JAD ABUMRAD: Here we go. I'm Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JAD: This is Radiolab, and today we are ...
ROBERT: Sorry, really. Very sorry.
JAD: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. For more on that, here is producer Annie McEwen.
ANNIE MCEWEN: Hello!
JAD: How did you get into all this?
ANNIE: Good question. As you know, I'm not one of you. I am Canadian.
JAD: There's so many of you here at Radiolab.
ANNIE: That's right. We are invading. And I—you know, I moved to the States, you know, a few years ago. And you know when you go to a new place, and you're able to turn around and look back at the old place, and you kind of see it with clarity?
ROBERT: The clarity of distance.
ANNIE: That's right. That's right. And there was this one moment that happened about a month after I got to America that just—I don't know, something about it just really threw me.
JAD: What was it?
ANNIE: Well let me set it up for you. So—so it's May 18, 2016.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Geoff Regan: The doors be open. Ouvre les portes.]
ANNIE: In the Canadian House of Commons, the Speaker of the House ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Geoff Regan: Order. Alors.]
ANNIE: Calls the session into order.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Geoff Regan: Déclaration député.]
ANNIE: Because in the house that day, they're going to vote on a bill. So the speaker rings this electric bell that lets everyone know it's time to vote. And as is Canadian tradition, these two people known as whips walk up the aisle, and then they do this kind of bow and then the voting can begin. But for this particular vote, the Liberal whip gets to the front, and he turns to his right, and he does not see the Conservative whip, Gordon Brown. He's like, "Where is this man?" And he turns to look behind him, and he sees that Gordon Brown has tried his very best to make his way to the front of the house, but he is stuck. And he's stuck because there is a clump of MPs that are standing in his way.
ROBERT: Purposefully or just accidentally?
ANNIE: So I think it's debated, but I would say very confidentially that it was extremely purposeful. They're pretending they don't see him, and they're using their little—their butts, like shuffling their butts. And you can see he's, like, dodging this way and then scurrying that way, and they're like, "No, no, no, no!"
ROBERT: Why? They didn't want this to come to a vote?
ANNIE: It's kind of complicated, but this vote, basically we have, like, three minutes to pass it.
ROBERT: Oh, we have a deadline.
ANNIE: We have a deadline. So you're just watching this scene and going, "God, this is ridiculous, and I sort of hate everything." And then you see sort of up from the front of the room, this figure stands. Tall, dressed in a three-piece suit, exceedingly handsome, very nice hair. This figure strides towards this clump, his three-piece suit flapping open. The cowlick of his hair moving in the breeze of his own motion.
JAD: Who is this person?
ANNIE: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
ANNIE: So Justin strides over like, "Come on, quit playing games. Let's get this show on the road." He pushes his way through this collection of people, and in this moment I am cheering for Trudeau. I'm like, "Yes! You are—you are making government happen. Get the vote done."
ANNIE: So Trudeau grabs Gordon Brown by the arm, pulls him through this clump. But in doing so, he elbows this woman he doesn't see behind him in the boob.
ROBERT: Does she go, "Ow!" or something?
ANNIE: She does. She does. Her face contorts with some pain. She grabs her chest, and she has to leave and sit in the lobby, and—and collect herself.
JAD: She walks out.
ANNIE: She walks out. And Trudeau sees none of this.
ANNIE: And as he's striding up the aisle with little Gordon in tow, there is chaos erupting in the house. Trudeau turns around and he learns you've just elbowed this woman in the chest. And you can see he's got this mortified look on his face. He buttons his three-piece suit. He strides after her. Calls out something like, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry. I didn't see you. I didn't see you." She's—she's gone though. At this point, one of the other members shouts back at him, "How could you elbow a woman? That's pathetic! You're pathetic!" Like, it gets really ridiculous.
ANNIE: Oh, yeah. And the House Speaker is like ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Geoff Regan: Members. Order. Order! Order!]
ANNIE: "All right, everyone. Sit down, sit down."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Geoff Regan: Order! Order! Order! Members will restrain themselves. Members will restrain themselves.]
ANNIE: So they sit down.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Geoff Regan: Order. See the Prime Minister rising on this serious matter.]
ANNIE: And then—and then Trudeau stands up, and he's like ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: Mr. Speaker, I admit I came in physical contact with a number of members as I extended my arm, including someone behind me who I did not see.]
ANNIE: He apologizes again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: If anyone feels that they were impacted by my actions, I completely apologize. It was not my intention to hurt anyone. It certainly wasn't. It was my intention to get this vote up.]
ANNIE: He sits down. His whole side of the room stands up, gives him a standing ovation. But for the opposition, the people on the other side of the aisle, this is not good enough.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peter Van Loan: I witnessed as he strode across the floor with anger fierce in his eyes and face.]
ANNIE: Member after member rise from their seats to scold him.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, House member: I will add my testimony.]
ROBERT: These are the Conservatives, thinking with glee?
ANNIE: Yeah, they're not all Conservatives, but yes.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Randall Garrison: I saw the Prime Minister—I would use the word 'charge' across the floor with intent.]
ANNIE: People are clutching their pearls with delight.
ANNIE: Justin is not the perfect man that we all thought he was.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Niki Ashton: Mr. Speaker, this was deeply traumatic.]
ANNIE: Someone accuses him of making it an unsafe place for women to work.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Niki Ashton: This act made us feel unsafe and we are deeply troubled by the conduct of the Prime Minister of this country.]
ANNIE: Eventually ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ruth Ellen Brosseau: I was the member in question.]
ANNIE: ... the woman who was elbowed, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, she returns and she speaks.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ruth Ellen Brosseau: I was elbowed in the chest by the Prime Minister, and then I had to leave. It was very overwhelming. I just wanted to clarify and make sure it's clear to all the members in the House that that did happen.]
ANNIE: At which point, Trudeau again stands up and says what I think is a pretty nice apology.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: I want to take the opportunity now that the member is okay to return to the House right now, to be able to express directly to her my apologies for my behavior unreservedly.]
