Foundation, but I later found that I had incorrectly cited the report. It said that “98 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services to pregnant women (abortion, adoption, and prenatal care) are abortion.” That statistic was also cited by a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in a recent column. My error was in failing to qualify that it related only to pregnant women. I regret the error. However, regardless of the number, I believe it is still fair to question whether taxpayers should continue to subsidize Planned Parenthood, thereby freeing up its resources to provide abortion services.

Still more problems with what–by my count–is explanation #3. Do you see an apology in there anywhere? (“I regret the error” is not an apology.) Did the senator say he was sorry that he misled the American public and his colleagues at a crucial time in the budget debate? For for failing to carefully check his facts before taking to the Senate floor? Did he say he was sorry to Planned Parenthood for the harm he caused them by his grossly inaccurate statement? Finally, Planned Parenthood says that Senator Kyl still did not get things right. It does not collect statistics on all the services it provides to pregnant women. It says it does not even know which of its patients are pregnant when they come for information or counseling. Some just speak with a staff member. Some are referred to an ob-gyn. Some are referred to some other health-care provider. It says there is no way to determine what percentage of the women it serves end up receiving abortions.

Perhaps, Senator Kyl, you might have issued a statement like this:

Yesterday on the Senate floor I said that abortion is well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does. I was wrong, not even close. The real figure is 3%. I should have checked my facts more carefully before I opened up my mouth. I’m sorry I misled the American people and my colleagues in Congress at a crucial juncture of the important debate on how we should be spending your hard-earned tax dollars. I’m sorry too that I damaged the reputation of Planned Parenthood. Although I strongly believe that abortion is morally indefensible, the fact that Planned Parenthood provides abortions does not give me license to make grossly inaccurate statements about it during the course of a heated national debate about its eligibility for federal subsidies. I’ll make every effort to do better in the future.

You know Senator, the people of Arizona realize that you’re not perfect. They understand that despite careful research, you will make mistakes in your speeches. What they expect of you is not perfection; it is to admit you’re wrong when you’re wrong and apologize to whomever you’ve harmed by your mistake. “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’ll try to check my facts more carefully next time.”  There, was that so hard?

A big thank you to my daughter Katie, a fan of the Colbert Report, for suggesting this post.

 CNN report containing video of Kyl statement on Senate floor:

Blog post by Arizona Republic national political reporter Dan Nowicki:

The Colbert Report and Jon Kyl: