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Apologies ‘R’ Us

March 2, 2004

In our deeply therapeutic culture, apologies function like secular sacraments. But more people are interested in receiving them than giving them. So instead of “I did it and I’m sorry,” we get lots of conditional apologies and tortured, fake ones:

The Basic Conditional Apology: Secretary of Education Rod Paige said to the National Educational Association: “If you took offense at anything I said, please accept my apology.” If? He had said the NEA is a terrorist organization.

The Misdirection Conditional: Sen. Christopher Dodd claimed that Sen. Robert Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, would have been a great senator at any time in history, including the Civil War. Dodd’s “if” statement said: “If in any way, in my referencing the Civil War, I offended anyone, I apologize.” This made it sound as though someone was hounding Dodd for mentioning the Civil War.

The I-Gotta-Be-Me Conditional: After turning a press conference into a brawl, boxer Mike Tyson explained: “I responded as I saw fit. In the process, things that I said may have offended members of the audience. To these people I offer my apologies.”

The Subject-Changing, Head-Scratching Non-Apology: When Jane Swift served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, she used state employees to baby-sit her infant daughter. Asked to explain, she said, “I won’t apologize for trying to be a good mother.”

The I-Was-Misunderstood Non-Apology: Sen. Trent Lott blamed “a poor choice of words” for his suggestion that the segregationist Strom Thurmond of 1948 should have been elected president.

The Incomprehensible Conditional: Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida recently said U.S. policy on Haiti was a racist policy concocted by a “bunch of white men.” When a Mexican-American assistant secretary of state objected, Brown issued a conditional apology to Hispanics, saying that she meant to indict whites only, adding that “you all (non-black people) look the same to me.” Luckily Brown is a Democrat, so her remarks went nowhere in the media.

The “Regret” Non-Apology: In finally acknowledging his perjury and the Monica Lewinsky affair, President Clinton said: “I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”

The Accusatory Conditional: “If, in hindsight, we also discover that mistakes may have been made … I am deeply sorry,” said Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, while apologizing (sort of) for bishops who failed to deal with sex scandals in the Catholic clergy. “Hindsight” means that the critics are just second-guessers who weren’t there.

The Accusatory Non-Conditional: “Your government failed you … and I failed you,” said Richard Clarke at the 9/11 hearings. But his book makes clear that he does not believe he failed anyone. What he means is that President Bush failed the nation. No one has ever buried a severe accusation in a pitch-perfect Oprahfied apology like Clarke.

The Historical Apology for What Other People Did: President Clinton expressed regret over the Crusades and slavery. He also apologized for American support of dictators during the Cold War and for the deposing of Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani by the Cleveland administration in 1893.

Historical apologies are low-cost or cost-free. For instance, I would like to apologize here for the U.S. invasion of Canada in the War of 1812. There. I feel better already.

The “It Happened” Non-Apology: After 14 years of denials, Pete Rose finally admitted he had bet on baseball games. He wrote: “I’m sure I’m supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty. … Let’s leave it at this: I’m sorry it happened and I’m sorry for all the people, fans and family it hurt. Let’s move on.”

The Sincere but Responsibility-Shrinking Apology: Last fall, Arnold Schwarzenegger met the barrage of sexual accusations against him by saying: “I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful. … I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because this is not what I’m trying to do.”

This is the most effective political apology any of us will probably live to see. The problem is that Schwarzenegger was accused of much more serious offenses against women than the words “rowdy” and “playful” can reasonably cover. He minimizes while apologizing. Quite brilliant.

From → Politics

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