ANNIE: He says what he did. He says it was wrong, and he says, "I'm very sorry."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.]
ROBERT: We get the idea now. He said it three times.
ANNIE: Well, you'd think so, right?
[ARCHIVE CLIP, House member: This isn't something that can be cured by a simple apology.]
ANNIE: But that wasn't the case. That night at a press conference ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: And indeed I'm going to apologize again for a incident in the House this—this evening that might ...]
ANNIE: ... he does it again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: And for that, I truly regret.]
ANNIE: And at this point, the media's going crazy about it.
[NEWS CLIP: Bit of a dust up at the House of Commons today. It almost looked like ....]
[NEWS CLIP: Justin Trudeau's day of atonement.]
ANNIE: Referring to the incident as ...
[NEWS CLIP: Hashtag Elbowgate.]
ANNIE: ... Elbowgate.
[NEWS CLIP: The elbow incident.]
ANNIE: Trudeau got on social media.
[NEWS CLIP: He added apologetic tweets just in case.]
ANNIE: But even then we're still not done because the next day back in the House, the House of Commons ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: Mr. Speaker, I'd like to take a moment to apologize.]
ANNIE: ... he apologizes again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: I apologize for crossing the floor in an attempt to have the member take his seat.]
ANNIE: And again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: I'd like to apologize directly to the member for Berthier—Maskinongé.]
ANNIE: And again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: I apologize to my colleagues.]
ANNIE: And again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: I am apologizing ...]
ANNIE: And again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: I regret it deeply. I made a mistake.]
ANNIE: And again.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Justin Trudeau: And I ask for—for Canadians' understanding and forgiveness.]
ANNIE: And I think at this point, when I was learning about this, I was just like, "Okay! That is enough!"
ANNIE: I just—I just feel, I guess I just feel like it's just posturing. And—and keep in mind, like, for Canada, it's not just about this, like, elbow thing. So, like, every month, Trudeau is apologizing to one group or another that has been harmed in the past by Canada. And, you know, I should say that I actually think these apologies are very helpful, and I think it's very important, but you get to this point where they just start to pile up, and I—so I guess, like, when I'm seeing Elbowgate, I'm not just seeing Elbowgate. I'm thinking about all of this.
ANNIE: And then I come here to America, where—where we have this president.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: Donald Trump is my guest tonight.]
ANNIE: He's refusing to apologize for anything.
ROBERT: Oh, yeah. That's his thing.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: Is there anybody you'd like to apologize to?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: Uh, no]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: No?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: No. No apologies.]
ANNIE: And it's funny, because I feel really weird saying this, but in that moment, in that tiny, tiny moment, the contrast was refreshing.
ANNIE: Kind of like, well, at least I know where he stands.
JAD: That's so funny, because as you're telling this story about Canada and the apologies, I'm like, "Oh my god, I wish!" Like, we haven't apologized in this country for some really wrong stuff.
ANNIE: Well I mean, I should be clear that I'm not down with, like, just not apologizing for stuff.
ANNIE: But then again ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP: We had one too many glasses of wine, and we are so sorry, and ...]
ANNIE: Like, so many of the apologies you hear these days are just like ...
NEWS CLIP: Nothing says "sorry" like free pizza.]
ANNIE: Sorry, not sorry. Like, I'm sorry if you felt hurt. I'm sorry if I offended you. Like, they're not real.
ANNIE: And—and I guess I just found myself thinking, like, this word ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP: I would like to apologize.]
ANNIE: ... is broken.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: I'm so sorry.]
ANNIE: And I guess I just found myself getting into this whole thing about, like, trying to figure out first of all how did it get broken? How did we break it? And what can we do to get it back? So that's what I'm gonna dig into right after this break.
JAD: Three, two, one. Hey, I'm Jad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert.
ANNIE: I'm Annie.
ROBERT: This is Radiolab, and today emphatically we're going to look at apologies.
ROBERT: Yes, we're going to apologize a lot, ask ourselves why do we apologize so much, why don't we, if we need to, why we need to—to—to—oh God, I'm so sorry that it's—I'm so tongue tied.
ANNIE: Forgot your train of thought.
ROBERT: No, I didn't forget my train of thought. I just want to say how sorry I am to ruin the opening of the show.
ANNIE: It's okay, Robert. You are forgiven.
ROBERT: Okay. Go ahead and do the rest of it.
ANNIE: Thank you. Okay, so to start ...
NICK SMITH: Yeah, well maybe it might be worth our time to back up a little bit to, you know, where that notion of "I'm sorry" and apologies come from and what they are. Because ...
ANNIE: Great. Take me back.
NICK SMITH: Right. So—so the ...
ANNIE: One of my first stops was this guy, Nick Smith.
NICK SMITH: I'm Nick Smith. I'm the chair of the philosophy department at the University of New Hampshire.
ANNIE: He's an expert in the history and philosophy of contrition.
NICK SMITH: So we've got these ancient traditions, usually grounded in some kind of religious practice. Pretty much all the world religions have some kind of repentance.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Repent!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Children, repentance. We turn to God.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Turn to the light immediately. Promise Allah, never again.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Not only confess your sin, forsake your sin. Repent. Run away from it.]
NICK SMITH: You do something wrong, and wrong is identified by, you know, whatever the holy books say or whatever. And usually there are some—there's some things you need to do to kind of make it right.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: The four conditions of asking Allah's forgiveness: to admit, to regret, to ask for forgiveness and to promise never to do it again. Four things.]
NICK SMITH: Right? So repentance is the term that is around for most of the history of apologizing. And when you think of it in those explicitly religious terms, you kind of get a sense for the full thickness of it. Because you're talking about, like, your soul. And the afterlife. And you're standing before the gods and not just the person you injured, right? This is soul crafting. As we enter modern, secular, industrialized living, and as we try to find a way to do something like repentance in secular terms, we end up with this weird modern soup of apology.
