What, my friend Bill Schambra writes, is with “this sudden mania among Kerry supporters to get Bush to ‘admit he did something wrong,’ especially in Iraq. What on earth is that all about? You state your positions, you criticize the other guy’s, and the assumption is that he’s wrong. But of course he’s not about to admit it. What candidate in our history ever criticized a war president, not just because he pursued the wrong policies, but also because he won’t admit they were the wrong policies? Even McCarthy and Kennedy didn’t try to extract a confession of error from LBJ over Vietnam — the very concept is absurd. So when did it become necessary for Bush not only to be wrong, but to ‘admit’ he was wrong? Just tell us a little, tiny something, or otherwise we’ll make the case you’re rigid and inflexible. [Is this] further evidence of the Oprahfication of American politics?”
Well, Bill, I think you’re on to something here. Just look at what academic superstar Deborah Tannen has to say. Ms. Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand and other books about the differences between the ways men and women use language, writes in the New York Times that Bush’s “‘Mistakes? Never touch the stuff!’ approach is part of the hypermasculine persona he tries to put forth, along with his stay-the-course, go-it-alone, never-waver profile.”
Many men [she goes on] learn, from the time they’re children, to avoid apologizing, because it entails admitting fault, and that’s risky for them. Boys have to be on their guard against appearing weak — either literally, by losing fights, or figuratively, in the way they speak — because if they act or talk in ways that show weakness, other boys will take advantage and push them around.
But refusing to apologize infuriates women because that makes it seem as if the guy doesn’t care that he let her down, and if he doesn’t care, there’s no reason to think he won’t do it again. This is the negative effect — the collateral damage — that Mr. Bush’s “certainty” is certain to have on many women: if he won’t admit he made a mistake in his handling of Iraq, it seems he doesn’t care about the American soldiers killed and maimed, the civilians beheaded, about the Iraqi children blown up by insurgents’ bombs.
This is all perfectly true, Deborah, but there is another reason why men don’t admit mistakes, and it is that they think they haven’t made any. I know it’s expecting a lot for you to bother your pretty little head with manly stuff like politics, but in politics, see, we do what we think is right and make the best case we can for it. Then the people who don’t think it’s right make the best case they can for doing something else. It’s an imperfect system, admittedly, but it does have the advantage of working, insofar as it does work, entirely without the intervention of any psychologists or mental health professionals at all. The men on each side assume that those on the other are doing the best that they can, just as they themselves are, without relying on any dubious assumptions about their masculine status anxiety — or, if you’re Maureen Dowd, Oedipal fears.
Or at least that’s how politics used to work. Then we gave the vote to women and the next thing we knew everybody, encouraged by the likes of the Misses Tannen and Dowd, was demanding not only that politicians do the best they can but also that they show, at least if they want the women’s vote, that they care more than the other guys. It doesn’t even matter to the women if this pretense of superior caring is entirely put on, just as Miss Tannen doesn’t seem to mind if Bush is really sorry for what she, at least, regards as his mistakes in Iraq. OK, OK, she seems to me to be saying, maybe he still thinks he did the right thing. But at least he could show the women that he cares about their feelings by apologizing anyway. How like a woman! As she herself puts it, “Most women don’t regard admitting fault as a liability. Instead, they value it as a sign of caring — and a necessary prerequisite to maintain credibility.”
This is interesting because it implies that “credibility” means something quite different for men and women. I think this may be true. What would destroy a man’s credibility among men actually increases it, says Professor Tannen, among women — and vice versa. When men use a word like “credibility” — say in the context of a war — they mean that other people are thinking: “Uh-oh. I’m not going to mess with that dude because I know that if I do I’ll get the stuffing kicked out of me. Therefore, I believe him — I find him credible — when he says, just to take an example at random, that he’d better not catch me harboring terrorists or supporting terrorism.” But, says the Professor, at least if I have understood her aright, when a woman talks about a man’s “credibility” she’s thinking: “He’s shown that he’s willing to make himself vulnerable to me, and that makes me trust him.” Good point, Prof. But now could you just answer one question? Which kind of credibility is likely to be more useful to a war leader? Even our women voters, God bless ’em, are likely to have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question.