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Peter Donolo is vice-chair of Hill + Knowlton Strategies. He served as director of communications to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

As Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has been uncommonly apologetic.

His apologies for a litany of Canada’s historical wrongs even prompted the venerable BBC to ask “does Justin Trudeau apologize too much?”

That’s one reason his almost defiant decision – to which he’s holding firm – not to apologize in the wake of the federal ethics commissioner’s damning report on the SNC-Lavalin affair had many scratching their heads.

But really, should we be expecting anything else? Demanding political apologies is a contemporary political rite. But to what end? When we get them, are we ever really satisfied? Do they pull politicians out of hot water, or plunge them in ever deeper?

I’ve spent three decades both advising and observing political leaders. And with all due respect to political scientists, it’s clear to me that politics is far more an art than it is a science. So let’s look to another of the lively arts – in this case, music – for a typology of the political apology. What works, what doesn’t and why.

The Elton John principle

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BEITEDDINE, LEBANON: Veteran British pop singer Elton John performs at the opening of the annual Beiteddine Festival late 07 July 2001 in the Chouf region of Lebanon, 45 kilometers southeast of Beirut. (Photo credit should read RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images)RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word is more than the title of an early Elton John hit; it’s a concise descriptor of the politician’s dilemma.

In truth, humility and introspection are not the natural common characteristics among politicians – least of all, the successful ones. For that reason alone, there is not a natural disposition to apologize.

That’s why we end up with so many political leaders who just cannot utter the simple three syllables, “I’m sorry.” And when they do, they’re often completely conditional apologies that satisfy no one. I learned early in my marriage that any apology to my wife that started with the phrase “I’m sorry, but…” just didn’t cut it. In fact, it was essentially worse than no apology at all.

You’d think that politicians who are, after all, masters at human relations, would have learned this basic life lesson. Yet, google political apologies and you’ll find a plethora of “I’m sorry, but…” non-apologies.

A close cousin – both more widely used and even more insulting – is the “I’m sorry if…” (also known as the “ifpology”), which usually goes something like this: “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my words/actions…” What the politician is basically saying here is, “I’m not really sorry about anything I did or said; you just happen to be too obtuse, or too much of a snowflake, to get it.” It also neatly turns back the sin on the object of the offence, not the subject – which makes it doubly infuriating.

There’s another reason that “sorry” is the hardest political word. Err on one side, and you appear tone deaf at best, imperious and heartless at worst. Go overboard with the contrition and remorse and you can look weak and spineless – the kiss of death for a politician. And that leads directly to the next musical type.

The Demi Lovato apology

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Demi Lovato performs on stage during the Rock in Rio Lisboa music festival at Bela Vista Park in Lisbon, on June 24, 2018.MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images

Demi Lovato’s Sorry Not Sorry may be a female-empowerment pop anthem, but it’s also shorthand for the politician who gets the apology quickly out of the way and moves hard to the offensive.

In fact, in last year’s Ontario election leaders’ debate, then-premier Kathleen Wynne used the song title to respond to a question about her unpopularity and then list all the great things her government did. She got points for the contemporary pop culture reference, but she didn’t change many minds.

A frequent Sorry Not Sorry tactic is the pro forma apology, immediately followed by a shot at how your opponent has done far worse. That’s basically how Donald Trump handled the Access Hollywood storm in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. After a gritted-teeth apology (actually, it was an ifpology), he said, “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close.” This flourish is known as whataboutism, a common feature of the Trump years.

Sorry Not Sorry allows the politician to stand firm and strong. It’s also a way to demonstrate the vaunted “pivot” that political advisers always recommend – i.e. addressing the charge, but moving away or pivoting mid-answer onto issues that are more favourable to you.

The problem is that it doesn’t demonstrate that the politician understands why people may be upset, or that he or she has learned anything from it.

And that is the beauty of the final typology.

The Satchmo technique

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Louis Armstrong during a concert in Paris, on June 5, 1965.AFP/Getty Images

Of all music genres, jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation, bears the closest resemblance to politics. So it’s fitting that the greatest jazz genius of all – Louis Armstrong – provides the most apt way for a politician to really deal with the whole apology problem.

Early in his recording career, Satchmo was under exclusive contract with one record label, but was moonlighting for another (a practice that was, to be fair, not uncommon among poorly paid jazz artists). According to legend, he was confronted with the undeniable evidence when a label executive dragged him into his office and played the offending record. As Armstrong’s unmistakable cornet blared from the gramophone, he is said to have rasped in protest: “It’s not me! It’s not me! And I won’t do it again!”

Here is all the bravado and ego that we expect in a politician. But the kicker is that he is also signalling in no uncertain terms that he has gotten the message and will make amends. It won’t happen again.

No grovelling. No abasement. Not even a glimpse of self-doubt. But he has learned his lesson.

To see the Satchmo technique in action, consider the responses of two successive Liberal prime ministers to the sponsorship scandal. Jean Chrétien refused to accept personal blame for what he deemed the actions of a few, who, he said, should be pursued by the police. He wouldn’t cop to something he did not feel was his fault. But á la Louis Armstrong, he took action to address a systemic problem behind it – and introduced the toughest political party funding laws in Canadian history.

Contrast that with Paul Martin, who, through his tenure, wouldn’t stop apologizing for the scandal. Not only did this help to keep the issue on the front burner, but it undermined the “hell-or-high-water” image of toughness that Mr. Martin had gained as finance minister.

It is no coincidence that Canadians generally look back on Mr. Chrétien as a tough, decisive leader, while Mr. Martin got stuck with the sobriquet “Mr. Dithers.”

There is no indication that Mr. Trudeau is a devotee of Louis Armstrong. But he doesn’t need an ear for music to learn the Satchmo lesson. He is probably tactically correct to refrain from an apology on SNC – it won’t mollify his critics, and it would only add new life to the controversy.

But he would also be wise to signal that he has learned from both the controversy – and more specifically, from the ethics report. Some concrete governance steps would be a good way of demonstrating that – and a workable outline thereof is provided in the report by former justice minister Anne McLellan.

Striking that balance is what leadership is all about. And when it comes to the art of the apology, it means knowing both the words and the music.

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