back to the Black Table
               
  WHEN I'M SORRY MEANS FUCK YOU: THE LOST ART OF THE APOLOGY.  
   
   
 

When former Bush administration senior advisor Richard Clarke testified before the 9-11 Commission last week, he did something that no one in public life seems to do anymore: He apologized … and he meant it. Sure, one could argue that he had ulterior motives -- everyone does.

But not for nothing did the words from Clarke, who worked for several presidents, spark spontaneous applause from the gallery crowd: "Your government failed you … and I failed you. We tried

 
 

hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask … for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

From acknowledged liars like Pete Rose to the occasional citizen of presumed good standing, public apologies are made so unwillingly, it as though they imagine the next step is death at the hands of Darth Vader. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

 

 


 

   
 

"People feel humiliated when they say they are wrong and will do almost anything not to be humiliated, especially publicly," says Marilyn Graman, psychotherapist and author of three books and the site LifeWorksGroup.com. And for public officials, there is a real danger "that saying they're wrong could harm their credibility, although likely an equal number of people would respect the honesty and even be relieved by it."

American people are amazingly forgiving. Acknowledgement that one has done something stupid, and therefore might end up learning something (such as, say, back-biter Marv Albert) is usually enough to welcome people back into the pantheon of public life. But an "apologist" can also comes across like a crass, obnoxious dope. The balance is tenuous.

Unfortunately, that's been the pattern of most recent public apologies. Nobody simply apologizes for pushing their sister down the stairs -- they add some kind of qualifying statement to their abject stupidity. Apologizing without really apologizing is a new and American-specific art form, and here are a few of its most notorious permutations:

 

The "I Want Candy" Apology

Sometimes people have to be beaten over the head to realize that a certain person is simply a dirtball. It took those interested in baseball

 
 

about 14 years to finally get that with Pete Rose, who, having struck a deal with commissioner Bud Selig, let out his contrition in the form of a best-selling book and a naked, craven plea to be allowed into baseball's Hall of Fame.

"Hey, look at me! I'm sorry! Now gimme what I want, you goons! I want my candy!"

Or, more accurately:

"I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done

 


 

   
  something wrong. But you see, I'm just not built that way. So let's leave it like this: I'm sorry it

happened, and I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family that it hurt. Let's move on."

Um, Pete? You're supposed to do a bit more than "act" sorry. You're kinda, well, how do we say it -- supposed to be sorry for lying, along with the scorched-earth persecution complex you've cultivated all this time. This is what we call "one to grow on." Not, "One to get my Hall of Fame plaque on."

"Some people have no conscious and never developed one, so they're sociopathic or psychopaths," says Andrea Gordon, a clinical psychotherapist in Ossining, N.Y. and a consultant with the Hudson Valley Wellness Club. "You never think you're wrong -- you just think everyone else is wrong. And while you may say you're wrong, you're really just paying it lip service"

 

The "If I Get Candy, You're Helping Me Fight the Power!" Apology

Of course, Pete Rose is a limited figure, in that he's limited to being a disagreeable douchebag without having to put his troubles in some

 
 

sort of societal context. Former New York Times reporter and best-selling scam artist Jayson Blair has no such compunction, however. In his recent book, "Burning Down My Master's House," the admitted liar gives greater context to his lies on a geopolitical, societal, racial and grammatical level.

By now, of course, Blair is admitting that he did things wrong, but still seeks to expose truth of the duplicity of The New York Times. As my grandmother would

 

 

   
 

say, "Boy, you got your nerve."

The media star is currently on his "Tour of Contrition," which even included an interview with The Black Table. And of course, there's support for him and the supposed "uncomfortable truths" he's telling -- but really only in his brain. Jayson Blair, arbiter of truth. Which, more or less, makes him into some sort of thriller-movie convention -- one half expects him to call in a few minutes and hiss into the phone, "You and me, we're the same," as if one person's misdeeds means the entire world has no moral compass. Which brings us to…

 

The "I Disrespected the Bing" Apology

Here, the "apologist," for the most part, still doesn't really recognize the existence of the other entity whom they wronged. Meet Gary

 
 

Barnett, head coach of the University of Colorado-Boulder football team. In responding to the allegations of rape brought by former team kicker Katie Hnida against one of his players, Barnett uncorked this dying quail: "It was obvious that Katie was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do -- they respect your ability. Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible."

