The Art of Apology

Grading the Ex-Presidents on their Internment Lessons

By Stewart David Ikeda



As the Japanese know better than anyone, apologizing is an art...

It demands skill, diligence, thoughtfulness, and practice.

I had this in mind when I came upon two versions of the Presidential letter apologizing to those Japanese Americans who had, because of ethnic heritage, been incarcerated, evacuated, relocated, or otherwise rounded-up and mistreated during WWII. For those who don't know, the apology letter accompanied checks for $20,000 sent to Japanese Americans as reparations for their wartime uprooting. I have copies of one signed by former president George Bush sent to my grandparents; the other, which my aunt received, was signed by Bill Clinton.


It’s not every day one gets a letter from the President of the United States. I thought, with such a limited target-mailing, most people would not actually know what these letters contain, and that it might be interesting for our readers to simply post them here as part of our special Day of Remembrance edition.

At first glance, the two letters appear nearly identical except for the stamped signature of the author: two short paragraphs printed on crisp, white half-sheet stationary that offers only "White House Washington" as a return address. Only upon viewing them physically side-by-side for the first time did I recognize that in fact, these two form letters could not be more different -- as different as the men themselves, as different as their visions of what America was under their stewardship.

I couldn't help it. As a writer, editor, and former teacher of both writing and J-A history, I found myself instinctively -- compulsively -- grabbing a red pencil and setting to a comparative critique.

Following are my hypertext annotations and final grades given to these two historic documents. You can read them straight down or click-bounce around, if you think it worth the effort. You could also not read my observations at all, but in any case I present the letters first, side-by-side, along with an invitation to draw and share with us your own conclusions.

Happy grading!

Letter from George Bush

A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.

In enacting a law calling for restitution and offering a sincere apology, your fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. You and your family have our best wishes for the future.

George Bush

Grade: C-

Letter from Bill Clinton

Over fifty years ago, the United States Government unjustly interned, evacuated, or relocated you and many other Japanese Americans. Today, on behalf of your fellow Americans, I offer a sincere apology to you for the actions that unfairly denied Japanese Americans and their families fundamental liberties during World War II.


In passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, we acknowledge the wrongs of the past and offered redress to those who endured such grave injustice. In retrospect, we understand that the nation's actions were rooted deeply in racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a lack of political leadership. We must learn from the past and dedicated ourselves as a nation to renewing the spirit of equality and our love of freedom. Together, we can guarantee a future with liberty and justice for all. You and your family have my best wishes for the future.


Bill Clinton

Grade: A


Burying the Lead


Bush begins with Journalism 101's cardinal sin: He buries the lead. He fails to immediately provide the most important facts and details that will contextualize the story to follow and underscore what is newsworthy in it: Injustice is recognized, regretted, redressed, etc. Instead, the opening meanders through generalizations -- "lost years, painful memories, Nation's resolve to uphold rights, etc." What lost years? Whose rights? Why were memories "painful"? A good first sentence nails down the important who-what-where-when-why. The word "apology" doesn't appear until graf 2.


Conversely, Clinton forges ahead with as strong lead: "Government unjustly interned you, dear reader." Straight away we know the story, and the players and their relationships. Cap it off with a respectful acknowledgment of "you the reader" and we're immediately hooked. All in all, it's an excellent opening sentence.


True, in terms of immediate emotional impact, Clinton might have slipped "apology" into the first sentence. He probably should have avoided opening the letter with "Over fifty years ago"; it underscores a temporal distance that isn't really significant since the readers don't care how long ago their civil liberties were trampled. It risks sounding like a Slick Willie-esque disclaimer: Howdya do -- name's Bill, and no matter what they say I did I wasn't there and didn't do it, but I sure am glad to meet you and I know exactly how you feel just the same.


This is a comparatively minor lapse, however. By its prominent placement, Bush's opening reference to money not only leads us off-subject -- apology for internment -- but it's gauche. It's especially inadvisable when addressing ethnic Japanese, not unlike vomiting on them. This is an apology letter, not a remittance memo. Lesson: Know your audience.


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Having to Say You're Sorry


For Bush, "sorry" seems to be the hardest word; having buried the lead -- U.S. government committed unjust actions against its citizens that warrant an apology -- a smooth cause-and-effect cannot take root in his first paragraph. In this letter of apology, the words "apology," "sorry," or even "oops" are withheld, delayed until graf 2. For all his faults, Bill Clinton is an apology artist. He is confident of his rhetorical powers and comes right out with "apology" up front, knowing full well he can talk a blue streak afterward, detailing his contrition with exquisite sincerity and empathy. He apologizes at such length that the initial apology seems ancient history to the hearer, who figures Clinton's done his penance and then some, so it would be mean-spirited to keep going on about it.


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Bush's command of the passive voice is mightily impressive. The device was possibly learned at the knee of his predecessor, the man known as the Great Communicator. How nicely the construction "great injustices were done to..." suggests contrition while mechanically distancing the author -- or, rather, his office -- from personal connection to the events at hand. The benefit of the passive voice, in which something bad just happens rather than is caused by action, is obviously that no (in)action-taker is available to bear responsibility. The passive voice conveys an air of inevitability.


