At the Consensus Building Institute, we’re engaged in ongoing research and advising on public apologies, and Eliot Spitzer has just provided the latest in a long list. Though appalled by his behavior, and depressed by his apparent efforts to wriggle out of taking full responsibility, I was struck by Spitzer’s resignation speech today. He delivered several core elements of an effective public apology:

  • Acknowledging a mistake or failure
  • Recognizing hurt, harm, or offense
  • Taking responsibility for the act
  • Stating clearly remorse or regret
  • Taking or pledging actions intended to compensate for the wrongdoing (i.e., making amends, providing restitution, etc.)

The circumstances, of course, gave ample scope for apology. He betrayed his family. Though the courts have not spoken, he almost certainly broke the law. And, as a zealous advocate for public integrity, he demeaned that which he most strongly asserted. Indeed,he needed to make a powerful statement to recognize the seriousness of his failings and the impact on others—from his family to the citizens of New York.

In his resignation, he first acknowledged those he arguably hurt the most—his family. He also recognized the public impact of his “private failing” and linked the public and the private:

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected. I have been given much: the love of my family, the faith and trust of the people of New York, and the chance to lead this state. I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me. To every New Yorker, and to all those who believed in what I tried to stand for, I sincerely apologize.”

He asserted an important principle about responsibility, regardless of office or position:

“Over the course of my public life, I have insisted, I believe correctly, that people, regardless of their position or power, take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself.”

And lastly, he took one critical, initial action. “For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor.” To have any hope of reclaiming any of his past reputation for integrity, he will need to do much more as a private citizen.

Critics will rightly say that the apology cannot excuse the act, and many will question an apology coming after two days of public silence and frantic private activity, apparently in a search for some way to stay in office. So, was there any real public purpose or value in Spitzer’s apology? Perhaps he sought to personally reestablish a measure of dignity in a situation of great indignity and shame. So be it.

But more importantly, at his own expense, Spitzer reasserted the civic virtues he professed but could not abide by. Perhaps one of the most important functions of a public apology is to reaffirm a social order in the demoralizing face of circumstances that tear at that order and its deepest held ideals. Without the final words and act—“I am resigning”—the apology would have been hollow and deeply cynical. But with it, his apology offered a note of grace in an otherwise disgraceful end to his career.