ANNIE: So Nick says over time, as we started letting go of these, like, explicitly religious rules around apology, sorry sort of started to shift and diffuse.
NICK SMITH: In that context, you start thinking about, all right, so what in modern life do we mean? All right, what's a good apology and what do we mean by apologies? This is gonna be super complicated.
ANNIE: Like, when we've been hurt by someone, what is it we actually want? And as I was looking around for stories about the role of apologies in our lives today, I found a moment that feels to me like—I don't know, like almost sort of an inflection point in our reckoning with the meaning of "I'm sorry." And it starts, oddly enough ...
WOMAN: And here she is.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Shall I pick up?
WOMAN: Yes, you should pick up.
ANNIE: With this guy.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Hello?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Hello?
ANNIE: Are you there?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yup. I'm here.
ANNIE: Hello, are you there?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yeah. I'm here.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Hi there. Can you hear me?
ANNIE: Governor Dukakis?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Hello?
ANNIE: Hi. [laughs]
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Hi.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yeah.
JAD: Wait, is that Governor—like—like, Michael Dukakis? That's who that is?
ANNIE: It is, yes.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, campaign commercial: Mike Dukakis, a president for the '90s.]
ANNIE: Like, the thing is I actually didn't know who Mike Dukakis was before doing this story.
ANNIE: Yeah. I had no idea.
JAD: In your defense, you are Canadian, but Michael Dukakis?
ANNIE: No, I was like, "Oh, Olympia Dukakis is his cousin. Cool!"
JAD: Oh my God!
ANNIE: So that's what I was most excited about.
JAD: Oh my God!
ANNIE: 'Cause she's a great actress!
JAD: She is a great actress. I need to lie down.
ANNIE: Anyhow ...
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: That's okay.
ANNIE: Let me get—give you a tiny little background on what ...
ANNIE: I was actually calling him about something that had happened, like, a couple years before he ran for president.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: That was a long time ago. And it's not that I'm losing my memory, but ...
ANNIE: Oh, of course not.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: ... that was a long time ago.
ANNIE: And you've had a pretty eventful life, so I wasn't sure whether or not this was the most memorable moment in your career. [laughs]
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It wasn't. [laughs]
ANNIE: Yeah. Yeah, this might have been the second most. Yeah.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yeah.
ANNIE: So back in 1986, he was governor of Massachusetts, and he had a bill sitting on his desk waiting to be signed.
ANNIE: Do you remember this?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I do, indeed. So it was the day before Christmas, the 24th of December. So the bill itself, it had a lot to do with a state senator named Bill Saltonstall.
ANNIE: Did you know him personally?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Did I know Bill Saltonstall personally?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. We worked closely together. Bill was a very progressive Republican. One of the most decent people I'd ever met or worked with in politics. And I can tell you he was suffering terribly, he and his wife and family.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: Yeah. Yeah. I—I never really knew exactly what happened. I mean, I would just sort of pick up snippets and try to imagine what happened.
ANNIE: This is Abigail Saltonstall, Senator Bill Saltonstall's youngest daughter.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: You know, we weren't a family that talked about the circumstances in detail. But let's see, I was 12. [laughs]
ANNIE: Her older sister Claire had just had a birthday.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: Yes, she had just turned 16. She was quite athletic.
ANNIE: Long hair, blue eyes.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: And she had asked permission to bike down to Woods Hole with her boyfriend.
ANNIE: And it was gonna be a long ride, like 70-some miles. But for Claire, that really wasn't that big of an ask.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: She used to bicycle to school, you know, like, 10 miles. And stop at the beach, and when it was really cold, and swim with her friend, and then go to school.
ANNIE: She sounds cool!
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: Yeah. She was adventurous, and she did love to bike. And I am not sure where they started. I am thinking maybe somewhere near Boston.
ANNIE: They took off, biked for a couple of hours.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: The bike ride, I'm sure was exciting and an adventure. But they—they had got turned onto a wrong road, and I mean, she got lost. And my understanding of what happens ...
ANNIE: They were biking down the road on the shoulder.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: There were two cars that were maybe—maybe playing chicken, maybe racing. I'm not really sure.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: But the cars, one of them swerved into the breakdown lane and just took out my sister.
ANNIE: And she died.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: It was awful. It was awful.
ANNIE: Do you remember where you were when you heard about your sister's death?
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: Yeah. I—I was at a friend's house, and then my father called and told me what happened.
ANNIE: Oh, wow.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: That's how I found out.
ANNIE: Wow, over the phone. Wow.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: Yeah, over the phone. Yeah.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: To lose a daughter, you know, in the prime of life, 16 years of age and under those circumstances, was just—it was so tragic. You can imagine Bill obviously was—was devastated.
ANNIE: Eventually the Saltonstalls found out who the driver was, this 19-year-old guy. And they probably could have taken him to court and won easily.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: But my memory is that my family did not press charges. My father said that he didn't see a reason to ruin two lives.
ANNIE: But what he did at some level want was—was just for this guy to reach out to the family.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: The person who caused her death to say—to say that they were sorry.
ANNIE: But he—he never contacted them.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: So I never knew what that person thought. And at some point, my father told me that he—that he thought that that was because of the law.
LEE TAFT: That's right. The driver was afraid of the legal implications of an apology.
ANNIE: This is Lee.
LEE TAFT: Lee Taft.
ANNIE: He's a lawyer and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. And he says that at that point, pretty much across the entire US ...
LEE TAFT: The general rule of law was that if I run a red light and I get out of my car and I say, "Annie, I am so sorry. It was entirely my fault. I was not paying attention. I was talking on my cell phone," you can use my apology to establish that I've caused the accident.
NICK SMITH: So your humane empathic reflexes might steer you towards, you know, saying you're sorry.
NICK SMITH: Saying, "Oh, I—you know, it was my fault. I wasn't looking. Or I was wiping my kid's nose or something."
