November 15, 2018 10:56:24 AM
It was not long after I had made the 2,500-mile move from Biloxi to Santa Rosa, California, that two important working relationships were put to the test.
I was sports editor at The Press Democrat newspaper at the time and only a few weeks into the job when the photo editor and design editor approached me and asked to speak with me in my office. I could tell they were upset.
They sat across from me, tense and unsmiling, and made their case. It seemed as if they had carefully rehearsed their accusations and had anticipated any argument I might offer and were ready to cut off all avenues of escape.
I cannot remember exactly what the issue was, but I can remember what happened next.
After listening to them for about 10 minutes, I paused, took a deep breath, leaned toward them and spoke:
"You're right," I said. "I'm sorry."
It was clear that was the one response they had not prepared for. Their demeanor changed immediately and in an instant, our relationship went from combative to collegial. Those two words -- I'm sorry -- changed everything.
For the past week, Cindy Hyde-Smith has been embroiled in controversy for a comment she made on a campaign trip to Tupelo captured on video and released on social media. It spread like wildfire and remains national news.
Hyde-Smith, appointed to fill Thad Cochran's seat in the U.S. Senate in May, faces Democrat Mike Espy in the Nov. 27 general election run-off to fill out the remaining two years of Cochran's term.
Standing before a dozen or so supporters, Hyde-Smith was caught on video greeting a man she knew and telling those around her, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."
When that video was posted on social media, it attracted almost a million views and a firestorm of criticism soon followed and has persisted, thanks in no small part to Hyde-Smith's response to that criticism.
Immediately, people make the connection between the use of the "public hanging" and Mississippi's vile history of lynchings - 581 between 1882 and 1968, the most of any state. For Mississippians who are even casually aware of that history, there is virtually no distinction between public hangings and lynchings. That Hyde-Smith's opponent is black only sharpens the criticism.
At worst, it was a dog-whistle to unrepentant racists. At best, it was a regrettable choice of words.
By Monday, Hyde-Smith released a statement. It read:
"In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement. In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous."
Since then, Hyde-Smith has stubbornly refused to answer any further questions about the comment. In one appearance, she answered no fewer than 10 questions about her comments by saying, "We released a statement about that and that's all I'm going to say about it."
Fair-minded people might be inclined to accept that Hyde-Smith's comments were not malicious. They might accept that it was just an off-handed comment and simply a poor choice of words. They might be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Yet fair-minded people might also question why Hyde-Smith has been so defensive in the wake of the controversy. They might wonder why making the connection between a public hanging and a lynching is "ridiculous," especially given the state's history. Germans don't crack wise about gas chambers, after all. They might wonder why Hyde-Smith won't even consider the possibility that her words were genuinely hurtful. They might wonder how she can be so blind, so indifferent.
They might even wonder if a person who absolutely refuses to admit an error is really the kind of person Mississippi needs to send to the Senate.
All of us make mistakes, bad choices, poor judgments. Before our heads hit the pillow tonight, most of us will have erred in some way.
I can't get into Hyde-Smith's head to discover why she so obstinately refuses to admit to even a bad choice of words, if nothing more.
But I do know something about the power of saying, "I'm sorry."
When you genuinely care about someone, you apologize when you have done something to harm them.
It's not always easy to acknowledge an error, of course, but ultimately conscience compels you to set things right.
If you don't care, you don't feel any compulsion to apologize.
There are no two better healing words than "I'm sorry."
Hyde-Smith simply can't say them.
What does that say about her?
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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