Barack Obama is such a savvy politician, surrounded by smart advisers, that I had a hard time figuring out why he was so slow and grudging to disavow and apologize for his remarks suggesting that some voters turn to guns and God out of out of "bitterness." His first instinct seems to have been to ridicule his critics ("Now this is rich ..."). Even after he had copped to a "clumsy" choice of words, he still seemed stiff and defensive explaining himself at the "faith" symposium Sunday night. Finally, on Monday, he admitted that he had "mangled" his words. He has played right into the hands of his opponents, who wish to cast him as an out-of-touch Harvard elitist. Surely, I thought, he knew he had blundered as soon as the words popped out of his mouth.
But then I asked myself how I might do in his shoes, and I remembered how badly we sometimes handle these sorts of flaps at NEWSWEEK. Although journalists are great at dishing out criticism, we are not so great at taking it or admitting to our errors. It often takes us a few days to come clean when we make a mistake. We constantly chastise politicians for covering up or equivocating, but our own record is less than stellar. Why do experienced political professionals make the same mistake again and again, dragging out an embarrassing gaffe with defensive explanations, if not outright denials, instead of cutting their losses?
In part, even the most seasoned pros are slow to admit error for a practical reason—it can take a few days to find out exactly what did happen. And no one wants to rush out and admit wrongdoing and then say, well, never mind. But in this case the mistake was instantly obvious. It doesn't matter that what Obama said was true—it was sure to antagonize the very voters he most desperately needs to win in Pennsylvania (and thereafter) and to feed a dangerous stereotype that he is an elitist priss.
So why didn't he come clean right away—not fudge, not try to explain, not say he "misspoke." Just say, "I shouldn't have said what I said, it was foolish, and I regret it and apologize."
The reason why he didn't, I believe, is intensely human and nearly universal. The natural instinct when you screw up is to deny, not just literally—I didn't do it!—but in a deeper, more personal way: "This can't be happening to me, surely people will see this is not who I really am." The most natural instinct of all is self-defense.
Politicians are especially prone to self-protection, if not self-delusion. What Obama really is, in addition to a great speaker and apparently a decent and good man, is a great politician. He has an uncanny knack to make audiences—almost any audience—believe that he agrees with them. This is Obama's gift, to reassure often-competing groups that he understands them, that he is on their side, even if those sides are in some ways different and opposing. According to an insightful New York Times profile of Obama's law-school days, an almost chameleonlike ability to show empathy and shared understanding helped Obama get elected president of the Harvard Law Review during a particularly fractious era of late-'80s political correctness. On a much larger stage, Obama has used his gift to convince many white voters that he is postracial without making blacks feel like he is a sellout. He's ability to see the problem from all sides is how he masterfully handled the flap over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. My guess is that when Obama told San Francisco fund-raisers—most of them, I'll bet, secular—that the lower-middle-class voters were clinging to guns and religion, he was subtly signaling them that he doesn't really buy into the Reverend Wright's faith-based militancy. Obama doesn't think of himself as a hypocrite, and he's not, really. But in the YouTube age, it is impossible to slightly and even unconsciously cater messages to different constituencies without getting caught at it.
And when you do get caught, the best—only—thing to do is admit it. And move on.