ANNIE: Again, Nick Smith.
NICK SMITH: But the takeaway is: wait, don't do that. Because if you in that moment apologize, you're conceding that you deserve the blame.
ANNIE: In other words, in the eyes of the court ...
LEE TAFT: An apology is an admission.
ANNIE: And Saltonstall thought, "Maybe the driver of the car isn't apologizing because he's afraid that we'd use it against him in court." So he figured ...
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: Let's rectify this situation.
ANNIE: Let's just change the law. Which brings us back ...
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: The bill was—it was in response to that, and ...
ANNIE: ... to that bill sitting on Governor Dukakis's desk.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It was designed to make it possible for people to apologize without implicating them as guilty parties.
ANNIE: Meaning after the accident, you get out of your car, and you say, "I'm so sorry." That sorry cannot be used against you in court.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: And it certainly made sense to me, and I think made sense to just about everybody. And I don't think it had much difficulty in getting through. It was unanimous or close to it.
ANNIE: And so December 24, 1986 ...
LEE TAFT: Massachusetts passed the first apology legislation.
ANNIE: Creating for the first time this little window that allowed two people to just be people.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: And say I'm sorry. [laughs]
LEE TAFT: Without any legal consequence.
ANNIE: Do you have any sense of whether or not that measure had any effect? Do you—do you hear of it coming up?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I honestly don't know. I don't know.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: I mean, I don't know. You know, the person, even after the law was passed, did not apologize.
ABIGAIL SALTONSTALL: So it didn't accomplish that specific goal.
ANNIE: I actually found and reached out to the driver, and through his son he declined to comment for this story.
JAD: So it didn't work. They—they never got their apology.
ANNIE: Well I mean, for Abigail and her family, no. But when I dug into the history of this a bit, what became clear was that this little drop of legislation created some ripples that are still spreading today. Because in its wake ...
LEE TAFT: Other states start to pass legislation.
[NEWS CLIP: All right. We're gonna talk about this apology legislation.]
ANNIE: So there's a little bit of lag time, but in the late '90s ...
LEE TAFT: Texas passed a statute similar to Massachusetts. The "I'm Sorry" bill.
ANNIE: And then ...
JENNIFER ROBBENNOLT: In the early 2000s, you see a big burst.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Arizona, California, Colorado ...]
ANNIE: This is Jennifer Robbennolt.
JENNIFER ROBBENNOLT: Professor of law and psychology at the University of Illinois.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Illinois, Indiana.]
ANNIE: According to her, one after another, states started ...
JENNIFER ROBBENNOLT: Passing these kinds of rules.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Nebraska.]
LEE TAFT: Colorado does. Oregon does.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina ...]
ANNIE: South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee. Of course there were slight variations from state to state, but by 2012 ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Wyoming.]
ANNIE: ... 36 of the states had passed one of these laws, making it okay to say "I'm sorry."
ROBERT: But now you know that you're saying it without having to pay the consequences.
JAD: Do you feel like that makes it less real to say sorry?
ROBERT: Yes, that's—that's—that's not apologizing.
JAD: No, but if you don't say you're sorry because you feel like then I'm gonna sue you, and so you say nothing, isn't it better to have the sorry at least come out, even if the sorry is a little bit less of a sorry at that point?
JENNIFER ROBBENNOLT: Yeah, so that's the rub, right? Because on the one hand, what you want is a mechanism to encourage good apologies, right? On the other hand, you know, well, wait a minute, an apology tells us that this person is responsible. And if they are responsible then, you know, perhaps one of the things that comes with that is responsibility to repair the harm.
NICK SMITH: Yeah, this is—this is a real double-edged sword because if you're a sophisticated offender, you can manipulate this against victims to great effect.
ANNIE: Like, what are you talking about?
NICK SMITH: Think of it like this: you've suffered a serious injury. Imagine, like—like you lost a child, right?
ANNIE: Nick says what happens is that the people responsible for that death, maybe accompanied by a lawyer, what they do is they show up at your house. They sit down at your table ...
NICK SMITH: And express something that looks like—like a really deep, profound, soul-moving apology. That they're really sorry for what happened, and they take responsibility for it, and they admit blame.
ANNIE: It might feel genuine and honest, but Nick says oftentimes ...
NICK SMITH: You know, this is a combination of lawyering and acting. Because once you've expressed enough sympathy, then you—you make an offer. And, you know, you lowball. So victims think they're getting something like a heartfelt repentance or something like that from the offender, when in fact it's a negotiation, right? It's a negotiation dressed up as an apology.
ANNIE: But what—how do you know that? How do you know that that's the line of thinking?
NICK SMITH: I've been in, you know, the rooms, you know, where the strategies are being discussed.
ANNIE: You mean the strategies of the apologizers?
NICK SMITH: Yes.
ANNIE: And Nick says over time, lawyers have realized ...
NICK SMITH: That by going to people's homes, listening sympathetically and offering an amount, this was way more cost effective.
ANNIE: In fact, according to Nick, one of the major supporters behind that groundswell of apology laws in America were lobbyists.
NICK SMITH: You know, lobbyists who advocate for corporate interests, who seek to reduce liability for harms caused.
JAD: So the sorry got weaponized.
ANNIE: Yeah, particularly by corporations. Nick says in the early '90s ...
NICK SMITH: All sorts of industries started apologizing as a tactic.
ANNIE: He told me about one company he studied.
NICK SMITH: In eight years, they saved $75 million. You know, if you want to follow the money, the—it's pretty easy to follow the money here.
JAD: I'm suddenly—I'm suddenly starting to argue the other side in my head.
JAD: Which is, isn't—isn't the fundamental aspect of an apology like you're making yourself smaller or vulnerable to the person you're apologizing to?
ROBERT: I think so.
JAD: So if a company is apologizing without legal repercussions—and I hate that the law is involved, but it is—and they're doing it for their own financial benefit, then they're not actually making themselves vulnerable to the person. And so the apology is robbed of something essential, maybe.
