The Power of Apology

We Americans like true leaders. One sign of greatness in a leader is the readiness to take the blame when an event breaks bad. Think of President Obama's words after the "Christmas bomber" was caught aboard Flight 253, landing in Detroit. "When the system fails," he said of the U.S. intelligence community's inability to connect the clues, "it is my responsibility. Ultimately the buck stops with me."

That's what Americans respect. After the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs by a U.S.-backed exile force, President John F. Kennedy took "sole responsibility" for the catastrophe. His Gallup poll favorability rating, already high, rose to 83 percent, the highest of his presidency.

But a leader's willingness to take responsibility, especially when it hurts, is not an American monopoly. This June the British government finally took full blame for "Bloody Sunday," the tragic incident in 1972 when its soldiers opened fire and killed 13 people in Northern Ireland. The message from Prime Minister David Cameron was clear:

"I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country.... But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong."

Cameron's words are a superb example of a leader insisting on strict accountability. All the way up the line. Chris Matthews


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