The Corner

Politics & Policy

Just Say You’re Sorry

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

There’s a growing argument on the right that the media and the Left are out to get Scott Pruitt because he’s an effective EPA administrator doing things conservatives like and many liberals detest. I think this is entirely plausible — indeed, probable. I also think it’s plausible that he did some things he shouldn’t have.

I haven’t followed all of the minutiae, but as a general matter, when the press goes into a feeding frenzy, it’s often because it smells blood in the water. The media may be exaggerating Pruitt’s alleged misdeeds, but at the very least, he has given the appearance of chumming the water.

Just going by Pruitt’s performance in his interview with Fox News’s Ed Henry, his explanations for giving raises to two staffers and his condo deal seem dodgy and all-too-defensive.

What I don’t get in situations like this is why Pruitt — or, say, Ben Carson before him — can’t just say, “I messed up.” In real life, people screw up, and bosses ask, “What were you thinking?” and then the response is to offer an explanation (not pretend you didn’t know anything or, in Carson’s case, blame your wife). I can think of all sorts of explanations for why Pruitt did what he’s alleged to have done that would be satisfactory to reasonable people — if he started from the premise that he made a mistake.

The “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up” cliché is grounded in a basic human dynamic. People tend to be very forgiving of mistakes when they’re owned up to. We get much angrier when we’re lied to, because it feels both like an insult to our intelligence and a kind of bullying; “You must pretend to believe something you don’t believe.

The Obama administration was full of people who committed far worse transgressions — John Koskinen at the IRS, Eric Holder at DOJ — who offered (fairly disingenuous) apologies, promised to take “full responsibility,” and stayed in their jobs. Admittedly, the press was looking for reasons to move on from those stories, but even so, such statements give the press no place to go. When you lie or obfuscate, you invite more investigation. If you admit it, apologize, and go back to work, you make those who continue to harp on the matter seem obsessed, repetitive, or boorish.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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