JAD: I don't know, though. I mean, I can imagine if you're a corporation you could say, "It's still a human moment." But even then you don't—even if it seems like you're vulnerable, you never know. I don't know.
ANNIE: Like, that is the thing. It all comes down to when they say they're sorry do they mean it?
NICK SMITH: And you usually can't really judge someone's apology until, like, years later.
ANNIE: And actually, Nick told me a story that really drives this point home.
NICK SMITH: Okay, so this is a really interesting example. So ...
ANNIE: So it's 1076. We're in medieval Europe.
NICK SMITH: Henry IV is the Holy Roman Emperor, and Gregory VII is Pope.
ANNIE: Two of the most powerful people on the planet. And at some point, the emperor goes behind the pope's back and appoints a bishop.
NICK SMITH: And the pope takes particular issue with this appointment. So what the pope does is excommunicates the emperor. Which means that—I mean he's not really the emperor anymore, because the pope has just said, "Well, he's not part of the church anymore."
ANNIE: So for Henry, this is really bad news.
NICK SMITH: Potentially disastrous for his rule.
ANNIE: Violence is breaking out. People are demanding he step down.
NICK SMITH: So what the emperor does ...
NICK SMITH: ... Henry takes a walk across the Alps with his wife and small child, and I don't know who else is in their—their entourage. But it's in winter.
ANNIE: It's bitterly cold. They march for days and days, which turn into weeks and weeks. Through snowy valleys, across icy rivers. And because he's been excommunicated there's certain places he can't go, so they have to make—take, like, the most dangerous, most steep route across the Alps. And then finally, after months of travel, he arrives.
NICK SMITH: It's some sort of castle he arrives at where the pope is staying.
ANNIE: But ...
NICK SMITH: The pope refuses the emperor entry. It is allegedly snowing and something like a blizzard.
ANNIE: So he's standing at the gates of this castle.
NICK SMITH: Standing at the gates.
ANNIE: In a blizzard.
NICK SMITH: In a blizzard, with his wife and small child. He stands there for three days.
ANNIE: Three days.
NICK SMITH: Fasting and ...
NICK SMITH: ... it is said that he's—there's many paintings of this, and he's—he's said to have taken a penitent posture. Sort of, you know, the bowing position, you know, sometimes kneeling. He's wearing a, you know, what's called a hair shirt, which is traditionally associated with repentance and is supposed to be painful.
ANNIE: Like a horsehair shirt?
NICK SMITH: Yeah, right. And it's said that all his family take off their shoes in the snow.
NICK SMITH: So the pope is watching this from the castle, from this nice toasty castle. And of course we have to keep in mind, right, that there are long traditions within Christianity that we must forgive. So after three days of watching this, the pope lets the emperor and his entourage in, they reconcile. Henry's back in, or he's back in the church. Apology accepted.
ANNIE: Wow, okay.
NICK SMITH: Okay, so then ...
ANNIE: That's a very good apology. I gotta say.
NICK SMITH: Well, and I'll ...
ANNIE: It'd be very hard to refuse that.
NICK SMITH: Well, the story's—the story's not over.
ANNIE: [laughs] But it is.
NICK SMITH: It's not over.
ANNIE: I mean, the hair shirt, the barefoot in the snow, the family. Also using his kid.
NICK SMITH: This is—I want to warn against the temptation to judge apologies in the moments they're given, because now what happens, okay, so the emperor races back home. Civil wars are breaking out. The emperor wins these civil wars.
ANNIE: Eventually invades Rome, and ...
NICK SMITH: He drives out this pope and replaces him with his own guy.
NICK SMITH: So, you know, what do we actually make of the emperor's apology? He did something very dramatic and spectacular to restore his power that he then used to destroy the person he was apologizing to.
ANNIE: Wonder what God thought of all this?
NICK SMITH: [laughs]
ANNIE: He's like, "Oh, brother."
NICK SMITH: Good question.
JAD: Man, I feel like I'm never gonna trust another apology again.
ANNIE: Yeah, I know. But so let's take a little break. We're gonna take a little break, and when we come back, I don't know. I guess I—I feel like I've got an apology that, despite sort of being at the very center of all this confusing stuff we've been talking about, modern, corporate, legal, secular stuff, I don't know. It does something that I really didn't expect.
JAD: Okay. We'll be right back.
JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab.
JAD: And we're still—we're still with Annie McEwen, talking about sorrys.
JAD: Hopefully rescuing from the quagmire in which you left us, with that pope thing.
ANNIE: Yes. Yes, right? I mean, I kind of left us in a dark space, and that's how I was. I was in this, like, muddy state of apologies. Like, "What are we doing with this word?" But then I stumbled across this one story, and things just started to shift.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Hey Annie! I've got a microphone in front of my face.
ANNIE: Oh, so fun. So lucky.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: [laughs]
ANNIE: Much better than, like, an ice cream cone or something obnoxious like that.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah, yeah.
ANNIE: This is Leilani Schweitzer.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Right. Or a shot of tequila, right?
ANNIE: Yeah, I mean ...
ANNIE: So in 2003, Leilani was living in Reno, Nevada, and she had a son named Gabriel.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: He was born on December 21. I remember it snowing and, like, looking out the window of the nursery, and ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, "White Christmas": I'm dreaming of a white Christmas.]
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: "White Christmas" was playing on the radio in there.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, "White Christmas": Just like the ones I used to know.]
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: There was all this Christmas stuff. And just thinking, like, what has happened here?
ANNIE: When Gabriel was born, the doctors had learned that there was something wrong with his brain, but they didn't know what yet.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I remember I got to go home pretty quickly. I don't think I stayed there even a day, and then I would go back and see him.
ANNIE: Oh, so he had to stay there.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah. They knew he had a brain bleed, and so they've got to look at those kids.
