We all need to fess up on occasion. It’s important to do it well. The great architects of classical rhetoric are wincing: Mitt got it all backward.
This week The Washington Post reported that presidential candidate Mitt Romney bullied a classmate in high school, leading a pack of students who held the boy down and cut off his blonde hair as the boy cried. Romney issued two responses to the story; first, a denial via his spokesperson Andrea Saul, who said, “The stories of 50 years ago seem exaggerated and off-base, and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents,” and second, in an interview on Fox Radio, in which he apologized for his behavior. Sort of.
The story has now shifted to the apology itself. People are skeptical. This is because it violates fundamental rules of verbal persuasion.
Aristotle, the world’s first expert on public speaking, wrote more than 2,000 years ago that a speaker must exhibit ethos, or credibility. How do you show you are credible? You tell the truth and show character by grappling with bad facts head-on. If we question your ethos, we will question what you say and whether you are fit to lead others.
Romney’s apology lacks credibility for several reasons.
First, apologists must get their stories straight. Romney’s message wandered from dismissing the claim as “exaggerated” to “off base,” to a story that he has “no memory” of, to “I did some stupid things,” to “I’ve seen the reports; I’m not going to argue with that,” to “If anybody was hurt by that or offended by that, obviously I apologize.” These various statements send the wrong signals. You will be more credible if you offer a coherent narrative.
Second, the apology must make sense. Five classmates, one-time friends of Romney, say on the record that they remember the incident as a vicious attack on an “easy-pickins’” target that has “haunted” them ever since. Romney asks us to believe he has no recollection of holding down a boy and cutting off his hair even though numerous witnesses recall it vividly. Romney compounds the problem by taking the position that he was unaware of the boy’s homosexuality because, “that was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.” Now we must accept that 17-year-old boys in the 1960s did not talk about anyone being fey, effeminate or “homo.” That’s too much to ask us to believe. Even if Romney was not positive of the boy’s sexual orientation, he certainly perceived him as different. As he reportedly told his friend before attacking the boy, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” This is the second lesson of ethos: You cannot pretend away bad facts. If you try, you lose credibility.
The third lesson of ethos: When you make an apology, take ownership of your actions. Romney apologizes “if anybody was offended”— that is, for others’ emotional reactions — but he does not apologize for his own behavior. He shirks responsibility for a terrifying attack, diminishes the pain that he caused by calling his actions “pranks” and never admits that he did anything wrong.
The final lesson of ethos in apologies: Keep a straight face. Romney laughed during his radio interview when he said, “I don’t remember that incident and I’ll tell you I certainly don’t believe that I…thought the fellow was homosexual,” and laughs again when he says (when asked if he taunted another gay classmate by calling out “atta girl” if the boy spoke in class), “Well, I really can’t remember that. You know my guess is a lot of time in my years in my boarding school where boys who do something and people say, he says, ‘atta girl’ [sic].” His chuckling may be an expression of discomfort over the topic of homosexuality, or perhaps it is an effort to indicate how ridiculous he perceives the claims to be. But listeners — particularly those to whom he purports to apologize — are likely to hear the laughter as as sign that the apology is not genuine.
Apologizing is difficult at any time. But when it is this public, the speaker should craft a careful apology so that he won’t flub it under pressure. It should be short, active and to the point: “I did stupid things in high school. I did not have the judgment of an adult when I was a teenager. I am embarrassed now to think back on the pain I must have caused. I am sorry.”
Molly Shadel and Robert Sayler are professors of oral advocacy and rhetoric at the University of Virginia School of Law. They are the co-authors of “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.”