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July 18, 2016 2:00 pm

Why Trump and Clinton Should Learn to Say ‘I’m Sorry’

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Email a copy of "Why Trump and Clinton Should Learn to Say ‘I’m Sorry’" to a friend
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently apologized for her highly inappropriate comments about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Whether she did so because she regretted her actions or because of all the incoming condemnations, even from leading liberal outlets, is beside the point. The mere fact of an apology from a public official in America has become so rare as to merit mention.

Politicians are always looking for a theme song for their campaigns. Well, I’ve got one that fits those of both presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Trump: Elton John’s “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Both candidates are struggling with historically off-the-charts unpopularity. And I think that one of the reasons is that both seem to have a problem uttering the simple words, “I’m sorry.”

One of the holiest actions in Judaism is to say, “I’m sorry for my transgressions.” This is what Jews say on Yom Kippur, and we believe that God accepts our apology. Strong men and women are those who believe in accountability and are not remiss in taking responsibility for their actions. To apologize is to show conviction and strength of character. To withhold an apology is to promote the fraudulent belief that we are somehow infallible. It’s to deny our essential humanity.

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In this foul election season, politicians of all stripes seem to believe that admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness rather than of vigor and integrity.

It is not a sign of feebleness to admit mistakes. All humans are imperfect, and while popes may be expected to be perfect, presidential candidates and elected officials are not.

In Judaism we are enjoined not only to avoid wrongdoing but even the perception of it. This applies particularly to public officials, whose actions are meant to inspire the masses. To apologize is not to admit culpability, but rather to respect the public’s sense of woundedness. However, our politicians today consider it tantamount to an admission of guilt.

Both Clinton and Trump seem to share this stubbornness.

Hillary will offer a non-apology apology when cornered, as in the case of her email debacle. She may not be in legal jeopardy, but the FBI investigation proved she misled the public on numerous occasions about various aspects of her correspondence, such as whether any were classified. The investigation into her handling of the events in Benghazi did not reveal any evidence of misconduct. But the perception remains that she was less than forthcoming about her responsibility. The ties between her, members of her staff, her husband and donors to the Clintons’ foundation also don’t pass the kosher test, even if nothing was illegal.

For this and more, Hillary should come out and say she is sorry for losing the public’s trust. She should take full responsibility for her actions and prove to her critics that she does not believe she is above the law.

For his part, Trump maintains he has nothing to apologize for, no matter what he says — or tweets. Instead of debating whether he tweeted a Jewish star or a sheriff’s badge, Trump could have easily apologized for re-tweeting an image that apparently came from a white supremacist’s social media feed, when he is definitely better than that. I do not believe for a moment that Trump harbors antisemitism. But he’s got a lot of Jew-hating crazies who are ardent supporters, and he should have long ago put distance between himself and them. He should do it now and declare he regrets not doing it earlier.

Trump should finally apologize for the absurd criticism of universally acclaimed war hero Senator John McCain, who suffered unspeakably for his country. And finally, he should apologize for suggesting Mexican immigrants are thieves and rapists.

Let me be clear. I do not think that our entire presidential campaign should be reduced to a series of “I’m sorries.” Rather, in suggesting the various issues for which both Clinton and Trump owe the public an apology, including the awful tenor of this race, I’m hoping that they might just begin the process of taking public responsibility for their actions. They owe it both to the American people and to the high office they seek.

I do not expect the candidates to go on a “mea culpa” binge like President Obama, who apologized to the Europeans for our “arrogance,” to the Islamic community for American imperfections and to the Turkish parliament for the “darker periods in our history.” There is also a big difference between apologizing to people from foreign countries, especially for policies that many Americans do not believe were mistakes, and telling Americans that you are sorry for actions at home.

I also recognize that, as an American, a rabbi and a human being, I cannot dish out the advice without practicing it myself.

I have been thinking about the importance of apologies since the first potshots were fired early in the campaign, but the issue really hit me upon the recent death of my mentor, friend and inspiration, Elie Wiesel. While the Holocaust turned six million Jews to dust, this one courageous man stood up as a witness to ensure the horror of that era is never forgotten. Elie was forever associated with the mass murder of Jews, but he was also a spokesperson for all the victims of genocide. He was not afraid to speak “truth to power” and to decry the world’s silence while people are massacred in Rwanda, the Sudan or Syria.

Knowing that Reb Eliezer, as I affectionately called him, enjoyed the most sterling reputation as one of the most respected human beings alive, I was always conscious of the great gift I had in his friendship and the responsibility I carried never to tarnish that standing even to the most infinitesimal degree.

