John Oliver got Dustin Hoffman to undermine his own apology for sexual harassment in 90 seconds

And in the process, pulled back the curtain on all garbage apologies from powerful men.

Credit: Charles Sykes, left, and Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Credit: Charles Sykes, left, and Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

On Monday evening, comedian and host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight John Oliver was moderating a panel marking the 20th anniversary of Wag The Dog, the 1997 movie starring Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, and Dustin Hoffman. Midway through their hour-long discussion, Oliver pivoted to address the recent revelations about Hoffman, whom multiple women have accused of sexual misbehavior.

“This is something we’re going to have to talk about because … it’s hanging in the air,” said Oliver, according to the Washington Post, which posted a video capturing parts of the confrontation.

But Hoffman’s answer, and the defensive posture he assumed throughout his exchange with Oliver, was incredibly revealing of how the powerful men who have been accused of sexual misconduct — whether in Hollywood, Washington, DC, or elsewhere — actually conduct themselves after their predatory histories are revealed.

“I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation,” said Hoffman on November 1, in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter after the magazine ran a piece by Hoffman’s victim. “I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”

As apologies go, it was neither commendable for its candor nor reprehensible for its sleaze (see: Spacey, Kevin). But, like virtually all apologies issued by shitty men, Hoffman’s mea culpa was grossly inadequate.

So much so, that Oliver felt obligated to extract something more substantial from Hoffman on Monday. But instead of strengthening it, Hoffman’s apology collapsed faster than a house of cards.

“I’m asking my agent, my publicist, what do I do now?’” said Hoffman of his apology, at the very beginning of a video obtained by the Washington Post. Not five seconds into his response, and Hoffman has already conceded that his initial statement wasn’t the work of a man deeply ashamed and remorseful of his mistreatment of women, but of a team of Hollywood executives advising their client on how best to mitigate a PR problem. Incredibly, Hoffman kept digging.

“There’s a key word that’s left out in the quote as it goes around the world,” he continued. “And that is: ‘if’ I did anything that was out of sorts, or I embarrassed her, I apologize. And the word ‘if’ was important.”

Whatever restraint Oliver originally planned to bring to the conversation was discarded shortly thereafter.

“I’m not the moral arbiter of anything,” Oliver acknowledged. “It’s just — ‘it’s not reflective of who I am’ — it’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off. Because it is reflective of who you were. If it happened, and you’ve given no evidence to show that it didn’t happen, then there was a period in time for a while when you were creepy around women. So it feels like a cop-out to say ‘well, this isn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”

No, Hoffman did not understand. For the next several minutes, Hoffman continued to undermine his own statement, checking off every box of the Sexual Predator Apologia along the way: “everyone was saying it…the humor of it…that’s 40 years ago…it was an overreaction.” Given countless opportunities to demonstrate remorse and accept some responsibility for his misdeeds, Hoffman instead went in the exact opposite direction every single time.

It might be unfair to those precious few men who are truly self-reflective upon being called out, but Hoffman’s wilting apology is probably more indicative than aberration in our halls of power. There’s no doubt that the men who have been exposed as sexual harassers are very sorry. They’re just not sorry for their boorish behavior, they’re sorry they have to be called out in front of a live audience by a late night comedian.