Felicity Huffman and the Stagecraft of Apologies

Actress Felicity Huffman, facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme, leaves federal court in Boston, Mass., April 3, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)You’re not sorry if you’re trying to get something by saying so

Felicity Huffman, an overripe actress charged with fraud in a high-profile college-admissions scandal, has learned at least one thing about professional stagecraft: Always listen to the writer.

She got a pretty good one to do her apology, which reads in part:

I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions. I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community. I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.

That is a classical good apology: admission of guilt, statement of regret, specific acknowledgments of harm done — and no excuses. No sudden recollection of childhood abuse or trauma, no prescription-drug side effects, no checking herself into rehab. That’s the kind of apology that might keep you out of jail.

And it’s an increasingly rare thing.

Former Full House actress Lori Loughlin, charged in the same scandal, is going the opposite direction. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges. People magazine quotes an “insider” — Lori Loughlin “insiders” are a thing, apparently — explaining the situation. “She felt that she hadn’t done anything that any mom wouldn’t have done, if they had the means to do so.” On top of bad public-relations advice, she’s apparently getting bad legal advice, too. “To her, it wasn’t egregious behavior. Was it entitled and perhaps selfish? Perhaps. But she didn’t see it as being a legal violation.” That’s going to go over just not terribly well: “It didn’t feel like a felony, your honor.”

If you’re wondering which is the dumb one, now you know.

Apologies in the early 21st century have become almost entirely self-interested affairs — which, in a sense, means that they are not authentic apologies. Which is fair enough, since they are so often demanded for things that are not authentic offenses.

Our apologies are instrumental and, in a popular culture in which people pride themselves on being media-savvy (irrespective of whether they have any real experience in such things), there is a kind of self-conscious cynicism about apologies and the uses to which they may be put. In much the same way that every barstool NFL analyst fancies himself a Bill Belichick in waiting, the gawkers of the political and celebrity worlds (to the extent that they are today distinguishable from each other) like to play spin doctor, thinking of themselves as masters of the dark arts of opinion manipulation.

They do not ask whether the apology was honest, but whether it worked.

For example, public figures of various kinds constantly are having to apologize for violating social taboos that did not exist five minutes ago: pronoun abuse, “dead-naming,” “cultural appropriation,” etc. Bryan Cranston, the great actor, has been hounded for months by critics who want him to apologize for playing a disabled man when he is not, in fact, disabled. (He is also neither a New Mexico public-school teacher turned meth kingpin nor Lyndon Baines Johnson.) So far, he has held out. But he’s a rarity: Scarlett Johansson groveled and ran away when criticized for accepting the role of a historical character who might have been transsexual. Emma Stone apologized for playing a part-Hawaiian woman who wasn’t supposed to look part-Hawaiian, which Emma Stone isn’t and doesn’t. These apologies serve a pretty obvious purpose: These people would like to continue working and being celebrities, and they fear the mob. That no one really takes them seriously is almost beside the point: This is a ritual, and a kind of game — a contest.

Like much of the tone of our current public life — and much that is wrong with it — this tendency first announced itself in the late 1990s in the person of Bill Clinton, who, lucky for him, followed his career as a politician and intern botherer before there were hashtags. When President Clinton finally was no longer able to keep lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he offered an angry half-apology during which he heaped bile on the special prosecutors investigating him. That did not work. And so he tried again — about a half-dozen times, in fact. A week and a half after his first vitriolic non-apology, he struck a new tone: whiny. “I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness,” he said, though the expertise was not in evidence.

That failed, too, and so he tried a maneuver I call the Exalted Cyclops, after Senator Robert K. Byrd, the Democratic grandee and quondam Klan boss who often talked about how he had apologized for his KKK ways without ever actually seeming to have made any substantive public apology. Clinton didn’t really apologize, but insisted he had: “You know, I have acknowledged that I made a mistake, said that I regretted it, asked to be forgiven, spent a lot of very valuable time with my family in the last couple of weeks.” Yeah. I’ll bet “valuable” is exactly how Mrs. Clinton remembers it.

