Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Real conservatives can say they're sorry

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Thu September 20, 2012
Nicolaus Mills says the title of Mitt Romney's book shows how much he hates apologies.
Nicolaus Mills says the title of Mitt Romney's book shows how much he hates apologies.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicolaus Mills: Romney's hatred of apologies shows in his book's title: "No Apology"
  • Mills: Romney slammed Obama "apology" that was never made; but he forgets history
  • Mills: Clinton apologized for Rwanda, Reagan apologized for WWII Japanese internments
  • Mills: Even George W. Bush said he was sorry for sniper using Quran for target practice

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney hates apologies. That's why he leaped to the conclusion that, in the wake of the killing of Libya Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other State Department employees, the Obama administration had issued an apology for America's actions.

"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney declared. "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."

What Romney called a disgraceful response by the Obama administration to the Libyan killings was in fact a statement issued before the killings by America's Cairo Embassy condemning an anti-Islam film that portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester.

The title of Romney's 2010 campaign autobiography, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," makes it clear that his hatred of apologies runs deep. Unfortunately, such hatred ignores history.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills
Romney defends hidden camera remarks

What Romney, who after disparaging 47% of Americans for being dependents has insisted there was nothing wrong in what he said, fails to understand is that presidential apologies are nothing new. What's more is that they apologize without drawing critical backlash from their fellow conservatives.

Bill Clinton's 1998 apology for the failure of America and the international community to respond quickly to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda may be the most memorable public apology by any contemporary president. But two of the most conservative Republicans in recent history, it is worth pointing out, have issued telling public apologies of their own.

The most moving of these conservative apologies was the one that Ronald Reagan made in 1988 on signing the legislation that provided $1.25 billion in reparations, along with a formal apology from the government, for the forcible relocation of 120,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In signing the bill, Reagan, who as an actor was living in California at the time of the relocation, made clear that the money offered to the victimized families was less important than the public apology. "No payment can make up for those lost years," Reagan said. "So what is important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor, for here, we admit a wrong."

Today those words have taken on enduring form. In Washington they are engraved on the National Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, which is within blocks of the Capitol. In addition to Reagan's words, the memorial features a towering sculpture of two bronze cranes, each with one wing pointing to the sky and the other pinned down by barbed wire.

Two decades later, George W. Bush, the Republican closest in ideology to Ronald Reagan, made a similar statement of regret. In a 2008 video conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, Bush apologized for the actions of an American sniper in Iraq who used a Quran for target practice. "He apologized for that in the sense that he said that we take it very seriously," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters after the video conference. "We wanted them to know that the president knew that this was wrong."

The impacts that Reagan, Clinton and Bush hoped their individual apologies would have turned out to be as different as their politics. That is to be expected. For their apologies were never just based on calculation. At their core was the shared belief that a presidential apology is not a sign of weakness so much as a chance for a new beginning, a way to shed the indefensible and start fresh.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT