Admit mistakes to earn trust

Hardly anyone can come clean these days.

An aircraft of Lufthansa's German low-cost carrier Germanwings. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An aircraft of Lufthansa's German low-cost carrier Germanwings.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr spoke to the press last week, he was stern and precise. The apparently intentional downing of Germanwings flight 9525 into the French Alps on March 24 was a “tragedy” that left him “shocked” and “in dismay.” Spohr went on faithfully to recite the thoroughness of the training, testing and procedures of his pilots.
“[Our pilots] are and remain the best ones in the world,” he insisted. “They are a very important part of our brand.”
Fair enough, but it would have also been nice to hear a few words of contrition. It would have been decent for Spohr to express personal regret and concern for the victims’ families with at least as much passion as his defense of Lufthansa’s good name. Of course, Spohr can be forgiven. His first duty is to his company’s shareholders, not to the public at large.
But what about our political leaders? How bad do things need to get before they start to take ownership of their failings? The day after the Germanwings crash, the US Army announced it was charging Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former Taliban POW, with misbehavior before the enemy and desertion, a far cry from the service with “honor and distinction” once claimed by National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Unwilling to admit the recklessness of swapping Bergdahl for five leading Taliban terrorists, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Fox News refused to apologize to the soldiers betrayed and endangered by Bergdahl’s conduct. Six soldiers lost their lives in the hunt for the one who deserted his post.

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As Harf was dismissing critics of the Bergdahl deal, the sky was falling in Yemen. Iranian-backed Houti rebels had seized an air base and forced the embattled president of the country, a strategic ally of the West, to take refuge in Riyadh. At a press conference on Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Ernest refused to disavow claims of success in Yemen. “We do retain the ability and capacity to apply pressure to the extremists,” he insisted to a stunned gaggle of reporters.
It seems that insane P.R. consultants are running the asylum. If the supposed experts in the briefing room took a few minutes to speak with everyday people, they would realize that the public is not so dense. People value remorse more than perfection, and they can understand and even forgive mistakes.
That is, if only politicians would admit them. Stonewalling may be a political skill, but it scores few points in the court of public opinion.
To see why, one only has to look to the recent flap over Hillary Clinton’s improper use of private email accounts for official business as Secretary of State.
In response to revelations of her questionable arrangement, Clinton peevishly made implausible excuses and refused to admit wrongdoing. The closest she got to an apology was stating that “it would have been better if I used a second email account.”
The evasive performance may not cause a fatal blow to Clinton’s White House ambitions, but it cannot be helping much. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released shortly afterwards showed her support among Democrats dropping 15 percentage points over the past month.
All of which makes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent apology to the Israeli Arab community somewhat refreshing. Netanyahu bluntly acknowledged the hurtful nature of his pre-election rhetoric, including comments about the “threat” of Arab voter turnout.
As might be expected, the Joint Arab List rejected the apology as empty words. The Obama administration likewise seemed unmoved. “When you say things, words matter,” noted Marie Harf dismissively at the State Department.
The irony must be lost on her. After broken promises about healthcare reform, outright contradictions about executive authority to change immigration law, and disappearing “red lines” about the use of chemical weapons, President Barack Obama’s word now means little to anyone but his most loyal supporters.
If this president had the courage to admit his rhetorical flip-flops, let alone his policy failures, he would have a chance to restore the confidence of his skeptics at home and abroad. Instead he apologizes only for actions which can not be pinned on him personally.
Is it any surprise so few trust him to negotiate with Iran?
The author is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRube