Descontructing the public apology: What does 'misremembered' really mean?

June 7, 2010

Patrick Reichard admits he didn’t catch Congressman Mark Kirk’s bizarre apology last week.

“I simply misremembered it wrong,” Kirk said about a series of campaign overstatements regarding his military service and being shot at in Iraq. Kirk is the GOP nominee for President Obama’s old senate seat.

But, now, a zesty cold michelada in hand at Los Girasoles Restaurant in Brighton Park, Reichard is taking a more focused look at Kirk’s utterance.

“It’s a double negative,” says Reichard, an associate professor of English and Developmental English at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights. “Except that ‘misremembered’ isn’t even a word. And, for an apology, it’s pretty blameless. He makes it sound like the equivalent of tripping on a bump on a sidewalk.”

What would Professor Reichard say to a student who wrote such a sentence?

“I don’t think anybody would write that,” says Reichard, “even in the developmental English classes. It’s not a typical mistake anybody would make. People usually misuse prepositions, verb endings; sometimes they misuse words or even make up words. It sounds to me like his campaign took him aside, decided he would ‘misremember,’ whatever that means, and that, in the moment, he added the rest.”

Reichard pauses. “This is pretty good.” He’s referring to the michelada, a giant salt-rimmed mugful of beer, tomato juice (or clamato), peppers, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, lemon (and/or pineapple), and spices. It’s his first. “It’s got quite a kick.”

But, wait, how should Kirk have phrased his apology?

“Well, it’s hard to say what the ‘it’ is in the sentence,” Reichard continues between sips. “Is it the military service itself he doesn’t remember, or the memory of the service? He may as well be saying, ‘I misremembered my life wrong’. He should have said ‘I exaggerated’ or ‘I embellished’. That’s how you’d deal with a mistake like that.”

But don’t people exaggerate all the time?

“Sure,” says Reichard, “you say ‘I was at work from dawn to dusk’, but you were really at work eight hours. Fine, that’s an exaggeration. But what Kirk’s saying is more like, ‘I was on a plane from dusk to dawn’. The fact is, he wasn’t on a plane, he wasn’t even in that part of the world. That’s so big, we can’t even get to the ‘from dawn to dusk’ part of the assertion. This isn’t a judgment call, like he’s trying to make it sound; it’s a matter of fact.”

Reichard takes another sip of the michelada. He pronounces it not merely delicious but healthy too. “You know, with the tomato juice.”

But back to Kirk.

“You know, I had a case of a similar exaggeration in a creative non-fiction class,” Reichard says. “A guy wrote that he’d had 12 sacks in a high school football game. I thought, that’s gotta be a record. Why is this kid at Prairie State instead of playing college ball somewhere? I figured that had to be in a hometown newspaper, so I looked him up. Well, it turns out he was a second-stringer, he didn’t even have 12 career sacks.”

When Reichard confronted him, the student said it was his fault, because he’d wanted exciting details in his creative non-fiction essay.

“But after the initial reaction, when he tried to blame me for his problems, he did take the corrections,” says Reichard. “He was terribly embarrassed, and he did admit he’d done something wrong.”

Not likely to happen with Kirk, he acknowledged. “He probably really believes what he said originally.”

What is perhaps more likely is that Reichard will partake in more micheladas. “Man, this is really good,” he said, emptying the mug.

Update: Roger Ebert sent along a little note reminding us that “misremembered” was first used by former President George W. Bush. Thanks, Roger!