ANNIE: What did you do for Christmas? Do you celebrate Christmas?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I did celebrate Christmas. You know what? I hardly remember it at all.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, "White Christmas": ... merry and bright.]
ANNIE: After a couple weeks, Leilani was allowed to take him home. And for the first little while, everything was pretty normal: diapers, long nights.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah, pretty normal baby days. And then he ended up where he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus when he was four months old.
ANNIE: So—so hydrocephalus, what it is is basically it's fluid around the brain. Sometimes it's even called water on the brain.
ANNIE: When you hear your kid has hydrocephalus, what is the—how do you envision their future?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Well, I remember the neurosurgeon saying, "He's never gonna play football, and he's never gonna be drafted into the army." Which ...
ANNIE: Sounds great.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah. [laughs] Winning, right?
JAD: So it's not that serious?
ANNIE: Well I mean, not necessarily. But kids with hydrocephalus, like, you know, they have problems with vision, problems with balance. And they have to get this thing called a shunt, which is like, sort of a tube that acts like a siphon.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: So it would drain off the excess fluid in his brain and drain it down into his belly.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: And I could feel it, like, on the side of his neck. And he had a little tiny incision on his tummy where they pulled it down.
ANNIE: So the shunt, it seemed to do the trick. Gabriel's doctors were so pleased with his progress that ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV commercial: We went to have an ultrasound done, and the doctor told us that our baby had a serious problem with his brain.]
ANNIE: ... they actually starred in a commercial with the local hospital.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: And it was a very sweet, sweet commercial.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV commercial: We can help babies before they're born.]
ANNIE: You see this tiny little baby with a scrap of blonde hair being held by a laughing doctor.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV commercial: They made us feel like ...]
ANNIE: You see Leilani talking about her experience.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV commercial: ... whatever was gonna happen, that we would be able to handle it.]
ANNIE: And the commercial actually ends with Gabriel, a huge smile on his face, kind of kicking up his legs, and scooting across the hospital logo.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV commercial: He's our miracle baby.]
ANNIE: And he's just undeniably a very cute kid.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: He would let anyone hold him. His arms were always reaching out to people.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: And so it wasn't unusual for him to get passed around, like, in the line at the grocery store.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Or ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Oh, yeah.
ANNIE: And because he did actually have problems with vision ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: He would always put his hand on your face and kind of like turn your face.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: And I don't know if he was doing that so if he could see you better, or if he just kind of wanted—that was just a little, like, "I'll touch you on your cheek," and that's ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: ... like, my little sweet blessing. I don't know. But he would—he would do that. And—and people would recognize him. And people would say, "Oh, he's the miracle baby." And I'm like, "Yeah, he is."
ANNIE: When did you first notice that there was a problem?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: So it was Thursday. I remember it was a Thursday.
ANNIE: Gabriel was 20 months old.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: And I had been told that if he started throwing up to take him to the emergency department. And he was throwing up a lot. A lot. He had no fever, he didn't have diarrhea, but he was throwing up a lot.
ANNIE: She took him to a nearby hospital. It was actually the first of two hospitals that will play a role in this story. But anyway, when she got him there, they wrapped him up really tightly, took an x-ray, and everything looked fine.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: So he ends up being hospitalized, treated for stomach flu, given anti-nausea medication.
ANNIE: And eventually, they're sent home.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: He was still really sleepy, and I had a previously scheduled appointment with the neurosurgeon on Monday afternoon.
ANNIE: This was four days later.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I walked in, and my mom was holding Gabriel. And Dr. Edwards takes one look at him and he said, "Why did no one call me?"
ANNIE: What was he seeing?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: He just saw a really sleepy, beautiful little sick baby.
ANNIE: He immediately knew that something had gone wrong with the shunt. The fluid was building up in Gabriel's brain.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: And then it was bad.
ANNIE: Leilani needed to get him to a specialist fast. So she—she put him in the car seat in the back of her car, and drove all the way to Stanford, which is about five hours away.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah, and he sounded like a little kitten. Kind of like a mewing. Like, not really crying, but just—and I remember getting stuck on the Bay Bridge and just wondering, "Can the Navy Seals come rescue me?"
ANNIE: This is a traffic jam you were stuck in?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah.
ANNIE: Oh God!
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah.
ANNIE: But they do make it to the hospital. They check in, get a room, and finally Leilani just allows herself to take a breath.
ANNIE: So you were sitting in a chair that was, like, right next to his bed, or were you given an ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Mm-hmm.
ANNIE: You were. Okay.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Just like a ...
ANNIE: An upright chair, or one that would ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Like, one of those turquoise blue, naugahyde recliners. You know, like you're sitting straight or you're laying down.
ANNIE: Yeah, okay. [laughs]
ANNIE: Gabriel is lying in bed.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: We were on the telemetry unit, so that means they're monitoring his heartbeat and his breathing really closely. So he had the little monitors on him.
ANNIE: He falls asleep, and so does she. But ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Any time there would be any change in his breathing or his heart rate, or any even little kind of twitch ...
ANNIE: These alarms on the monitors would just go off.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Like a, "Womp. Womp. Womp." It would wake him up, and it would wake me up.
ANNIE: The nurse would come in, check him, make sure everything's okay, leave the room. And just as they were settling back into sleep ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: "Womp. Womp. Womp."
ANNIE: And this? This kept happening over and over and over again.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: And so the nurse, when I think about her now, I think of like a bird. Like a—like a swallow. One of those really, like, fast-moving birds that's really nimble and—and quick, and can switch directions really fast. Because she was in and out, in and out, in and out so much. And now I know that she was taking care of another really, really sick little girl, and taking care of Gabriel and I at the same time. So she—she said, "I'm gonna turn off the sound on the alarms. I'm just gonna turn the sound off in here." Which I really appreciated, and I thanked her for that, because I really wanted to go to sleep.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: So I fall asleep, and—and then the next thing I remember is she walks in and she grabs the foot of the recliner with her left hand as she's walking past me and she swings it around. And she says, "Leilani, you have to get up."
