early and often

My Bad: 30 Years of Presidential Mea Culpas

When President Obama scheduled interviews with five networks recently, he planned on selling his faltering stimulus package to the American people. But in the wake of the Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer withdrawals, he ended up doing a lot of apologizing instead. Obama told NBC’s Brian Williams, “I’m here on television saying I screwed up, and that’s part of the era of responsibility.” To CNN’s pouty-faced Anderson Cooper, Obama admitted, “I think this was a mistake. I think I screwed up. And, you know, I take responsibility for it and we’re going to make sure we fix it so it doesn’t happen again.” You get the idea. So it’s only two weeks into his presidency, and Obama has already offered his first penance. Not exactly an auspicious start. But although most recent presidents were able to last a bit longer before offering their first mea culpas, it took Bill Clinton less than two days.

How Long It Took for the First Mea Culpa:

George W. Bush — Nearly Five Years: On September 15, 2005, our most recent president owned up, sort of, to blowing the response to Katrina. “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government,” he said. “And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.”

Bill Clinton — Two Days: Only 36 hours into his presidency, Bubba apologized for the disastrous nomination of Zoe Baird for Attorney General. “I’m sad about it, and I take full responsibility,” he told a reporter during a photo op on the morning of January 22, 1993. “I feel very badly about it, but I’m responsible for it.”

George H.W. Bush — Three Years: With the economy hurting, Poppy ventured on what some reporters at the time referred to as his “mea culpa tour” through the early primary state of New Hampshire. “I’ve been wrong about how fast this recovery would take,” he told workers in Dover on January 15,1992. On the same day, he told community leaders in Portsmouth, “I have not done a good job in getting people to understand we’ve had a growth agenda … That’s my fault.”

Ronald Reagan — One Year: Long before he atoned for the Iran-Contra scandal, Ronald Reagan apologized for a Justice Department ruling that gave tax-exempt status to schools that practiced racial discrimination. “No one put anything over on me,” he told Sam Donaldson on January 19, 1982. “No, Sam, the buck stops at my desk. I’m the originator of the whole thing, and I’m not going to deny that it wasn’t handled as well as it could be.”

Jimmy Carter — Three Years: A remorseful Carter famously addressed the nation on the morning of April 25, 1980, after an operation to rescue the hostages in Iran went awry. “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation. It was my decision to cancel it when problems developed in the placement of our rescue team for a future rescue operation. The responsibility is fully my own.”

My Bad: 30 Years of Presidential Mea Culpas