Candid camera.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Note to Clinton: When You Err, Just Say So

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Donald Trump doesn’t admit making mistakes. Even when caught in a video bragging about groping women, he barely apologizes before changing the subject. More often, he doubles down on lies.

Trump’s flaws dwarf Hillary Clinton’s in that and virtually every other way. But she’s reluctant to admit mistakes, too.

A revealing anecdote emerged from e-mails released by WikiLeaks from the account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. It involved Clinton’s defense in a 2015 television interview of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton over the opposition of gay-rights advocates.

She’d contended that the bill was a defensive measure needed to stop gay-marriage opponents from passing a constitutional amendment. Gay-rights groups said she was wrong, and Senator Bernie Sanders pressed the issue during the Democratic primary campaign. Aides wanted her to acknowledge the error, but her speechwriter, Dan Schwerin, said that wasn’t going to happen. “The question is whether she’s going to agree to explicitly disavowing it,” Schwerin wrote. “And I doubt it.”

He was right. Instead, Clinton changed her position without reference to her earlier posture.

Throughout her unsuccessful 2008 primary campaign against Illinois Senator Barack Obama, she refused to admit that her Senate vote for the Iraq war was a mistake. In this she followed the advice of her campaign strategist, Mark Penn, who insisted she must come across as tough. It cost her against Obama, who campaigned on his opposition to the 2003 invasion.

It wasn’t until her book, “Hard Choices," came out in 2014 as she prepared to run for president again that she declared that her vote was wrong.

Throughout the current campaign, she has never owned up to responsibility for her advocacy of the 2011 Libyan intervention, where a lack of preparation left a vacuum filled by terrorists. President Obama, has said that failing to plan for the fall of the Libyan dictator Moammar Al Qaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency. (It’s true that he said this when he wasn’t planning to run for office again.)

Clinton now says she shouldn’t have used a private e-mail server while secretary of state, but she sounds grudging. I watched last Sunday’s debate with some staunch Clinton supporters and even they groaned when, after reciting, “It was a mistake and I take responsibility,” she launched into a lawyerly self-defense based on a claim that there was “no evidence” that the nation’s security had been breached.

To be fair, it’s risky for any political candidate or high officeholder to acknowledge error; confessions are bound to end up in opposition campaign commercials or provide fodder for hostile congressional investigations.

But the public often appreciates candor. President John F. Kennedy’s standing rose after he took responsibility for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 just three months after he took office. Humor can soften the blow. When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he declared his opposition to a proposed change in the state tax system by saying his feet were “in concrete.” Later, after he flipped, he declared: “The sound you hear is the concrete cracking around my feet.” Obama has admitted mistakes on Libya and a few others matters.

When pressed on this issue, Clinton’s side points to Trump. He makes wildly false assertions and never backs down. Even when TV cameras caught him mocking a reporter’s physical disabilities, he bluffed rather than apologizing, pretending he didn’t remember who the reporter was. (That was nonsense.) He said at Sunday’s debate that he didn’t grope women even after bragging about doing so. That’s brought more of his victims into public view.

So the Clinton people are right: Trump is much worse. But heaven help us if Trump sets the new standard for presidential candor.

  1. "I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net