I'm terribly sorry. Really.

Posted: May 03, 2004 12:00 AM

In a deeply therapeutic culture, apologies function like secular sacraments. But more and more people demand them, while fewer and fewer are willing to give them. So instead of ?I did it and I?m sorry,? we get fake apologies and conditional ones.  Some examples: 
The basic conditional apology. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said to the National Education 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 conditional. In 1985, after saying that South African bishop Desmond Tutu was ?a phony,? Jerry Falwell said he meant that Tutu could not speak for all South Africans. Falwell offered an apology if the bish­op thought he was being impugned as a person or a minister. Oh. So that?s it.
The subject-changing, head-scratching nonapology. 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 non­apology. 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 recently called U.S. policy on Haiti 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, ?You all [nonblack people] look the same to me.? Luckily for her, Brown is a Demo­crat so her remarks went nowhere in the media.
The ?regret? nonapology. 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 Roman Catholic clergy. ?Hindsight? means that the critics are just second guessers who weren?t there.

The accusatory nonconditional. ?Your government failed you. . . . And I failed you,? said Richard Clarke at the 9/11 hearings. But his book makes clear that he doesn?t 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 apologized for U.S. support of dictators during the Cold War and for the deposing of Hawaii?s Queen Li­liuo­ka­lani by the Cleveland administration in 1893. Most of these 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? nonapology. 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, really.