How to Address the Public After an Affair: Lessons Learned from Bill Clinton, Edward VIII, John Edwards, and Tiger Woods

In a recent documentary, “Clinton,” the director Barak Goodman revisits the Lewinsky scandal finding that Bill Clinton confided in Dick Morris, asking him for advice. Morris conducted a poll to assess how to best handle the situation. He found that Clinton could be forgiven for the sin, but not for the cover up, and thus should admit to the scandal. Unfortunately, Clinton did not take this advice and attempted to address the issue on his own terms.

Throughout history, time and time again, public figures have allowed their personal lives to impede on their duties as a figurehead and role model. After such digressions, the response is usually an apology speech with the opportunity to command the public’s attention, make a petition, and potentially recover from their mistakes. Unfortunately, the majority of these speeches fall short. To recover from a personal failing, a leader cannot expect immediate forgiveness but promise to show they have learned their lesson through action, accept that their status does not exclude them from the norms and standards of their time, admit that their criticism is warranted, and set a plan of action for their role and behavior going forward. As we can see from prominent examples of such speeches, these things prove remarkably hard to do. Still, no matter how hard one tries to cover the fact, she or he will discover that their unsuccessful attempt to address properly their failings will forever hinder their ability to lead.

A successful apology speech needs to acknowledge that the speech itself is not enough to merit forgiveness. It cannot order the audience to move on, but instead promise that a change has occurred, and that going forward, better behavior will prove the lesson has been learned. During his abdication speech on December 11, 1936, Edward VIII directs Parliament, the royal family, and the British people, to understand his decision: “But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.” By starting with but I want you to understand, he is commanding the people to agree that his decision to leave office is the best for the country. The public’s opinion is not something he can control. John Edwards takes a similar approach in his statement regarding his affair with Rielle Hunter: “If you want to beat me up feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself.” He insists the public does not have the right to comment on his decision, since he is addressing it himself.

President Clinton in his  “I Misled People” speech takes a similar approach insisting, “It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life. The country has been distracted by [the Lewinsky affair] for too long.” They argue that the public should move on, and not question their statements of defense. This is not a successful argument. You cannot command the public’s understanding. You have to prove you have learned your lesson. Tiger Woods make a stronger argument after his affairs became public. He acknowledges his apology is not enough, and that only his actions can lead to his forgiveness. This shows a change in character unlike the others. He is not insisting he is entitled to forgiveness, but requesting the opportunity to prove himself as changed.

After a speech admits that it cannot grant forgiveness, it also has to admit that the speaker is not exempt from the standards set by society. In Edward VIII’s statement, he claims he has the right to define the standards to which he is held. He states: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” In his opinion, he alone can decide if it is impossible for him to fulfill the burden of being king, therefore putting his interests before those of his entire country. This is the crux of his argument, that he is a victim, being forced to choose between the woman he loves and the throne, and that only he can decide what is necessary for him to be a good king.

Tiger Woods addresses the same issue, but admits he was at fault for not following the norms set by society. Woods promises to solve his problems, staying within society’s standards by admitting he “ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by” and that “these are issues between a husband and a wife,” framing that his resolution should and will be private as set by society’s standards. Furthermore, he comments on his personal thought process saying, “I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply.  […] It’s up to me to start living a life of integrity. […] Character and decency are what really count.” Unlike Edward VIII, Woods shows that he is subject to the expected norms. He reflects on the teachings of his religion, commenting on Buddhism’s principle that cravings only lead to an “unhappy search for security.” Edward VIII argues the opposite, implying he cannot be happy without Mrs. Simpson, saying how his brother has a “matchless blessing” of a “happy home with his wife and children.” This weakens Edward VIII argument since he is saying the normal rules for the royal family are wrong and that the rules are at fault instead of him being at fault. Through Wood’s admittance that he has broken the rules, and that he must change his views, he strengthens his argument. Edward VIII attempts to frame himself as a victim, neither showing that he has changed nor that he respects the rules of the British system.

It is not a surprise when the press pries into all aspects of public figures’ lives. During an apology speech, a public figure does not have the right to claim to have become prey to the press. After committing an act that hurts those close to them, they cannot turn around and claim to be a victim. John Edwards’s weakens his argument by attempting to frame himself in this way, “I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need help.” He claims he has been stripped bare, indicating he is a victim now that the press has revealed his secrets. This implies he is angry with the press not only for exploiting his secrets, but also for uncovering them in the first place. Indicating he is angry that he was caught does not help his argument that he has learned his lesson. Edwards and Clinton feel the excessive criticism is unwarranted despite their behavior.

At first, in Clinton’s “I Misled People” speech, he uses a similar argument that he can command his treatment from the people, claiming that his affair is private, between him and his family, and that the public does not have the right to know what in the President’s personal life may be affecting his ability as a leader. Clinton mentions the press’s treatment again in his “I Have Sinned” speech, but then spins the argument: “bounds of privacy have been excessively and unwisely invaded. That may be. Nevertheless, in this case, it may be a blessing, because I have sinned.” This strengthens his speech since he admits he has done wrong and that he may deserve his criticism. After having an affair, it is hypocritical to criticize others for causing one’s family pain. In order to show this genuine effort, there needs to be an evident transfer in self-awareness, proving that the public figure no longer puts themselves before all others and their responsibilities as a figurehead.

A good apology speech establishes the public figure’s future role. The goal of Edward VIII’s statement is to provide a defense that will allow him to receive positive treatment as the first ex-king. No one has filled this role before, thus he must define his future role, and hope that the Parliament, royal family, and the British people will accept his decision and treat him with respect in the future. He attempts to receive their graces by complimenting the comfort provided by his family and the kind treatment from the Parliament and the British people. He blesses his brother as new king. However, he neither addresses his future role directly nor explains why he should be treated well.

Clinton gives a list of his actions going forward in “I Have Sinned:” instructing his lawyers to prepare a “vigorous” defense, continuing to change his behavior for the better, and increasing his focus on leading the country and fighting for worldwide peace and freedom. Although the first point is mainly self-driven and hurts his argument, he reasserts his devotion to the people’s goals.

Edward VIII undermines his commitment by saying, “I now quit altogether public affairs and I lay down my burden.” By using the word burden he implies he saw his opportunity to serve the people as an unwanted, negative obligation. A good speech needs to be explicit, providing an action plan of steps going forward that will be taken to make a change. The apology speech is only a promise, but proof comes from action. The speech needs to provide an action plan going forward that the figure must be held accountable to do to prove they are attempting to change their behavior.

The petitioner needs to be self-aware, show genuine understanding and regret from their mistakes to prove that the lesson has been learned, and that their behavior will change in the future. Overall, Tiger Woods had the best speech, addressing elements of an effective apology. He set the stage to continue his career; however, he must hold to his commitment through his actions. The others failed in that they did not prove they were aware of their egocentric nature and take responsibility for their behavior. A good apology speech includes an acknowledgement of past mistakes, ability to genuinely admit fault, and a plan of action going forward to solidify the future role of a political figure.

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One thought on “How to Address the Public After an Affair: Lessons Learned from Bill Clinton, Edward VIII, John Edwards, and Tiger Woods

  1. Agreed. A genuine apology, where you admit your wrong doing and show remorse, goes a long, long way. Why is it so many people or brands (Anthony Weiner, Toyota, BP) try to get out of it and not admit the truth until they are caught? Owning up early makes it resolve that much sooner AND makes it possible to save some face. Sheesh. Who is handling their PR I wonder??? Clearly not us.

    Like

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