Here, the passive voice obscures actions and their consequences, and thus sidesteps responsibility: Well, the JAs ended up screwed somehow, hard-to-say, s--t happens, and it's kinda an unfortunate mess we got, not that I was there or anything…

Thinking of sepukku, you can see how non-Japanese this approach is. But indeed, why should the sins of the fathers fall to this contemporary sitting President? Was the internment George Bush's fault?


It wasn't, of course. But it was his problem, writ into his job description, a Presidential trapping no less tangible than the Lincoln bedroom or Air Force One. And under a President's stewardship, the responsibility could be embraced and borne gracefully or not. In this case, not.

By contrast, the younger Mr. Clinton (who really wasn't there) wins points for effective use of the active voice -- for wielding good, solid, no-nonsense active verbs: "interned, evacuated, relocated." The active voice lubricates the engine of good narrative: someone does something and consequently another action starts, then another.


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The Devil's in Details


Rather than scatter vague allusions to "painful memories" and "injustices done," Clinton the midnight scholar more persuasively enumerates those possible memories and injustices: internment, relocation, racial prejudice, and the denial of fundamental liberties. His references to "wartime hysteria" and "failed leadership" hint at an understanding of the political context and social moment at issue. Unafraid to name names, he further attributes these to a clear actor: the U.S. Government.


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Fun with Pronouns


Again, Mr. Clinton scores big points in the pronoun category. The prominent placement of the "I" in graf 1 introduces a stroke of personal responsibility-taking that is utterly absent, like first-person singular pronouns, in Mr. Bush's version.


What offends in George Bush's memo to Japanese America is the relentless use of what my wife calls the Royal 'We.' I don't believe this to be a symptom of multiple personality disorder (or disorientation along the lines of Bob Dole's third-person references to Bob Dole). Rather, the Royal 'We' is very specifically second-person address gussied up as first-person plural, as in: We have to take out the trash on Thursday; we have to go buy wine for the dinner party before 5 o'clock, and be ready to go before I come to pick you up absolutely no later than 5:15.


Similarly, Bush's plurality ensures that the apology is very effectively diffused across a vast, formless "we/us" (that, incidentally, may or may not include "you" the reader). On the surface, this may appear to be soundly democratic, patriotic, even humble: I, I am nothing, I only the mere instrument of The People, which commits to ideals of justice and recognizes injustices were done. The great body Americana understands that you're bumming.


Yes, one assumes that the author would count himself among those "fellow Americans [who] have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice." Yet, this assumption proves unfounded; it is ultimately belied by "their". It's their apology, not ours, and certainly not mine.


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Extra Credit


People who have been educators, as I have, hesitate to evaluate learning on the basis of rote memorization, but also develop a good nose for fudging in essay exams. Vague note-taking is often (not always) a hallmark of vague thought. That Clinton correctly cites the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 where Bush refers to "a law calling for restitution" might earn Bill some extra-credit brownie points.


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Sins of Omission


Sensitive readers will note that Mr. Clinton's letter alone dares to even use the words "race" and "prejudice" or suggest historical government "failure". While both letters more or less explicitly profess the nation's commitment and ability to do better in the future, students of internment lore will hear in Clinton's an echo of Franklin Roosevelt's admission that "Nations, like individuals, make mistakes. We must be big enough to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and correct them." Key to any apology's sincerity is an indication that some lesson has been learned; by at least attempting to list the root causes of the internment (racism, hysteria, failed leadership), Clinton convinces us that he is capable of learning and internalizing a real lesson, as are (one hopes) the people who elected him -- our fellow Americans. Bush also assures that Americans have "renewed" their traditional commitment to justice, but frankly, in the case of the internment, that traditional commitment proved inadequate; it must be stronger in the future than it was then. His failure to acknowledge the racist and political underpinnings of the internment forces us to wonder if Americans have actually learned anything that will help them (us) do better next time. We all hope so.


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Signing Off


In its passive voice, lack of detail, and dancing pronouns, Bush's letter finally succeeds in so distancing the author from the sentiments it intends to convey that we are no longer surprised by its cool conclusion. Viewed beside Clinton's friendly "my best wishes," it appears that Bush can't even take personal ownership of the well wishes he's bound by decency to communicate at the closing of the letter he's about to sign.


No place in the letter so forcefully underscores the vast divide (experiential, emotional) between author and reader. Implicit in that "our" appears to be a determined line drawn between "us" and "you." If Mr. Bush himself hesitates to say "I send my best wishes," I am finally left uncertain that "all of us" wish me particularly well either.


What a different note does Clinton's "Together" strike. While we may release a groan to recall his mercilessly vowing that we would "together build a bridge to the 21st century," by comparison with the aloof Mr. Bush's "our/you," it rings of comforting chumminess.


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Grading Scale

Finally, I give Mr. Clinton's above-average effort a grade of A; because of extra credit, he could have gotten an A+, but I docked him for opening with "Over fifty years ago". Mr. Bush's essay showed some effort to convey important sentiments, but his lack of supporting details, weak sentence construction, lack of attribution, and other difficulties indicated to me he possessed only a passing familiarity with the subject and would need to study harder for future tests. I gave him a C-.

Now you tell me: How would you grade these apologies?

This commentary previously appeared with slightly different format and content on the former Asian-American Village website, now defunct but archived here