Wow. Bad enough, huh? Well, wait for the apology.

"I sincerely regret that (Tuesday)

     
 

a portion of my remarks were either misinterpreted or taken, aired out of context." So far, it's the media's fault.

"I apologize for answering that question in a manner where I must have come across as insensitive."

Jeez, don't be so definite, Gary. Hem and haw some more. Still blaming the media, I see.

"What I wanted to communicate was that regardless of Katie Hnida's abilities, I wanted Katie on our football team."

Zaaa? Is that what we were talking about?

Barnett's not the only one. Education Secretary Rod Paige recently referred to the National Education Association as a "bunch of terrorists." Of course, he was forced to backtrack from those comments. He did it in grand style, supplementing his apology by excoriating the NEA, criticizing the "obstructionist scare tactics… of NEA's high-priced Washington lobbyists, who have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate all our children regardless of skin color, accent or where they live."

So it's all about the children, then, isn't it, Rod? Either that, or it's about race again. Or something.

"Confession is a sign of weakness, and weakness destroys, especially politicians. Weakness erodes political power bases," says Bruce Gronbeck, director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture. "Ask Ted Kennedy. He didn't even confess anything" about Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick.

 

The "We Did Wrong, But Nothing You Can Sue Us For" Apology

Remember how a whole load of people lost money in the stock market, and a whole bunch of people were generally thought to have

 
 

misled regular people? Well, lots of them have paid fines, like $50 million, $100 million, what-have-you, but of course, each press release is carefully worded to include "no admission of guilt or wrongdoing."

Well, of course. Because if you admit you did something wrong, you might have to acknowledge you're not perfect. The list is long and distinguished: Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Canary Capital Management, Morgan Stanley, et al.

 

 

 

   
  The most recent was a fund company named MFS. Here's the apology: "Our settlement with the SEC reflects our eagerness to put this matter behind us,

and to focus on the meaningful pro-investor reforms we have put in place to strengthen fund governance, tighten our business practices and achieve the highest standards of transparent disclosure in the industry," said Robert Pozen, non-executive Chairman of MFS Investment Management.

So in other words, they've been doing everything great all this time, and the $50 million fine, well, that's just a gift…for a big party for the SEC. Or something.

 

The "I'm Sorry, But I'm Really Not, So Fuck You" Apology

Oh, Bill O'Reilly. Before the Iraq war, O'Reilly said, "If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he

 
 

has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right?"

And then, of course, when it came time for the apology, it wasn't anybody's fault. Well, actually, it was everybody's fault but his.

"My analysis was wrong and I'm sorry. What do you want me to do? Go over and kiss the camera?" He then, of course, blamed the "left wing press" saying it was a plot to use his words to "hammer the president."

 

 

 

   
 

"Everybody's ego is so highly charged that they don't want to admit they're wrong about anything," says clinical psychotherapist Gordon.

 

The "Aw, Shucks, Folks" Apology

Funny how Justin Timberlake's triple apologies for "Nipplegate" -- first, for a "wardrobe malfunction," then by asserting the crowd needed something to talk about, and then lastly, with a goofy,

 
 

grinning "Listen, I know it's been a rough week on everybody" semi-sincere moment at the Grammy Awards -- seemed to work, somehow.

Of course, the disingenuousness came through anyway. "What occurred was unintentional and completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys were offended." Right. Not sorry for actually ripping back Janet Jackson's costume to reveal her expensive breast and somewhat less expensive jewelry adorning it, but how we reacted to it.

 

 

 

   
 

The burden of responsibility, however, rarely falls on celebrities, so the better tack, generally, is to make fun of what you did -- once again, affecting an "Aw, Shucks, I'm just this rube" pose. Janet herself did that on David Letterman's show a couple nights ago, by saying, "It truly was an accident. It was very embarrassing for me to have so many people see this little breast," she said. "It was supposed to kind of happen like that, but I wasn't supposed to come out of it the way I did."

Of course you weren't, dear. And a simple "I'm sorry" would do. Thanks.

 

David Gaffen has lived in New York City for eight years. During that time, he has never once lost an argument with the television.