Winning Back Integrity Voters

Two, four, six eight, who will we not appreciate? One explanation of this month’s elections is that the "values voters" of 2004 became the "integrity voters" of 2006, punishing Republicans for evidencing and tolerating poor values. If the GOP doesn’t do better over these next two years, it will pay at the polls again in 2008.

House Republicans got off to a bad start in regaining integrity voters when they chose last week the same-old, same-old leaders. But all is not lost if the leaders take a stroll through "My Bad," a collection by Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin of "25 years of public apologies." Maybe they (and all of us, because we all mess up) can learn to act and speak forthrightly instead of dodging and weaving.

They and we can learn from "Marconi," a Portland, Ore., radio shock jock, who horrified listeners in 2004 by playing a tape of the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq and laughing about it. Marconi’s self-recognition afterward was impressive: "I have become so numb to the horrific things that happen in this world that I sometimes forget there are still people who feel."

Another good example is that of George Taylor, a California judge who in 1994 cut in half the support payments Barry Bonds owed to his family and then, after the hearing, requesting Bonds’ autograph. Taylor responded to criticism by saying, "It was the wrong thing to do and I simply won’t make excuses."

Compare those straightforward responses with Jesse Jackson’s apology in 1984 for an anti-Semitic remark: "If in my low moments in word, deed or attitude, through some error of temper, taste or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain or revived someone’s fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head, so limited in its finitude, not to my heart, which is boundless in its love for the entire human family." What?

In 2001, when Rev. Jackson’s adultery hit the front pages, one of his many responses was, "What we’ve sought to do throughout is to be honorable and responsible with dignity and privacy and we will maintain that." Some Republican leaders this year seemed at times to take a page from Jackson’s non-responsiveness — but major media did not let them get away with it.

GOP leaders and the rest of us would do better to learn from a different reverend, Jimmy Swaggart. When photos of his going into a motel room with a prostitute surfaced in 1988, Swaggart told his Baton Rouge congregation, "I do not plan in any way to whitewash my sin or call it a mistake. I call it a sin. I beg your forgiveness." He told his wife, "I have sinned against you and I beg your forgiveness." He told his fellow televangelists, "I have made your load heavier and I have hurt you. Please, please forgive me."

Media bigwigs also like to plea bargain rather than straightforwardly admit fault. Examples are legion, but here’s just one: When NBC in 1993 used footage of dead fish from another forest to illustrate a report about endangered fish at Clearwater National Forest, and when other fish portrayed as dead had merely been stunned for testing purposes, Tom Brokaw intoned, "We regret the inappropriate video to illustrate what was otherwise an accurate report." Inappropriate? How about: "We tried to pull a fast one and were caught"?

The last refuge of scoundrels is to say, when criticized, "I was just kidding." In 2004 a columnist for the British Guardian, Charlie Brooker, called President Bush a "drooling, blinking, mouse-faced little cheat" and asked, "John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?" The Guardian said his comments were "an ironic joke."

To win back integrity voters, Republicans need to do better than Jackson, Brokaw or Brooker. Honesty in action is the best policy, but (as the Bible shows) sin is always crouching at our door. When it leaps, honest words — with changes in behavior — are the best response.


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