I was fortunate to be one of the people who was with him in his last hours and to do what little I could to comfort him. I attended his funeral, but was tortured by the sense that I had not apologized to him for those times when we disagreed and I may have hurt him. In Judaism, we are obligated to seek atonement even if the person we have wronged is no longer alive. It was for that reason that, at his burial, I waited for the gathered mourners to leave and then stood alone over his grave and engaged in the ancient Jewish custom of asking the deceased for pardon and forgiveness for any transgression I may have been guilty of in our friendship.

As I sat at his funeral and heard a celebrity speaker divulge a private conversation he recently had with Elie, I pondered whether I had been guilty of the same, including in a Facebook blog I wrote as soon as the Sabbath went out on the day of his passing, in which I spoke of the words of comfort I had offered him. Perhaps this too was a breach of confidentiality, and I apologized both to Elie and his son, Elisha, a dear friend who granted me the unique honor and privilege of being with his father in those last trying hours.

I repeat the apology again, especially to my dear friend, Elisha.

And if it’s important to atone to those whom we have lost, it is all the more so to apologize to people who are still alive and can accept our apology.

Our presidential candidates are diminishing the grandeur of our great country and souring the people on the political process with a presidential race that all the polls show is turning off Americans, even as it provides endless entertainment. While I can speak only for myself, I would guess that a principal cause of this growing disillusionment stems from the utter inability of candidates to show remorse.

The campaign is far from over, so there is still time for both Clinton and Trump to admit their fallibility and to ask the public to forgive their imperfections. The candidates would like to move on from controversies, but they will linger until November if they are not addressed forthrightly. Americans are not God, but they are a famously forgiving people when presented with a heartfelt, sincere and simple “I’m sorry.”

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • susan

    Actually, Rabbi, Hillary did apologize once, early on in her campaign. Black Lives Matters had appeared at one of her rallies, shouting and making a scene. Hillary tried to quiet them and said, “All lives matter.” Well, the BLM thugs went berserk, and Hillary ended up apologizing the next day for saying “all lives matter.” A wrong-headed apology if I ever heard of one. She is such bad news!!

  • its

    You should Apologize fo5r this article.
    What does what you said to Eli W. Have anything to do with the topic?

    What RBG a sitting Supreme Court Justice said is not only inexcusable. I should have caused a public outcry to have her step down.

    Who of the greatest Rabbis would ever have for 2 seconds written a book calling himself the most famous. Eli W. would not even let someone else write that. Ego is the issue. Ego is anti-Hashem. There is no modesty or humility. That is the beginning if the problem. But YOU could not even imagine writing those words. The Torah teaches us what traits make great leaders if you want to be great read the Torah, understand it, follow it. Never before have we needed truly great leaders as much as we need them now. Please Hashem why have you taken them all from us?

  • Democracy no longer exists when politicians call the shots and not the voters.The American use of democracy has been subverted to the extent that it no longer has and value.
    Let the voters decide and do not try to change the outcome of the elections with personal battles.

  • Steve

    Ruth Ginsburg Never apologized for her highly inappropriate comments.In her arrogance she said she regrets some of what she said,but never said I am sorry.She should step down from seat on the S.C.but she will not.As for Hillary,lies and corruption have been constant companions since she became a lawyer.If she didn’t have friends in high places,she would be facing jail time.Saying she is sorry is not good enough.She should be exempt from running for president.The liberal media,such as CNN(Clinton News Network)has been running a smear campaign against Trump,spending multi millions of dollars to discredit him at all costs.This current president is the reason for the turmoil in this country.

  • Holy Shirt

    Hashem, rather than mankind (including self-appointed rabbinic judges) is the Arbiter of Sin.

    Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

    “Which Lushen Hurra are you atoning for, Rav Schmoozy?”

  • enufizenuf

    Blah, blah, blah. Why don’t you apologize for being such a long-winded holier-than-thou bore? Just because illegals from Mexico committed 3000 murders and 655,000 other crimes in Texas alone between 2008-2013 doesn’t mean all Mexican “immigrants” (they’re illegal immigrants, Rabbi)are thieves and rapists, but way too many of the in the US are. And to say that “The investigation into her handling of the events in Benghazi did not reveal any evidence of misconduct” shows that you aren’t really very familiar with the hearings. Finally, you’re a blowhard, a gas bag, why don’t you go away?

  • stevenl

    Ginsburg was as reckless as a fanatical Islamist!

  • Rabbi Cohen

    America’s Rabbi’s ego is too big for this world. His ego is so enormous can’t even begin to see how the faux humility of his failure to apologize to Eli Wiesel makes him look like a first class horse’s ass. There are certain things best left to privacy and the time spent with a dying man, famous or not, is surely one of them.

    So I suggest that America’s Rabbi take his ego and the rest of his self to, perhaps, Jupiter, a somewhat larger planet than earth, where perhaps there will be room enough to spread his fetid persona and perhaps find all the love and devotion he apparently requires.

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