Reid, Arenas, McGwire and the art of the apology

By Kevin Huffman
Friday, January 15, 2010

Only two weeks into January and 2010 is shaping up as the Year of the Apology. All around us, public figures are falling on their swords: Harry Reid, Mark McGwire, Gilbert Arenas. Even Lloyd Blankfein admitted remorse (sort of).

Public apologies date to Plato's time but have assumed a larger perch in society today. Paul Slansky, author of "My Bad: The Apology Anthology," says that the apology has become a mandatory public ritual. "It allows people to resume their place in society without any real penalty paid. It's the mini-version of going into rehab."

Anyone who's ever had to apologize -- basically, all of us -- knows that there are a few requisite elements to atonement: sincerity, timeliness and clarity. Somehow, though, our leaders and stars still struggle to pull it off. The apology has become the moment that defines a public downfall or scandal. Done well, a public admission of wrongdoing can be the first step toward redemption. Done wrong -- Mark Sanford, anyone? -- and it's all downhill.

Here are my grades for this year's most prominent I'm sorry's:

-- Harry Reid. Grade: A-minus. Category: The Unequivocal.

The Senate majority leader made a solid effort in his mea culpa for his insensitive remarks about President Barack Obama. He said, "I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words. I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans, for my improper comments." He has the right form -- admit what you did was wrong; apologize to the person you offended, immediately; and then shut up. Slight downgrade for the "choice of words" hedge; no choice of words could have cleaned up that idea.

-- Rod Blagojevich. Grade: B-plus. Category: The Master of the Obvious.

Sometimes people say or do something so dumb that all it takes is the remark or action being pointed out. After Esquire magazine published the former Illinois governor's comments that he is "blacker than Barack Obama," Blagojevich backtracked. Quickly. "It was a very stupid thing to say. Obviously I'm not blacker than President Obama." Thanks for clearing that up.

-- Mark McGwire. Grade: C. Category: The Caveat.

McGwire miserably failed on timeliness but finally came clean about using steroids during his record-breaking baseball career in several emotional interviews this week. "I wish I had never touched steroids," he said. "It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize." Unfortunately, McGwire couldn't resist adding context -- that he only used the substances to recover from injuries, he played in "the steroid era," etc. The prototype here is Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky apology -- i.e., I apologize for my behavior. Now let me remind you that I was unfairly persecuted. Readers should note that The Caveat often results in additional apologies in an effort to upgrade to The Unequivocal. In other words, be on the lookout for McGwire Round Two.

-- Lloyd Blankfein. Grade: D-minus. Category: The "I'm Sorry If You Were Hurt."

The chief executive of Goldman Sachs appeared before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on Tuesday to answer questions about Goldman selling the very investments that it was internally betting against. "I do think the behavior is improper. We regret the consequence that people have lost money in it," he said. This is a favorite tack -- taking on a tiny bit of blame, implying that it could have happened to anyone, but sloughing most of the responsibility onto the offended parties. Examples of this abound, but Justin Timberlake's post-Super Bowl apology ("I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction") remains the standard-bearer.

-- Gilbert Arenas. Grade: F. Category: The Insincere.

After it emerged that Arenas had brought guns into the Washington Wizards locker room, his apology got off to a good start. "I am very sorry for the effect that my serious lapse in judgment has had. . . . I want to apologize to everybody for letting them down with my conduct, and I promise to do better in the future." This apology requires a modicum of follow-through, though, and Arenas's behavior the next day, laughing while pretending to shoot his teammates at an away game, earn him a failing grade (and an indefinite suspension, along with felony charges). Marion Barry is the true exemplar of this category. Last year, a few days before he was charged with stalking his ex-girlfriend, Barry wrote to her: "In an effort to resolve this situation in an amicable manner, I sincerely apologize to you." Only a true artiste can cite sincerity in such an insincere way.

The ritual of the public apology is critical mainly because Americans are so forgiving. Contrition is the price we ask our public figures to pay, and the reward is a remarkable degree of absolution. That's a good thing for people such as McGwire, who will probably adjust his apology and reap the benefits of forgiveness in time for spring training. Ideally, of course, our public figures would have less to apologize for in the first place.

The writer won The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.

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