In general, politicians apologize because they get caught. They don't come forward, unprompted, with sudden pangs of conscience. They don't go before the cameras, bleary-eyed and haunted, to acknowledge sleepless nights and uneasy dreams for some past wrong. They may have a Hamlet complex (indecisiveness) or a Lear complex (insecurity) but they almost never have a Macbeth complex (guilt).

This is, in part, what makes the public political apology, such as incoming Senate majority leader Trent Lott has been issuing like scrip for the past few days, such compelling spectacle. Because everyone knows that apologies are almost always wrung out reluctantly -- or qualified with excuses or patently insincere -- the public, for a brief moment, has the upper hand. The public makes the man dance, not for his soul but his future.

A little more than a week ago, at the 100th-birthday bash for retiring senator Strom Thurmond, the Mississippi Republican said the people of his state were proud of their support for Thurmond's Dixiecrat candidacy in the 1948 presidential race. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead," Lott continued, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Lott's remarks were carried live by C-SPAN. The initial response to the growing anger came not from Lott but from his spokesman, and it wasn't an apology. "To read anything more into these comments is wrong," said Ron Bonjean. This was a classic "How dare you?" response. How dare you misinterpret the senator's words? This deflects the guilt from the speaker onto the listener. It's rather like looking askance at someone who finds a salacious double entendre where none was intended: You have the dirty mind, not me.

The problem, of course, is that this response works best when there's some actual ambiguity involved. Unfortunately, Lott's sentence was neatly constructed, with a clean use of the conditional, and very few words open to multiple interpretations. The only words that offer some glimmer of hope on the ambiguity front are "all these problems." And it is here that Lott has pitched his strongest battle. The senator didn't mean "racial" problems; he meant the classic problems of national defense, economic policy and social equity.

Ambiguity is no simple thing. In 1930 William Empson published his classic "Seven Types of Ambiguity" and with it helped inspire an entire school of academic literary criticism. The "New Critics" looked for meaning in the literary swamps and bayous; nothing in a text was accidental, even things that seemed contradictory. To find ambiguity in Lott's words, one has to look well beyond the relatively simple first degrees of Empson's ambiguity (grammatical, lexicographical or merely superficial confusions). Rather, one has to look to the more sophisticated and slippery higher levels of ambiguity, based on the evolution of the author's thought over time ("I do not support the discarded policies of the past"), or the intentional effort to say contradictory things ("I am not a racist but I think the Dixiecrats were good for America").

Several days after his spokesman played the "How dare you?" gambit, Lott's office issued a simple written apology: "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."

This moved the apologetics forward to what might be called the limited-liability phase. Lott was now apologizing specifically to a certain class of people -- those who took offense -- and for a specific thing, "a poor choice of words." The apologizer still has his pride at this point because he denies any intentional harm and implies that those who took offense probably do so easily.

But it was soon to get much worse for the senator. The "how" of his apology was becoming the issue. Was it an adequate apology? Was a written statement enough? Clearly many of the people to whom his limited-liability apology was made -- those who took offense -- didn't feel it was adequate. Even people like outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who apparently didn't take much offense at first, began to take more offense. To borrow a phrase, "I must follow them for I am their leader."

It was former housing secretary Jack Kemp, who called Lott's remark "inexplicable, indefensible and inexcusable," who suggested the depths of the next stage of Lott's problem. His apologies have been, in many ways, more ambiguous than the words for which he is apologizing. Most apologies are implicitly an attempt to explain, defend or excuse the wrong, and Lott's apologies have done all three. On "Larry King Live," he said, "Look, you put your foot in your mouth, you're getting carried away at a ceremony honoring a guy like this, you go too far." On Sean Hannity's radio show, he made a classic distinction between thought and feeling: "This was a mistake of the head, not of the heart," he said.

It was a heady moment, he was overcome, there was a birthday cake and punch and he "went too far." The question, however, is what it means to go too far. Lott's efforts to explain and excuse the remarks implicitly acknowledge the thing that makes public gaffes so disturbing: the belief (see Freud) that we tell more of the truth when our tongue slips than when we say exactly what we intend to say.

In a society that has abolished most forms of legal discrimination, that has made the N word more offensive than the F word or the S word, racism persists because people become adept at not saying what they really think when it will get them in trouble. In this sense, Lott's statement that this was a mistake of the head, not of the heart, sounds rather ominous: He seems to say that he didn't betray his heart at all -- that he is at heart the same politician he was more than 20 years ago when he made very much the same remark about the Dixiecrats.

In American politics, the apology and the atonement have been conflated. When enough apologies have been made, then absolution is granted (though generally not by the people who were offended). The final stage in a successful apology looks pretty much the same. One's supporters rally behind the notion that the humiliation has gone on long enough. The public begins to feel sorry for the offender, not the people he offended. The public twist-and-turn apology is an excruciating spectacle; tender souls wouldn't wish it on their worst enemy. Please send the poor man home to play with his adorable dog Checkers.

And with that, with the public's sense that enough is enough, any leverage the offended party -- people who might have suffered under Dixiecrat policies -- might have had is lost. A rhetorical game of explanation and regret comes to an end, without any particular sense that the one who apologized has committed himself to anything more than not getting caught saying the same thing again.

When the dust clears, the question that will remain is not whether Lott apologized enough, or sincerely, or in the right way; the question will be who accepted his apology, when, and at what price.

Sen. Trent Lott has been dutifully going through the stages of apology.So sorry: Tom Daschle, the outgoing majority leader, and Trent Lott, his Republican successor in the Senate. Both men regret the latter's remarks.