John Edwards. Ouch. Just the name makes me flinch. Having just written about Mark McGwire’s shortcomings in apologizing, John Edwards reappeared in the headlines. If you’re a professor, there’s nothing like an immediate opportunity to apply a theory!
In my last piece, I indicated that an apology for integrity issues should (1) avoid progressive revelation, (2) acknowledge the reason for the timing of the confession, (3) show visible evidence of a changed heart, (4) not attack those who raised the issues, and (5) embrace the consequences in a way that will prevent you from making a similar mistake. Doing this, of course, assumes that the apologizer is interested in a changed character.
John Edwards’s painful statement about his two-year-old daughter is an object lesson in how allowing progressive revelation can swamp the positive effects of taking any of the other steps. Stage one for Edwards was denying his affair with Rielle Hunter, referring to it as “tabloid trash.” Stage two was denying paternity of her child, stating that it was “not possible . . . because of the timing of events.” At the same time Edwards was, according to former aide Andrew Young, convincing Young to assume public responsibility for fathering the child. The final stage was his recent admission that he has been secretly supporting the child because he is, indeed, the father. We can safely say that John Edwards has done about as bad a job as any public figure in the last decade of providing progressive revelation of his culpability.
Second, he has not acknowledged the reason for revealing the information now, though most observers expect that the imminent release of Mr. Young’s tell-all book is what motivated Mr. Edwards’s written statement. In fact, personal advisor Harrison Hickman denied to NBC News that the book’s release motivated Edwards’s statement.
Having failed to follow my first two suggestions, it appears that people are not paying much attention to the final three. Despite his admissions, it is hard to show visible evidence of a changed heart when you are invisible to the public. He is not attacking those who raised the issues, but he has in the past. Actually he is, in a sense, embracing the consequences of his actions; perhaps most people believe this behavior could happen again, even if he is assuming responsibility for his child.
I recognize that it is hard to expect an attorney like John Edwards to follow my advice, when doing so might cause him to sacrifice legal protections. But the cost of his reticence is a jaded public’s resignation that they will always receive hollow apologies from those who betray their trust.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics