Dear Prudence

How Not To Apologize

Rush Limbaugh’s statement on Sandra Fluke was a textbook example of what not to say.

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh apologized to Sandra Fluke via a statement on his website this weekend

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Emily Yoffe, Slate’s own “Dear Prudence,” advises readers on manners, morals, family issues and more. Today she offers some unsolicited advice to Rush Limbaugh in response to his apology to Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.

Rush Limbaugh issued an apology, of sorts,  on his website Saturday after spending three days insulting a female Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, who had testified about access to contraception. He  called her  a “slut” and a “prostitute,” said she wanted to be paid for having sex and so suggested she should post videos her herself online, and observed that she must be having so much sex he was “surprised she can even walk“.  In response, advertisers started pulling out of his show, so Limbaugh tried to stanch the wound. Presumably visions of radio host Don Imus, whose career was permanently damaged after he called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos,” helped convince Limbaugh to make a rare apology. 

But what Limbaugh said is a model of how not to apologize. Here’s an annotated version of his statement and a suggestion for how he could have better handled it:

“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. [Don’t lead with self-congratulation. If you’re aiming for self-pity, that’s also not the way to start an apology. After all, you’re not making the case that your remarks were the result of sleep deprivation or a medical crisis caused by overwork. Underlining that you get paid millions of dollars to sit in front of a microphone 15 hours a week does not create sympathy.]  In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. [This wasn’t an errant remark, but a three-day attack. You pretty much ran through a thesaurus’ worth of synonyms to characterize Ms. Fluke, and you make your living choosing words. An apology should not drip with insincerity.] I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. [This is false on its face, so not a good strategy.]

“I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. [As your hero, Ronald Reagan so memorably said, ”There you go again.” When you’re apologizing for a personal attack – see paragraph above – don’t a) bring in the desperate times we live in, and b) remind that you are obsessed with the personal sexual activities of the woman you’ve accused of being a prostitute.]  I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. [But you’re the one who suggested paying Ms. Fluke to watch her have sex. And as she notes, students pay for their private health insurance. She was in favor of the new provision in the law that would allow contraceptives to be provided directly to the insured regardless of the religious affilation of the school or employer. In an apology you don’t escalate your previous mischaracterization.] What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? [Indeed, this is why you’re now having to apologize. You need to actually take responsibility for your remarks and acknowledge you’ve crossed the line.] If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? [Again, don’t try to deflect from what you did with vague policy hand-wringing that only reminds that if your remarks become the norm, the gutter follows.] Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? [Maybe you should try the sleep deprivation excuse because your apology is becoming incoherent.] In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level. [Except that you spent three days wondering what went on in Ms. Fluke’s bedroom. It’s also best not to suggest that the person who really should be apologizing is someone else.]

“My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. [This sounds as if you wish you had searched for a better way to call someone a slut. Also, don’t refer to the fact that you’re now motivated by worry about your career.] I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices. [This is where you should have begun!]

Actually, to begin, Limbaugh needed to first call Sandra Fluke, and if she wouldn’t take his call, he should have had a letter of apology delivered to her. Then when he issued his public statement it should have been something like: “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke. My remarks about her were false, cruel, and repulsive. There’s no excuse and I offer none. I seriously crossed the line and I am sorry.”