Representative Ted Yoho and the Death of the Non-Apology Apology

Against all odds, Ted Yoho is going to be famous. Normally, politicians like Yoho — a perpetual back-bencher occupying a safe Florida seat who served four terms without significant accomplishments and then announced his retirement — leave the political scene quietly without anybody outside of their district ever able to recall their names. It is a big club, and Yoho seemed content to join it.

But last week, Yoho joined another, much more exclusive club: the club of people who make such intellectually and morally reprehensible arguments — and by doing so set up such spectacular rebuttals — that they achieve the dubious fame of being thoroughly trounced by people who, in the process, change the world.

An early member of this club was Sir Robert Filmer, the 17th century English philosopher who wrote Patriarcha, a defense of monarchical power that was so poorly reasoned that John Locke couldn’t resist responding with The Second Treatise of Government, perhaps the foundational text of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. More recent members include Joseph Durick, George Murray, Earl Stallings, and the other Birmingham clergymen who wrote “A Call for Unity” — the open letter that will forever be remembered for the response it generated from Martin Luther King Jr., the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

In less than a week, Ted Yoho’s speech from the House floor about his confrontation with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez several days earlier, has managed to secure him a place in history as the last politician who will ever try to justify unjustifiable actions by issuing a non-apology apology and a non-denial denial.

The facts of the encounter occurred in full view of the press and are not in dispute. Yoho and Ocasio-Cortez had a chance meeting on the capital steps. Yoho, who disagreed with his colleague’s recent argument that increases in poverty and unemployment are driving higher crime rates in New York. “You are out of your freaking mind,” Yoho said in response, and went on to call her “disgusting.” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez called him rude, and he walked off, audibly calling her a “fucking bitch.”*

As reported, the encounter between Representatives Yoho and Ocasio-Cortez showcase the general degradation of our political discourse, and they clarify the reasons that Yoho has never distinguished himself in Congress or anywhere else — but they do not quite rise to the level of Preston Brooks beating Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor.

Had Yoho left matters there and not responded at all, the story would have floated around for a few weeks before fading away, and Yoho could have retired with the same anonymity that he served. Had he offered a genuine, meaningful apology, Yoho could have become an example of decency and willingness to take responsibility for one’s words and actions. An act of genuine decency and humanity could have turned a minor disgrace into something positive.

But what Ted Yoho did instead was offer an epic non-apology in which he non-denies using vulgar, sexist language, non-apologizes for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez misunderstanding the righteous nature of his remarks, and then nobly refuses to apologize for loving God and his country. Here is what he said:

“I rise today to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York. It is true that we disagree on policies and visions for America, but that does not mean we should be disrespectful. . . .

“Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language. . . . The offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues, and if they were construed that way, I apologize for the misunderstanding.”

As my colleagues know, I’m passionate about those affected by poverty. My wife, Carolyn, and I started together at the age of 19 with nothing. We did odd jobs, and we were on food stamps. I know the face of poverty and for a time it was mine. That is why I know people in this country can still, with all its faults, rise up and succeed and not be encouraged to break the law.

I will commit to each of you that I will conduct myself from a place of passion and understanding that policy and political disagreement be vigorously debated with the knowledge that we approach the problems facing our nation with the betterment with the country in mind and the people we serve. I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.

It would be difficult to imagine a worse speech that could be even plausibly cataloged under the heading of an apology. Yoho begins by issuing a non-denial denial reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s “there is no sexual relationship.” He did not deny actually using the profane and disrespectful words attributed to him. He says that these words were “never spoken to my colleagues.” He actually relies on the distinction between calling someone a “fucking bitch” and saying that someone is a “fucking bitch” while they are present without actually putting the words “you are a. . . .” in front of them. And then he “apologizes” if the person he was talking about misunderstood the distinction and thought that she was being spoken to.

And then he goes on to throw his wife and daughters under the bus by suggesting that the mere fact of his having a wife and daughters somehow means that he couldn’t have meant anything bad by the things that he does not deny saying, while maintaining that he only said them about, but not directly to, his female colleague.

And then he refuses to apologize for loving God, his family, or his country. Because that, of course, is what this is all really about.

Soon-to-be ex-Representative Ted Yoho’s non-apology apology was a particularly obnoxious example of the genre, but it is not substantially different from others. But earlier ones actually worked. In 1952, for example, Richard Nixon managed to deflect attention from possible financial misdealings and salvage his political career by “refusing to apologize” for keeping the dog, Checkers, that one of his daughters was given as a gift. And as I have already alluded to, Bill Clinton managed to issue enough non-denial denials and non-apology apologies to prevent the revelations about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky from ending his presidency.

Yoho’s mishandling of this situation has placed Republicans in an extremely awkward position: they have to either remain silent while Democrats increase their lead among women voters by historic proportions, or they have to condemn Yoho and risk alienating the diehard Trumpists whose votes are the only ones they can count on in this election cycle. Basic rules damage-control would call for House Republican leadership to distance themselves from Representative Yoho by now and publicly condemn his remarks. But that would make it much more difficult for them to run a campaign portraying “AOC and the Squad” as the leaders of a leftist insurrection against America that only they can stop

But last week, Representative Alexandria Acasio-Cortez gave a ten-minute speech in Congress that was so powerful, so devastating, and so on-target that she has already managed to change the nature of the political conversation. Instead of talking about poverty and crime (as Yoho originally wanted to do), or even political civility (which would have been the conversation after a sincere or meaningful apology), the nation is now talking about the ways that powerful men dismiss and demean women — and the profoundly disturbing ways that they invoke their wives and daughters to defend themselves when they do so. This is a conversation that is long overdue.

Representive Ocasio-Cortez’s speech immediately went viral, and it has already become one of the most-watched political events of this election cycle. Millions of people who were not inclined to agree with her politics can agree with her message, and Yoho’s unsubtle sexism is going to make it much more difficult for Republicans to use subtle sexism to dismiss her, or her political statements, in the future. And, beyond that, I suspect that the standard-issue non-denial denial and non-apology apology are dead for good. No American politician will ever be able to apologize for being tragically misunderstood, or refuse to apologize for loving their country, without being immediately and convincingly called out for “pulling a Yoho.”

*Note: I do not like these words. I do not say these words. And it is difficult for me to even write these words. However, these are the words that a member of Congress used to demean a woman who is also a member of Congress, and we cannot hide from them. Using asterisks and euphemisms to obscure the ugliness of what the Representative said ultimately prevents us from addressing the ugly things that he meant.

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store