William Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…” His words prompt us to ponder a life in the public eye.
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Despite legislative achievements in Albany, a jury convicted former Assembly Speaker Silver of seven corruption counts involving two separate enterprises. The lines between private gain and public interest were blurred.
With sentencing only weeks away, Silver issued a public apology, as reported in The New York Times: “What I have done…has hurt the Assembly, and New York and my constituents terribly, and I regret that more than I can possibly express.”
Justice seeks individual responsibility. Former New York Senate Pro Tempore Malcolm Smith claimed entrapment before his seven-year prison term, and his successor, Pedro Espada, accused the sentencing judge of misconduct before beginning his own five-year jail sentence.
Former President Pro Tempore Joseph Bruno professed his innocence for nine years. Found not guilty after a retrial, he jubilantly declared, “This system, it works; sometimes it’s slow, but it works…It is over.”
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Bruno relayed how he had felt,
“No one can imagine, unless you have experienced it, to have the government, the United States of America, trying to put you in prison, for the rest of your life probably in my case.”
At the time of Silver’s arrest, Bruno even spoke out on behalf of his old legislative adversary,
“They lead people like Shelly around in handcuffs – why? Is he violent? My experience with the feds is you are guilty until proven innocent as far as they’re concerns.”
As Silver’s apologetic words arrive, coming as a surprise and with talk of a 14-year prison term in the air, we may recall when journalist David Frost implored former President Richard Nixon, “I think unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted the rest of your life.”
“I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government, the dreams of all those young people who ought to get into government but will think it’s all to corrupt and the rest…Yup, I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”
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In his exhaustively researched book on the topic, former University of Massachusetts Medical School Dean Aaron Lazare weighs the worth of an effective apology. A psychiatrist by training, there he writes,
“Apology is more than an acknowledgement of an offense together with an expression of remorse. It is an ongoing commitment by the offending party to change his or her behavior.”
He identifies traits needed to offer and accept a successful apology, one which heals.
Apologizing doesn’t just mean change for Silver; it’s for all of those serving in government. Wrongdoing tears at government’s thickest inner fabric, as much as an institution may dig in its heels to save face, to handle it internally, to cover it all up for the greater good.
Wordsworth writes, “Little we see in Nature that is ours. We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
Shall we give our own hearts away or protect the high virtues enshrined therein?
Dr. Lazare found five qualities needed for effective apologies. They also guide us when weighing extant policy, advocating change and in our daily dealings. Never forget the key ingredients for leading and what each really means: “Honesty, generosity, humility, commitment and courage.”