President Obama has repeatedly exhibited key characteristics of a strong leader. He is decisive when necessary; reflective when appropriate, and clear in his vision for the United States and the world. One attribute that he has not presented is the ability to apologize when he says or does something that he later regrets. Such an apology or reversal may be appropriate now, in light of the President referring to those who broke the law in the Baltimore disturbances as “thugs.”
I am reminded of a letter (yes, a letter, not an e-mail) I sent in 1965 to then Senator Charles Percy of Illinois. Percy was a Republican junior senator for Illinois who supported President Lyndon Johnson in efforts to pass civil rights legislation addressing the widespread discrimination in the United States. Prior to being a senator, Percy was president of Bell & Howell, a manufacturer of motion picture equipment, including movie projectors.
I was most impressed with Percy’s strong civil rights statements and actions. However, I was a little taken aback when I read that, in accounting for his company’s history of supporting civil rights he said, “When I integrated Bell & Howell ……”
It occurred to me that the integration of a large corporation would have required efforts from many individuals, not just the president of the company. His comment struck me as a little self-serving and I chose to write him to suggest that he might have stated his the company’s accomplishment a little differently so as to give credit to others as well as himself.
Several weeks later I received a short note from him that clearly came from him personally. In it he wrote, “As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, ‘If only we could see ourselves as others see us.’” He thanked me for my thoughts. I felt that he was open to the ideas of others and willing to reconsider what he had said.
Currently, I cannot recall an occasion in which President Obama has apologized for his words or actions. I’m sure that he does it frequently in private, and he may have done it in public when the bright lights and cameras were not on. Like many people, I would like to see him walk back from the characterization of some of the people on the streets of Baltimore as “thugs.”
Specifically, on Tuesday, April 28, President Obama condemned the “criminals and thugs who tore up” the city of Baltimore on Monday night. The next day, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked to explain why the President had used the word “thug.” Earnest said:
But what’s also true and what did get the lion’s share of the coverage out of Baltimore were the actions of a small minority that were nothing short of criminal actions. And whether it’s arson, or, you know, the looting of a liquor store, those were, those were thuggish acts. And, I think the President felt it was important, and continues to think it’s important, to draw a clear distinction between those actions and the efforts of the vast majority of people in that community to draw attention to the legitimate concerns that they have about the treatment of Freddie Gray.
There are those, now including Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes, who say that “thugs” has become the new ‘N’ word. He reasoned that if it was true that the Baltimore policemen has beaten up Freddie Gray, their actions might be those of thugs, but no public official was calling the police officers thugs. Stokes asked the president as well as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to dial back their use of the word “thugs.”
Part of Stokes’ reasoning as well as that of others is that the word “thugs” is a very derogatory term and discounts the societal factors that may have led to some youth engaging in criminal behavior. The cauldron that is inner-city Baltimore, as well as many other urban areas, is one in which children grow up in poor housing, with a lack of nutritious food and quality health care, without schools that can properly address their learning needs, and with a police presence that is often outright hostile to young people.
There is little doubt that Barack Obama the community organizer knew this and that, in fact, he knows it now. The presidency seems to have hardened him, or at least some of his rhetoric. He has repeatedly talked about killing terrorists rather than neutralizing them. He has engaged in absolutes where nuance may have served him better.
It take courage to apologize and reverse oneself. In so many ways, the President has shown himself to be a courageous man. It would be very encouraging if he could walk back the word “thugs” and stick with something that is literally true, such as “criminal behavior.”