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Apologies and Atonement

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Almost daily, public figures, politicians, actors, and even celebrity chefs parade before us asking forgiveness for misdeeds and ill-chosen words. The ritual is an exercise in public shaming; the goal is to attain public rehabilitation.

How the intended audience understands and judges these apologies results from an interplay between two factors. One is the popular image of the apologizer, or what the audience sees when they look at the speaker. The other is the relationship of the sin to the popular image. If the offense seems to bear little relationship to the public persona, then people find it easier to accept the apology and permit the apologizer to resume his or her former life. Mark Sanford's reelection to Congress is a recent example. Martha Stewart's rehabilitation is a masterful model of careful public relations. Eliot Spitzer may accomplish another. Anthony Weiner, a two-time apologizer, probably will not.

The case of Paula Deen shows how perilous a balance this is. If the offense confirms something that the public has long suspected or that meshes with that person's public image, then the apology risks sounding inauthentic. Deen's use of the n-word confirmed the Southern white stereotype she used to market her cuisine. Because her transgression reinforced her public persona and because her explanation for it incredibly denied the two were related, she lost her platform.

The public apology may seem to be a peculiarly modern phenomenon, intensified by the capacity of Internet-based media to cast a magnifying glass on everything, but it goes further back in history. One hundred and fifty years ago, on July 30, 1863, Henry Ford was born on a farm in suburban Detroit. The automobile manufacturing corporation that bears his name is marking the anniversary with a year-long celebration that includes many special events this summer. Yet neither these sesquicentennial events nor the monument to history that is the Henry Ford Museum allude to the singular public apology Ford made in 1927.

In that statement, Ford apologized to Jews "everywhere" for articles defaming them that appeared in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. He declared that he was unaware of what his employees were publishing in his name and that he never intended anyone to believe that Jews were behind an international conspiracy to destabilize world governments and financial institutions. The statement marked the first time anyone apologized for antisemitism in writing. That it came from Ford, who for years had told the press exactly what his intentions were in demonizing the "International Jew," was all the more extraordinary. That it was ghostwritten was kept carefully concealed.

The contemporary response was divided, but not that deeply. Fellow anti-Semites remained convinced that Ford had not recanted. Others chose to believe Ford because the statement's profession of "friendship and goodwill" matched Ford's public image as an imaginative tinkerer, a marketing genius, and a loveable grandfather. Ford shut down the Independent as he promised and settled with two Jews who had sued him for libel. These acts assured people of his sincerity. More lastingly, they confirmed the widespread perception of Ford as kind, gentle, and generous, enabling him to disown his publication without taking responsibility for it.

How well known Ford's anti-Semitism is to the American public that still buys his cars is difficult to determine. Ford accepted a medal from the German government in 1938, and there is evidence that the Ford plant in Berlin collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Still, he remains a celebrated and beloved figure. He made Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century. The Ford Motor Company, at one time inseparable from its founder's vision and outsized personality, remains a vital cornerstone of the American automobile industry. This July, Pope Francis chose a Ford Focus as his official car. (The Pope's choice likely reflects the degree to which the world has forgotten about Ford's antisemitism -- a sin for which the Church has its own penance to serve.) Ford cars are not unique in raising this issue. We buy Volkswagens and Mercedes without thinking about their roles in the German war machine.

If people do not hold Ford's antisemitism against him, does the Ford Motor Company bear any obligation to atone for his misdeeds? Are corporations responsible for the immoral or unethical acts of their human representatives? This is an enormously significant question in American business and law, as we continue to debate whether corporations are people too. A threshold standard might be whether a corporation uses the image of the official to make money.

In 2003, when the Ford Motor Company celebrated its centennial, images of Henry Ford pervaded the company's television ads and website. This year, the company is keeping the birthday separate from the business. By refraining from capitalizing on its founder's image -- and the myth that still suffuses the man -- the Ford Motor Company may have finally succeeded in disconnecting itself from the shameful aspects of his legacy.