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: She could see the flat lines on the monitor because his heart had stopped beating. Then code blue is on the intercom, and he's hooked to machines, and he's not squeezing my hand, and he doesn't feel warm. And—and someone takes me out, and I'm in the hallway. And, you know, I don't know—I don't know if I thought about this later, or if I thought about it in the time. You know how you go back and you—you're sure you remember something in the moment, but I don't know that I remember this in the moment. But I remember just kind of this, like, him saying goodbye to me at that time.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah.
ANNIE: What did—what do you mean?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Well, kind of like—like this gentle sort of, like, "This is up to you now, Mom." You know?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I mean, you're connected, right? You're really connected. And when part of that connection is gone, you feel that.
ANNIE: Leilani says in the wake of Gabriel's death, she did all the regular things you do when someone dies. Like therapy. And in her case ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: A lot of snowboarding.
ANNIE: Snowboarding? [laughs]
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah. Yeah. White snow and blue sky was all that really could compute.
ANNIE: But she said in those first few days and weeks just following Gabriel's death, she just kept replaying over and over in her mind what went wrong, what happened at those two hospitals.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Yeah.
ANNIE: So the first hospital, where Gabriel's shunt failure was misdiagnosed as a stomach flu ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: You know, this is the hospital where ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV commercial: The doctors, the nurses, the parents ...]
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: ... the commercial was for this hospital.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV commercial: He's our miracle baby.]
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Those commercials just stopped.
ANNIE: Wow. So then yeah, what happened next?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Nothing happened.
ANNIE: She just basically heard nothing from them.
ANNIE: How did it feel when you were shut out like that?
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: Well, it made me really angry. It made me feel like they were denying that Gabriel even existed, or that his life had any importance at all. The fact that he died, that wasn't enough reason for them to talk to me? I just—it still makes me angry, you know? I wouldn't—I would purposefully drive around the hospital. I would not drive past it.
ANNIE: So I reached out to this hospital for comment, and they actually sort of declined to give one. So I can't be sure, but part of the reason they may not have reached out to Leilani is because this hospital is located in Nevada. And Nevada is one of those states that does not have apology legislation, so you're not protected if you apologize. But California does have a law. So under the California law, you can say things like, "I'm sorry. I feel bad." But you cannot say, "I'm sorry. It was our fault. We made a mistake." That part can still be used against you in court. And this brings us to the second hospital.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: So Stanford reached out to me right away.
ANNIE: They invited her back to the hospital.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I had a lot of questions. And I brought all of them. I, like, printed them all out. I had photos of Gabriel.
ANNIE: And so two months after Gabriel died, Leilani, carrying these photos, walked into a Stanford conference room.
ANNIE: Do you remember what the expression on her face was?
PAM WELLS: Just grief-stricken.
ANNIE: This is Pam Wells.
PAM WELLS: You know, you just—there's a look about people who are grief-stricken.
ANNIE: At the time, Pam was head of nursing at Stanford. And that day, she, two doctors and a hospital administrator sat down around a table with Leilani.
PAM WELLS: It was a small table that could have sat maybe eight people.
ANNIE: Had you ever met her before?
PAM WELLS: I had never met her before.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I didn't really know what my intention was, but I do remember I said, "After you tell me everything you need to say to me, I want to say some things to you." And they said, "Why don't you say what you have to say first." I said I felt like I hadn't been prepared to take care of a kid who had hydrocephalus.
ANNIE: She said, "When Gabriel and I arrived at Stanford ..."
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: There was no one waiting for us there.
ANNIE: "There would have been someone waiting for us."
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: You had to get checked in.
ANNIE: And the neurosurgeon who was on call ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: He should have seen Gabriel that night.
ANNIE: "Why did he not come by?" And just more generally, "I trusted you guys."
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I just needed to get him here, right? Like, I got him here, now somebody else is gonna make sure everything's okay. And that's not what happened.
ANNIE: This was a critical moment for Stanford.
PAM WELLS: It was unusual at that time to meet with families after something had happened.
ANNIE: For obvious reasons. I mean, if a doctor or a nurse said anything in that meeting that even remotely resembled admitting that they screwed up, that could be used against them in court. And so mostly hospitals just avoided these meetings altogether. But right around the time that Gabriel died ...
PAM WELLS: Our quality and risk department had been talking to us about taking a different approach.
ANNIE: An approach that was actually led by Lee Taft. And the thinking was, "Let's be open. Let's be transparent. Just forget the law." And so after this—this, like, moment, after Leilani sort of reeled off all of her grievances, Pam looks her in the eye and says ...
PAM WELLS: "We are very—we are ..." Let me rephrase that. "We are so sorry this happened, and this terrible thing happened. No family should ever go through this kind of loss, and particularly not under these circumstances. And we—we really want to be able to help you and understand what you need from us in order to help you navigate this devastating event. We're committed to not only answering your questions, but we are fully investigating what happened and want to make sure that we can put some things in place so that this never happens to another child or family."
ANNIE: Then they went one step further.
PAM WELLS: The situation that led to Gabriel's death was the—the—Gabriel was on a monitor. The alarms kept going off. The nurse in the room turned the alarm off, not knowing that it turned off all the alarms.
ANNIE: The nurse in the room that night, when she went to turn off the alarm next to Gabriel's bed to allow Leilani and Gabriel to sleep, she also accidentally turned off the alarm on her pager and at the nurses' station.
PAM WELLS: And so he wasn't being monitored, and he really needed to be monitored. And subsequently had an event. Something in our system contributed to this little boy's death.
ANNIE: In other words, "We made a mistake." Stanford had just admitted that plainly without dancing around the issue at all. And so what they had just done is give Leilani evidence, evidence that she could take to court and use against them if she wanted to.
