Commentary: Donald Trump and a lost gentleman’s art

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Elton John said it best.

“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” he sang several decades ago, but it still seems true.

John Krull, publisher,

As the depressing saga of President Donald Trump’s pointless feud with the widow of a fallen solider and the congresswoman who is close to the soldier’s family has unfolded, I’ve been pondering the seemingly lost art of the apology.

I’m not a member of the president’s unquestioning fan club, but I initially was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think Trump intended to insult the memory or sacrifice of Sgt. La David Johnson or make his widow, Myeshia Johnson, feel bad when he picked up the phone to make a condolence call.

But that’s apparently what the president did.

Maybe he did so because he has an empathy deficit. Maybe he had a bad moment and just framed his sympathies in a clumsy fashion. Maybe the grieving widow was in a state of heightened sensitivity.

It doesn’t matter.

A kind, wise and worldly man – in old-fashioned terms, a gentleman – would have realized when this blew up that an apology would be the appropriate response.

“I’m sorry,” a gentleman would have said. “I meant no disrespect to your husband or to the sacrifice he and your family have made in defense of this country. The last thing I would want to do is add to your burdens during this time of sorrow. I, along with all other Americans, share your grief and honor your husband’s memory. Please accept my apologies for any offense I may have given you.”

End of story.

Yes, that’s how a gentleman would have handled it.

Trump went another way. He lashed out first at U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, and then suggested Wilson and Mrs. Johnson were lying.

At the very least, the president’s response shows how limited his political skills are. Regardless of how sensitive the situation or sophisticated the challenge, Trump tries to turn everything into a street fight because that’s the only environment in which he feels comfortable.

And he’s not savvy enough to realize that, in a battle for public sympathy between a billionaire real estate developer and a grieving war widow, the widow almost always wins.

But there’s something deeper going on here – a lack of basic moral awareness.

Donald Trump just does not seem to understand that, even if you feel you might have cause, kicking good people when they’re down and hurting just isn’t right.

He’s not alone in this, of course.

I’ve known only a few political leaders in my career who could acknowledge that they’d made a mistake or given offense when they shouldn’t – and been willing to say they were sorry.

Really sorry, that is.

My grandfather told me that any apology that includes the word “but” isn’t an apology. Instead, it’s an attempt to reposition for another line of attack in an ongoing dispute.

A real apology acknowledges the feelings of the person who has been hurt or offended and expresses genuine regret for the harm done.

Current Purdue University President and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels comes to someone who knows how to issue a real apology.

Near the end of his governorship, Daniels said some intemperate things about people who questioned his infrastructure funding plans.

He realized he’d gone too far.

And he apologized.

Mitch Daniels is not a man who enjoys making mistakes. He’s hard on himself when he does make one.

It doubtless was not effortless for him to apologize, to acknowledge publicly he’d misspoken.

But that’s as it should be.

A real apology indicates the person apologizing feels pain or discomfort over causing another person pain or discomfort.

It’s not easy to apologize, even if we generally do feel better after we say we’re sorry.

It’s because it’s not easy to apologize that I’ve always respected Mitch Daniels for doing so.

He could teach President Trump a thing or two.

If Trump had apologized in this situation, he’d feel better.

Sgt. Johnson’s widow, family and friends would feel better.

In fact, the whole country would feel better.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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One Response to Commentary: Donald Trump and a lost gentleman’s art

  1. John, as always a meaningful message. I quibble with your phrase “lack of basic moral awareness.” I think it goes much deeper than a basic awareness: I think he’s essentially amoral as the Oxford Dictionary defines it — “lacking a moral sense; unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something.” Regrettably and dangerously, his amorality extends to his personal affairs and world affairs. If I thought he had the strategic capacity and I was a true conspiratorialist I would see this as another Great Deflection/Deception as painful policy and regulatory changes are quietly made in the background.