That sank, too, and so two days later it was “a big mistake” and “indefensible.”

Some Democrats founded a group called MoveOn.org — after eleven minutes, it was time to “move on” from the scandal and the perjury and all that ruckus — and the president got a little ahead of himself: Two days after “indefensible” it was time for “reconciliation and healing.” And, later that day, it was back on the public, not the president: “I’ve tried to do a good job taking care of this country, even when I haven’t taken such good care of myself and my family and my obligations. I hope that you and others I have injured will forgive me for the mistakes I’ve made, but the most important thing is you must not let it deter you from meeting your responsibilities as citizens.”

That was a heck of a time to start lecturing people about their responsibilities.

Young Barack Obama surely was paying attention and would put the lesson into effect some years later when, criticized for his longtime association with the racist loon Jeremiah Wright, he gave a speech in which he hectored other Americans — Americans at large — about their racial hang-ups. He didn’t even make a pro forma apology, just straight for the neck. “As imperfect as . . . he may be,” he said of his pastor, “he has been like family to me.”

I’m sorry? You’re sorry!” It helps if you read it in Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver voice.

Harvey Weinstein tried that approach, too, roughly: “I’m sorry? The NRA should be sorry!” He had less success: Obama had better writers.

President Clinton got real sorry real quick when the big stick came out and he was impeached. The public and his family got angry half-apologies: Congress got groveling. “What I want the American people to know, what I want the Congress to know, is that I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds,” Clinton said. “I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends, and my family. . . . Mere words cannot fully express the profound remorse I feel for what our country is going through, and for what members of both parties in Congress are now forced to deal with. These past months have been a torturous process of coming to terms with what I did. I understand that accountability demands consequences, and I’m prepared to accept them. Painful though the condemnation of the Congress would be, it would pale in comparison to the consequences of the pain I have caused my family.”

No one believed that, of course, and no one pretended to — not even that fink Bill Clinton, really. People just kind of kept score. Clinton got reelected and did a little F***-You dance on the lawn in the Rose Garden — advantage: Big Creep.

By one count, Hillary Rodham Clinton included almost 40 different apologies in her book What Happened. These were not exactly exercises in heartfelt contrition: “I regret handing Trump a political gift with my ‘deplorables’ comments,” she wrote. “I am sorry about that.” Sorry about gratuitously insulting people? Please — she’s sorry in the way someone who shoots himself in the foot is sorry. She’s genuinely sorry she lost.

The memory of Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign calls to mind the case of Nick Burchill, who was banned for life by the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, Canada, because of a mishap involving a suitcase packed with pepperoni. (How do you travel?) He left his hotel window open, to help keep the pepperoni cool, and . . .

“I remember walking down the long hall and opening the door to my room to find an entire flock of seagulls in my room,” he wrote in his letter of apology to the hotel. “I didn’t have time to count, but there must have been 40 of them and they had been in my room, eating pepperoni for a long time.”

Seagulls. Eating pepperoni.

For a long time.

“They immediately started flying around and crashing into things as they desperately tried to leave the room through the small opening by which they had entered. The result was a tornado of seagull excrement, feathers, pepperoni chunks and fairly large birds whipping around the room.” After almost 20 years and a pretty good letter of apology, his exile was lifted.

Burchill got a long stay in the woodshed for what was an honest mistake, if a stupid one. Felicity Huffman probably will never find herself declared persona non grata by a nice hotel. Bill Clinton is welcomed almost everywhere.

Representative Ilhan Omar, too. After the Minnesota Democrat’s umpteenth forced apology for indulging in anti-Semitic slurs, she wrote, “I unequivocally apologize.” Also, “I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity.” Which is to say: She used “unequivocally” in an apology in which she was equivocating.

Whether that was good writing or bad writing remains to be seen.

This article appears as “All Apologies” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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