PAM WELLS: I know she was checking me out. I know she was trying to understand whether she could trust me. I—there was no question in my mind, that that was going through her head. And I was doing whatever I could to communicate that yes, you can. I'm going to help you. I want to help you.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: [sighs] You know, I don't remember a lot of the words, but I remember how I felt.
NICK SMITH: Imagine, like, you—like, you lost a child. And the wrong-doer apologizes to you, right? That can be almost like a religious moment. Like, something really bad has happened to you, and the offender is now in a way, like, humbly and vulnerably kneeling before you.
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I felt that they listened to me, and I felt that they genuinely cared about me and my family and about Gabriel. And I still feel that.
ANNIE: Leilani accepted their apology and she never filed a suit. But I should say that Stanford did a lot more than just apologize, they reached out to other hospitals who had this monitor and alerted them of the problem, so it would never happen again to another kid. And also, the relationship between Pam and Leilani, like, remained very strong. They still are in touch to this day. And all of these are important, but the thing is, since Leilani has had this experience, Stanford and a few other hospitals who do this full disclosure thing, what they've found time and time again is that people who get an explanation and an apology, they are far, far less likely to sue. And therefore, those hospitals save money. A lot of money.
ANNIE: And I guess, you know, you could think about it in sort of a self-serving way. Like, if it saves money to apologize, you know, what is the motivation behind these apologies? And you imagine the sort of boardroom at Stanford somewhere, with these people in suits making decisions about whether or not they want their doctors and nurses to apologize. And—and the motivation behind that, I guess makes you feel a little weird. But when I asked Leilani about this, she just said, like, if money is the driving force ...
LEILANI SCHWEITZER: I don't care about it at all. I don't care. I don't care about the motivation. I would love it—I would love it if human connection was the motivation, but I know that it's not. And the fact that this is—makes good business sense, if that's what drives people I will get on board.
ANNIE: For me, I guess what happened between Leilani and the doctors and the nurses at Stanford hospital, I don't know. I guess as I was working on this apology piece, I kept feeling like I had to choose between these, like, bad apologies I was seeing or no apology. Neither of those are good. Or just trying to compare these, like, super corporate apologies to some sort of moment that had deep meaning for the two people involved, these human spaces. And—and I don't know. I guess—I guess with this Pam and Leilani apology, it just felt to me like somehow this new thing, this new way forward.
ANNIE: It certainly felt that way to Leilani. And in fact, several years after that meeting, she actually became a patient liaison for Stanford. Her job is now to sit in that conference room and do for others what Pam did for her.
NICK SMITH: You know, in the 20th and 21st century, you've got, you know, humanity sort of staring into the abyss of, you know, maybe there is no God, and maybe this is all meaningless. You know, there is a kind of searching for what are our values? Do we have shared values? Are there values other than the competition for money and resources? What—what do we stand for? When it comes time to die, like, what—what did my life mean? Like, what values does it have?
NICK SMITH: I mean, this is an important collective process that, like, humanity is going through. And it's like we're reaching back to these traditions of repentance to try to find some shared ground, like, some shared, even secular ground. And the call to apologize is like, no, we have to share these values. These are the things that's gonna hold us together.
JAD: Nice work, Annie McEwen.
ANNIE: Oh, thanks.
JAD: Do you feel more American now?
ANNIE: I don't—I don't know. I don't know. That's a great question, but actually, I think I feel like I'm beginning to peel back the layers of this incredibly complicated country. And actually speaking of which, during my reporting, I actually stumbled upon this, like, very, very American little moment in history. So apparently, during Michael Dukakis's run for president, there was this, like, very, very negative ad campaign. It's like this guy who got out of prison, and then ...
JAD: Oh! No, this is one of the worst negative ads of all time. Actually, it's one of the first, I think. And it—I think it ended his campaign, effectively.
ROBERT: There was a man running for president named George Bush.
ROBERT: Lee Atwater was his campaign manager.
ANNIE: Right. Exactly.
ROBERT: They put an ad on television. The television ad said, "Look what's happening in America. People who are criminals are being released on furlough and then they're doing terrible things." In this case ...
ANNIE: Willie Horton, yeah. He was released, and then he actually raped someone after he was released.
ROBERT: And this was laid onto the Democratic—Democrats.
ANNIE: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
JAD: And it was so, like—sorry. It was so unfair. Like, they blamed Governor Dukakis for essentially, like, causing the rape of this woman, when he didn't even create the program that allowed the guy to get out of prison. Like, that was created before him.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: And it was also obviously racist. I mean, you know, a Black guy attacking a white woman and so on and so forth. I mean, it speaks for itself, so ...
ANNIE: And so when I was talking to Governor Dukakis, this actually came up.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Atwater was a tough guy, and he was an attacker. And he ...
ANNIE: And he told me that Lee Atwater, years later on his deathbed, he decided he wanted to repent for these sins that he felt he had done in his life. And one of those was making this Willie Horton ad.
ANNIE: So he actually apologized.
JAD: What did he say?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: He said publicly and to my campaign manager that he—he regretted it.
ANNIE: And what did that mean to you?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I can't tell you that it made me feel great, because, you know, I lost that race, and—and a lot of it had to do with that attack campaign. So I never—I mean, I didn't feel any better. But look, at least he was willing to do that. But ...
ANNIE: What does that mean when you say, "At least he was willing to do that?" It's just sort of like ...
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I think at least he was willing to acknowledge that—that it was racist. And he said so and apologized for it. And that at least deserves some—some praise.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: But it came a little late. [laughs]
ROBERT: Well, Annie, first of all, we should ...
JAD: I want to apologize to you, Annie.
JAD: I don't know what I've done, but I've probably done something.
ANNIE: Well, I accept.
JAD: Many things. And okay.
ROBERT: There you go.
ANNIE: Thank you.
ROBERT: So we'd like to thank Annie McEwen for both reporting and producing this story with Simon Adler.
JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JAD: Thanks for listening.
[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Ekedi Fausther-Keeys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neeson, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Kreiger and Natalie Middleton.]
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