"I have all kinds of warts. I wear cheap suits sometimes, I say things that I probably ought not to say, but I lead with my heart, and that's what I was doing right there, leading with my heart," stanched presidential aspirant Howard Dean, in a game bid to undo the injuries his furious Iowa yodel had inflicted on his campaign.
As Dean offered these confessions to tender inquisitor Diane Sawyer, he was wearing a cheap sweater, not a cheap suit. In addition, his face and hands were arguably wart-free. It was a good try, but even with such blatant incongruencies, his attempt at an excuse was ultimately too reasonable, too riddled with culpability, to do much good. His campaign was finished. His time on the national stage was up. In 2004, if you had no talent for preposterous excuse-making, you weren't quite ready for primetime.
Less than two weeks after Dean's lackluster performance on ABC, a nascent political star showed that he was made of savvier stuff. I speak, of course, of Justin Timberlake, who, after preemptively striking Janet Jackson's leather bustier in a most deliberate manner and thereby exposing her surprisingly sophisticated secret weapons program, claimed it was all an accident. "I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and is regrettable," he intoned, showing a knack for catchy euphemism and stiff, rear-view probity that will no doubt catapult him all the way to the White House someday.
How many Pentagon bigwigs howled in anguish when they realized that a guy whose military experience was limited to dancing with the generalissimo of Neverland had beaten them to the phrase "wardrobe malfunction"? Surely such jargon would have come in handy while explaining the photographs of medieval torture hoods and naked-prisoner scrap-heaps that CBS started airing in late April. But while the Abu Ghraib scandal seemed to catch the Army's top blame-throwers off-guard, a ragtag militia of volunteers quickly rallied to their defense. "I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of a need to blow some steam off?" opined world-class steam-blower Rush Limbaugh. Boyish fuddy-duddy Rich Lowry took a slightly less obsequious position, not excusing the rogue soldiers entirely, but ultimately unable to condemn them as anything more than mere accomplices. The real culprit? "The poison of America's civilian culture…"
Of course, one woman's poison is another woman's pleasure, especially if that woman happens to be the daughter of a homicide detective. Even more than the ubiquitous Lyndie England, it was creepy hottie Sandra Harman who, with her girlishly radiant grin, brought a touch of wholesome sadism to the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Harman's tendency to twinkle like a Las Vegas Christmas tree while posing with corpses disturbed some, but as her mom Robin explained to the Washington Post, it wasn't so chillingly evil in light of the fact that Dad was a cop who often brought his work home with him. "[Sandra] has been looking at autopsies and crime-scene pictures since she was a kid," said Mrs. Harman, and all over the country, misunderstood necrophiliacs nodded in perfect understanding.
For most journalists, one scoop of Abu Ghraib proportions would have been enough for the year. But when Dan Rather saw a chance to explicitly prove the widely held suspicions that President George W. Bush had received preferential treatment and disobeyed orders during his stint as a valiant Vietnam-era magazine reader, he bit hard. Unfortunately, the memos Rather produced to authenticate these accusations were the typographical equivalents of Donald Trump's hair: from across a crowded room, if you didn't have your glasses on, they looked, well, a little fake, actually.
Swarms of freelance fact-checkers ripped into Rather's story with the sort of bloodthirsty diligence CBS's own in-house ass-coverers had failed to muster, and for the next few days, a gory feeding frenzy ensued. At first, the septugenarian news anchor defended his story, but like a blind walrus in a ping-pong tournament, the odds were against him, and eventually he shifted into excuse-mode. "I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically," he vouched, euphemistically. "I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers." Turning an admission of ineptitude into an investigative report ("I find we have been misled.") was a neat trick, but still not quite outlandish enough to quiet Rather's critics. In November, the king of network news announced that he was giving up his throne for a life of lower-profile exile at 60 Minutes.
More attuned to the tenor of the times was temporary pop tattoo Ashley Simpson. During an embarrassing Saturday Night Live performance, in which her voice started filling the theater before she'd even lifted her microphone to her lips, Simpson showed no instinct for stubborn, Ratheresque face-saving. Instead, she broke out into a cartoony, puppet-on-a-string dance for a few seconds, then skulked off the stage like an Abu Ghraib inmate trying to elude Sandra Harman. At the end of the show, however, Simpson did return to blame her bandmates, accusing them of playing the wrong song. On the one hand, this excuse was suitably transparent, as it failed to address how her vocals had started without her. On the other hand, it was a little too close to the truth; subsequent reports explained that while her drummer had meant to push a button for the song "Autobiography", he accidentally pushed the button for "Pieces of Me" (which Simpson had already "sung" earlier in the show).
To craft a more pleasing excuse, Simpson turned to her trusted advisor, dad Joe, who put the blame on Ashlee's leaky throat sphincter. Thanks to acid reflux disease, he explained, Ashlee can't always duplicate the tuneless croak of her studio performances in a live setting, so sometimes she relies on backing tracks, "just like any artist in America." Any artist in America, that is, except Howard Dean, who, upon hearing Joe Simpson's explanation, one imagines, calmly smashed his old campaign headquarters into finely ground dust. If only he'd attributed his Iowa outburst to acid reflux disease! Or used a backing track instead of performing live! Things could have been so much different…
Alas, history favors those who take their fates into their own hands—or at least the hands of their personal trainers. In early December, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that accidental perfomance enhancer Barry Bonds had told a federal grand jury he had used two mysterious substances that sounded a lot like "the cream" and "the clear," two undetectable steroids that New York Yankee Jason Giambi had taken as well. But while Giambi had confessed that he knew he was taking steroids, Bonds was apparently blessed with a burly sense of plausible deniability, never even asking his trainer Greg Anderson what the mystery substances were. "When he said it was flaxseed oil, I just said, 'Whatever,'" the slugger explained.
Which means, of course, that there will always be a cubicle in the CBS news department with Barry Bonds' name on it, should he ever decide to take up journalism. But what about the bigger meanings here? What does it say when the best America has to offer—its hottest teen idols, its loudest talking heads, its prettiest torturers—all engage in absurd, unabashed excuse-making? Is it mere coincidence? Or is it the result of some greater cultural force? Is it possible, for example, that some high power, prone to rabid excuse-making, is legitimizing the practice amongst all Americans?
In the late '90s, such theories were much in vogue. When President Clinton rationalized that his Oval Office trysts with Monica Lewinsky didn't even count as "oral sex" for him, much less "sexual relations," because she did all the work, the shockwaves rippled from coast to coast. Young and impressionable middle-aged tycoons screwed their shareholders with conscience-free abandon. Eighth-grade prudes who'd once shunned oral sex threw wanton mouth-humping parties. And Bill Clinton was to blame for it all.
But while it may be tempting to apply a similar theory to the current administration, it just doesn't work. For example, when addressing the fact that Iraq wasn't actually seeking nuclear materials from Niger, as President Bush had charged in his 2003 State of the Union address, the Bush Administration accepted complete responsibility (on behalf of the CIA). When explaining why the post-war transformation of Iraq hasn't gone as smoothly as promised, the Bush Administration accepted complete responsibility (on behalf of Ahmed Chalabi). When addressing the recession, the Bush Administration accepted complete responsibility (on behalf of Bill Clinton). So if you want to assign blame for the epidemic of excuse-making that afflicted 2004, you have to look elsewhere for a villain. Frankly, the whole thing has me as baffled as Barry Bonds at a steroid buffet, but I'm sure some sharper-eyed observer of the national scene will identify an appropriate fall guy soon enough.