When he caught heat for escaping the frigid Texas weather for a few days of R&R in Cancun, Senator Ted Cruz fell back on family excuses. He was just trying to be a good dad, he explained. He was dropping off the kids at the resort, implying that he never intended to stay. Allies jumped in to defend Cruz by pointing out that as a federal legislator, he couldn’t do much to ease the state’s crisis anyway. Only after the truth was exposed by leaked texts did Cruz admit that his trip was “a mistake.”
Senator Cruz owned up to his spectacularly bad decision only after exhausting every other excuse – dragging out the story over five days and countless news cycles, and launching a thousand social memes. It’s a mistake that will stay with him for a long time, but a quick and sincere apology might have limited the damage.
Eventually, there will come a day when I stop posting Ted Cruz memes, but today is not that day. pic.twitter.com/809F3pmQoi
— Brian Chovanec (@Brian_Chovanec) February 19, 2021
But there’s another factor in the Cruz debacle, as well as recent missteps by other elected officials, according to a recent item in The New York Times. That’s the relative absence of one Donald J. Trump from the national headlines. The story posits that, after six years, there’s no more opportunity to hide in the shadow cast by the ex-president’s huge media spotlight. “Trump has dominated the political conversation, prompting days of outrage, finger-pointing and general news cycle havoc with nearly every tweet. The audacious behavior of other politicians was often lost amid Mr. Trump’s obsessive desire to dominate the coverage.”
That’s an interesting theory, and there’s likely some truth to it. How many stories did the ex-president’s tweets knock out of the digital headlines? Plenty of politicians tried to ride his coattails, but maybe they hid behind them as well.
Yet beyond the constant distraction Trump offered, his presidency – and the cultural and political divide that it accelerated – brought another legacy. The non-apology era. Like Cruz, many elected officials are afflicted with a reflexive refusal to take responsibility for a mistake, or to even admit they made one. Their formula for dealing with a problem or crisis is simple: Don’t. Don’t apologize, no matter what. Blame the media, point fingers at the other side, and be sure to stoke the culture war flames in the process.
It’s behavior that didn’t begin with Trump, and it’s not limited to Republicans. Look at New York’s own governor, who was lauded in the early weeks of the COVID pandemic for his regular communication with constituents. Cuomo now faces scathing criticism for underreporting the number of people who died from the virus in nursing homes. He has yet to admit to any wrongdoing, despite mounting evidence. Last week Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens accused Cuomo of threatening to “destroy” him if he wouldn’t walk back claims that the administration hid data about COVID nursing home deaths.
Like other elected officials, Cuomo profited from Trump, but only because he wasn’t like him. The former president saw the pandemic as a threat to his standing and preferred to ignore it, while Cuomo embraced his role as COVID crisis communicator. And he was good at it. He conveyed caring and compassion. The contrast with the president made him look better than he otherwise would have. Now both Cuomo and Cruz are in the same boat; they can’t hide or benefit by comparison.
The Trump megaphone is a lot quieter these days, so there’s greater scrutiny of all our public officials. My hope is that we can bring back the public apology. You know, the thing that PR people urge on their clients and decent people expect from their friends and colleagues. The process whereby a public figure acknowledges a wrong or hurt, takes responsibility, promises to correct it where possible, and tries to learn from his mistake. It’s been a long time, but I think we’ll know it when we see it.