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Real conservatives can say they're sorry

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
September 20, 2012 -- Updated 1946 GMT (0346 HKT)
Nicolaus Mills says the title of Mitt Romney's book shows how much he hates apologies.
Nicolaus Mills says the title of Mitt Romney's book shows how much he hates apologies.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicolaus Mills: Romney's hatred of apologies shows in his book's title: "No Apology"
  • Mills: Romney slammed Obama "apology" that was never made; but he forgets history
  • Mills: Clinton apologized for Rwanda, Reagan apologized for WWII Japanese internments
  • Mills: Even George W. Bush said he was sorry for sniper using Quran for target practice

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney hates apologies. That's why he leaped to the conclusion that, in the wake of the killing of Libya Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other State Department employees, the Obama administration had issued an apology for America's actions.

"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney declared. "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."

What Romney called a disgraceful response by the Obama administration to the Libyan killings was in fact a statement issued before the killings by America's Cairo Embassy condemning an anti-Islam film that portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester.

The title of Romney's 2010 campaign autobiography, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," makes it clear that his hatred of apologies runs deep. Unfortunately, such hatred ignores history.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills
Romney defends hidden camera remarks

What Romney, who after disparaging 47% of Americans for being dependents has insisted there was nothing wrong in what he said, fails to understand is that presidential apologies are nothing new. What's more is that they apologize without drawing critical backlash from their fellow conservatives.

Bill Clinton's 1998 apology for the failure of America and the international community to respond quickly to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda may be the most memorable public apology by any contemporary president. But two of the most conservative Republicans in recent history, it is worth pointing out, have issued telling public apologies of their own.

The most moving of these conservative apologies was the one that Ronald Reagan made in 1988 on signing the legislation that provided $1.25 billion in reparations, along with a formal apology from the government, for the forcible relocation of 120,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In signing the bill, Reagan, who as an actor was living in California at the time of the relocation, made clear that the money offered to the victimized families was less important than the public apology. "No payment can make up for those lost years," Reagan said. "So what is important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor, for here, we admit a wrong."

Today those words have taken on enduring form. In Washington they are engraved on the National Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, which is within blocks of the Capitol. In addition to Reagan's words, the memorial features a towering sculpture of two bronze cranes, each with one wing pointing to the sky and the other pinned down by barbed wire.

Two decades later, George W. Bush, the Republican closest in ideology to Ronald Reagan, made a similar statement of regret. In a 2008 video conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, Bush apologized for the actions of an American sniper in Iraq who used a Quran for target practice. "He apologized for that in the sense that he said that we take it very seriously," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters after the video conference. "We wanted them to know that the president knew that this was wrong."

The impacts that Reagan, Clinton and Bush hoped their individual apologies would have turned out to be as different as their politics. That is to be expected. For their apologies were never just based on calculation. At their core was the shared belief that a presidential apology is not a sign of weakness so much as a chance for a new beginning, a way to shed the indefensible and start fresh.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

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