Sean Spicer, Oscar Munoz and How to Bungle a Public Apology

5 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger is an editor at large at TIME. He covers space, climate, and science. He is the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, which served as the basis for the 1995 film, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for TIME's series A Year in Space.

You know those records that are never going to be broken? The 511 games Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young won in his career, say? That one’s not going anywhere. The four consecutive presidential elections FDR won from 1932 to 1944? Keep the trophy, Mr. President.

Now, in a twofer not seen since, well, ever, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz have secured a shared spot on the medal stand for Most Head-Slappingly Terrible Apologies Ever Made. It’s a prize not easily won.

Terrible apologies come in a lot of forms. There’s the straight-up conditional apology, as when Cleveland Browns linebacker Tank Carder called a fan a “faggot” in a Twitter exchange and then, after the predictable blowback, apology-tweeted, “If I offended anyone in anyway, I do apologize.” It’s the kind of apology that presumably comes with an expiration date. Did I offend anyone? Show of hands? No? OK, Apology withdrawn.

There’s also the more daring version of the conditional apology: the it’s-on-you apology — as in, “I apologize if anyone chose to take offense,” a staple of celebrities who say something awful and then lay the blame on the snowflake sensibilities of the listener. And then, of course, there’s the passive-tense apology, best captured in the deathless, “mistakes were made.” It is Richard Nixon who is most often credited with this ingeniously Teflon construction, but history suggests he might have pinched it from Ulysses S. Grant, who, in an ostensibly contrite message to Congress in 1876, conceded that “mistakes have been made, as all can see and admit it.”

Today, however, giants stride amongst us, in the form of Munoz and Spicer. Munoz had his shot first, on April 10, after four passengers were ejected from an overbooked United flight and a video of one of them being dragged down the plane aisle went viral. Famously — at this point immortally — Munoz apologized for “having to re-accommodate these passengers.”

Astonishingly, Munoz’s second attempt to sort things out was even worse. That time, it came in an internal memo to United Airlines employees in which he described the victim of the dragging incident as “disruptive and belligerent,” after having been “politely asked” to leave the flight. A note on optics that Munoz might find helpful: It is a presumption—albeit a rebuttable one—that in any video, the bleeding person being set upon by three larger, non-bleeding people is not typically the one described as “belligerent.” You’re welcome, sir.

Then, at last, as the airline’s stock dove like a plane in wind shear and United credit cards were cut up en masse, came the final attempt at an I’m-sorry that would stick. It started badly, with a soupçon of “mistakes were made,” when Munoz referred to “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight” (passive-tense emphasis added). Then it gained a little bit of purchase with the go-to incantations “I deeply apologize,” “we take full responsibility” and “I promise you we will do better.”

This last, canned, but at least not awful effort may have done precisely nothing to make anyone on the planet ever want to book a United flight again, but it at least got Munoz offstage and allowed the airline’s image-makers to try to clean up the public-relations Chernobyl he left behind. That job was made a tiny bit easier when Spicer stepped to the lectern for the ongoing performance art that is the White House Daily Briefing.

As anyone who has ever spoken in public ought to know by now, it’s perfectly OK to mention Hitler in only one case: when you’re talking about Hitler. Hitler as metaphor, Hitler as analogy, Hitler even as a crossword puzzle answer (“Six-letter name no one should ever compare anything to”) is out of bounds.

But not for Spicer. Speaking of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his most recent gassing of Syrian civilians, the Administration’s chief spokesman said: “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War Two, you know. You had a, someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to the, to using chemical weapons.”

The collective wide eyes and dropped jaws from the assembled press — given the fact gas was the defining instrument of killing for the Nazi regime — surely caught his attention, and when he was asked by a reporter to clarify his remark, he inexplicably chose to try to carve out an exception: “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing” — leaving open to question exactly whose people those German citizens killed by the German Chancellor were.

Then, Spicer sought to make it clear that he really does know his history, acknowledging that Hitler did not gas citizens in the streets the way Assad has, but instead “brought them into the Holocaust centers,” which presumably had volleyball courts in addition to gas chambers. Finally, later that day, Spicer offered a more formal, Munoz-like final apology, telling CNN, “I mistakenly used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust. I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.” He has continued on this trajectory of contrition ever since. Better late than never?

There may be no saving likes of Munoz and Spicer. For other people placed in a similar position, however, there are still lessons to learn. Mistakes were made — and these guys made them. Study the game tape, and whenever things get tough, do the exact opposite.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.