Facing growing pressure to renounce the anti-Catholic bigotry of End Times Pastor John Hagee, John McCain on Friday resorted to that most Republican of accountability avoidance tactics, the Unpology. Desperate to reassure Catholic voters without alienating Hagee's evangelical voters, McCain offered only the façade of contrition by conditionally repudiating Hagee's inflammatory comments only "if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics."
To fully appreciate McCain's cowardly evasion, a little history is helpful. In 1997, Seinfeld introduced Americans to the "unvitation." The unvitation enables the cynical person to seemingly satisfy the demands of social etiquette by extending an invitation to an event or gathering which they know the recipient will - or must - reject.
As we fast forward to campaign '08, Americans are witnessing Republicans perfect a similar act of social hypocrisy and cynicism: the Unpology. Facing recriminations for ethical failings, racist behavior, sexist statements or outright criminality, this new generation of Republican wrong-doers delivers the facade of apology by uttering obligatory words of remorse devoid of actual regret, contrition - or even an admission of guilt.
Desperate to retain Catholics certain to be alienated by Hagee's branding their church a "cult system" and "the Great Whore," McCain turned to the Unpology. As the AP detailed:
"We've had a dignified campaign, and I repudiate any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee's, ," McCain said.
"I sent two of my children to Catholic school. I categorically reject and repudiate any statement that was made that was anti-Catholic, both in intent and nature. I categorically reject it, and I repudiate it," McCain said.
"And we can't have that in this campaign," McCain said. "We're trying to unite the country. We're uniting the country, not dividing it."
McCain's is just the latest example of a specific type of faux Republican remorse, the Conditional Unpology. That is, the conservative in question is not objectively sorry per se, but wishes to expresses a patina of regret only to "those who may have been offended." Here, contrition is contingent on the perception of offense in the eye of the beholder.
The Conditional Unpology has a rich tradition in the recent history of Republican cynicism. Virginia Senator George Allen's "macaca moment" provides just one classic example. Refusing to acknowledge the racist baggage of his macaca comment, Allen delivered this textbook unpology:
"Yesterday, I apologized to anyone who may have [been] offended by the misinterpretation of my remarks. That was certainly not my intent...I never want to embarrass or demean anyone and I apologize if my comments offended this young man."
(It is worth noting that President Bush often relies on a cousin of the conditional unpology, the conditional eulogy. Bush noted the 2002 death of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone by offering the conditional comfort, "May the good Lord bless those who grieve.")
Allen's pitfall suggests another relative of the conditional archetype is the Inadvertent Unpology. In this scenario, the guilty Republican claims he merely misspoke, accidentally used the wrong words or was unaware of the hidden meanings of terms he casually bandied about. Consider for example, the serial "tar baby" racist slurs of Tony Snow, Mitt Romney and John McCain. Snow claimed his critics were "unfamiliar with the pathways of American culture," while Romney spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom insisted his man was "unaware that some people find the term objectionable and he's sorry if anyone's offended." (The closest President Bush came to acknowledging error also hinged on a mere linguistic stumble: "Using bad language like, you know, 'bring them on' was a mistake.")
A third class of feigned GOP admissions of guilt is the Transformational Unpology. Here, the miscreant claims that the passage of time, tectonic shifts in social norms or some profound personal experience has so altered the wrong-doer as to make him now incapable of repeating the offense. Take for example the case of Trent Lott (R-MS). In the wake of his disastrous 2002 praise for legendary segregationist Strom Thurmond, Lott tried (unsuccessfully) to keep his Senate Majority Leader post by using the "that was then, this is now" approach on BET. "I'm part of the region and the history that has not always done what it was supposed to do," Lott said, adding "I'm now trying to find a way to deal with the understandable hurt that I have caused." Unfortunately for Lott, the "times are a-changin'" defense didn't work so well for someone from the land where the "old times there are not forgotten."
Another unique form of Republican pseudo-contrition is the Rehabitual Unpology. Ironically borrowed from Hollywood, this evasion claims that disease, circumstance or abuse beyond his control led the Republican in question to his sin. Mark Foley (R-FL), whose predilection for young, male Congressional pages helped sink the GOP during the 2006 mid-term elections, attributed his crimes to his own experiences with clergy sex abuse and entered an alcohol rehabilitation center. Following Foley into rehab was disgraced Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, convicted for his role in the Abramoff affair. For these and a host of other Republicans, the only real regrets were that the devil made them do it - and that they got caught.
The Scooter Libby affair introduced another conservative accountability avoidance strategy into the vernacular: the Unpology by Proxy. Here, the felon himself never apologizes for his crimes at all, instead deploying an army of surrogates (and even a legal defense fund) to plead that his only offense was his excessive dedication to his country. Dick Cheney joined President Bush, Fred Thompson and virtually the entire right-wing chattering class in defending Libby. Cheney like Bush said he was "saddened" for his Libby and his family, and considered him "a man of the highest intellect, judgment and personal integrity -- a man fully committed to protecting the vital security interests of the United States." Brandishing talking points like "no underlying crime" and the "criminalization of politics," the unpology-by-proxy surrogates ultimately portray the victimizer as the victim.
Which brings us to the final group of GOP unpologists, those who utterly refuse to admit guilt, instead offering the Unpology of Denial. Virginia Republican Virgil Goode, for example, never apologized for his earlier anti-Muslim slurs addressed to Keith Ellison. Indicted former House Majority Leader Tom Delay is the expert practitioner of this specialty. Rejecting admonishments from the House Ethics Committee and later indictment in Texas, The Hammer helped pioneer the criminalization of politics defense. (Delay apparently also believes it helps to claim that God is speaking to him.) Of course, the leading Republican denier is President George W. Bush. Given an opportunity to apologize for his myriad mistakes during an April 13, 2004 press conference, President Bush could think of none. "I'm sure something will pop into my head here," Bush said, "maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Given that conservative dissemblers such as Trent Lott and George Allen ultimately failed to ward off defeat, it's only natural to ask: why do Republicans persist in these Potemkin apologies? It's not just because they believe political expediency demands it. No, the roots of the unpology go much deeper. In the Age of Rove, the appearance of infallibility is an essential ingredient to the Republican brand. When Americans prefer Democratic positions across the board by often overwhelming margins, the image of the determined Republican who never falters and never backs down is a critical component to the GOP's brand of toughness. If being in love means never having to say you're sorry, then being Republican means never having to mean it.
But sometimes, taste, decorum and political necessity require expressions of remorse, even from Republicans. As John McCain has apparently learned, when saying you're sorry is unavoidable, the unpology is a Republican's best friend.