Rush, Barack, Rick and the Pope

By Tom Rosshirt

March 9, 2012 6 min read

I'm sorry, but I've got to talk about these apologies.

Some apologies show weakness; some show strength. And some people can't tell the difference. Let's sort this out.

First, Rush Limbaugh. I'm surprised at Rush — but not for calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute." That I expect.

I'm surprised at Rush for apologizing. Apologizing violates the deal he has with his fans, which is this: Rush says the darker things his listeners are thinking but would get fired for saying if they said them at work. And Rush says them in cleverer, funnier ways than they would, to a wider audience and with impunity, which means, by definition, he does not apologize. Rush's job is to make his listeners feel better about what they think, to make them feel respectable. But by apologizing, he's acknowledging that what he said was not respectable — and that breaks the deal with his listeners, because if Rush is not respectable, the people who like him are not respectable, either.

The biggest reason I'm surprised that Rush apologized, though, is that it shows weakness — and bullies dare not show weakness, lest it undermine their phony show of strength. Not every apology is a sign of weakness, but Rush's was, and here is a list of reasons for that:

It was out of character; he clearly meant to say what he was apologizing for; he apologized only after a storm of protest; he defined very narrowly what he was apologizing for ("I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for using those two words"); he did it to recover some power he lost by saying what he said, and thus it was done out of anxious, calculating self-interest. This is a case study of an apology that shows weakness.

Second apology: President Barack Obama apologized for the burning of Qurans in Afghanistan. This apology was different from Limbaugh's in two important ways: Obama was apologizing not for something he did, but on behalf of others, and he was acting in the hope of saving the lives of others, not to save himself.

Yet after Obama apologized, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said his apology "shows weakness." Let's come back to this.

Third apology: On the first Sunday of Lent in 2000, then-Pope John Paul II issued numerous apologies for the behavior of Christians throughout history, saying, "We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth, and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed toward followers of other religions."

He apologized for the acts of Christians who have "violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions."

During his trip to the Holy Land later that month, the pope visited Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and said, "The Catholic Church ... is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians."

Finally, in the culmination of his trip, he went to pray at the Western Wall. Following the tradition of Jewish worshippers, the pope inserted a written prayer in the cracks of the wall. It read:

"God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."

These apologies were characteristic of John Paul II's papacy. Previously, he had apologized to people in Latin America for the cruelty of conquistadors and missionaries. He apologized in Senegal for the slave trade.

These apologies were given from strength. They were offered freely, unforced by events, and accepted responsibility for the sins of others — not to regain power, but to rebuild good will with those who had been wounded.

Back to Rick. Santorum has made his strong Catholic faith a centerpiece of his campaign and criticized conventional notions of the separation of church and state. So what does his criticism of Obama tell us about his theology of apology?

Taking Pope John Paul II as a model, would a President Santorum issue an apology, for example, to Iran for the U.S. overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, which paved the way for decades of tyranny and torture under the shah? Or does Santorum think that Pope John Paul II's apologies showed weakness? Or does he believe that the church's example should have no influence in the operation of the state?

Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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