Martha Stewart's statements on the courthouse steps after her sentencing last Friday unleashed a whole new round of schadenfreude.

It seems that nothing short of emerging from the Foley Square courthouse with that Birkin bag over her head would have appeased the collective desire to see her eat crow. Just when audiences were settling in for a satisfying orgy of self-abasement ("Today is a shameful day" was a promising start), her spirits and energy seemed inappropriately to soar as she pitched the enduring quality of her "beautiful products." From her tone, this could have been the launch of a lovely new line of garden tools.

The problem is that Stewart couldn't admit to a mistake until her appeal is over -- which makes the appeal itself a mistake, since it prevents her from admitting one. Whether it's Trent Lott or Justin Timberlake, Donald Rumsfeld or Whoopi Goldberg, extracting the S-word has become the new national blood sport. The appetite has been voracious since Bill Clinton's epic series of apologies to the nation over Monica Lewinsky. Today there's an unseemly collective greed for acts of contrition that are more about granting the public's revenge than about "moving on."

Dick Cheney understands the new game. It's why the vice president refused to eat his expletive to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy on the Senate floor. It's also why President Bush refuses to remember whether he has ever made a mistake. Does anyone really imagine that forgiveness is the endgame?

For government officials, it is safe to apologize only for something for which you are not really personally responsible. The best model is Tony Blair's apology to Ireland for the 19th-century potato famine. Richard Clarke's "apology" to the 9/11 commission was a powerful new variant, the mea culpa as fatwa, saying in effect: "I am sorry that this administration's mind-boggling incompetence and blind ideology thwarted my valiant efforts to save this nation from catastrophic attack." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's apologies, meanwhile, are usually designed to make the other side look petty. As in, "If you are so thick and humorless you didn't get the joke, well, I'm sorry for ya."

A new Web site, www.the-apologist.co.uk, launched from London, where you can sign on and apologize for something -- anything -- has turned out to be a roaring success. It started life as a promotional wheeze by the novelist Jay Rayner, whose "The Apologist" is to be published here by Simon and Schuster next month as "Eating Crow." It's about a restaurant critic whose poisonous review causes a chef to commit suicide by roasting himself in his own fan-assisted oven. The critic is guilt-tripped into doing something rare -- apologizing -- only to find that expressing regret can be become a deeply satisfying and lucrative way of life, leading to an appointment as Chief Apologist for the United Nations. Rayner's Web site is attracting about 10,000 visitors a week featuring everything from regretted acts of adultery to workplace confessions that the urgent "dentist's appointment" was just a cover story.

"An apology is supposed to confer authenticity on the person who makes it," Rayner told me from London. "It's all about the search for the authentic emotional moment."

In the case of Martha Stewart, the mania to make her apologize after her sentencing reached epidemic proportions last weekend. TV panels groaned with "experts" castigating her "lack of humility," "inability to apologize" or "flagrant refusal to show remorse." The New York Post, which on Saturday devoted its whole front page to depicting Martha in prisoner's stripes with a ball and chain on her foot, followed up inside with a column by the paper's leading downward-mobility pundit, Andrea Peyser. "Even as Martha's measurements were being taken for that prison jumpsuit," Peyser wrote, "she proved, beyond remaining doubt, that she is simply incapable of getting it. But soon enough, Martha dear, you're likely to have that lesson you refuse to swallow rammed right into your noggin."

Most of Martha's missteps in reputation management have been due to her refusal to understand -- or respect -- the narrative she is stuck in: Power-driven, controlling Bitch Superwoman caught in illegal deception reveals the Truth behind her Perfect Mask, is brought low, begs for forgiveness, performs her penance, and becomes a Better Person. What Martha fails to get, to the fury of the scripters, is that she is not a person anymore. She is a character in a soap opera who is muffing her lines.

In vain does she appeal to Barbara Walters, "I am just not that person!" and imagine she can do image rehab. It's fruitless for her to tell Barbara that the now-notorious Birkin bag she carried at the trial was her 12-year-old or 14-year-old security sack -- her only bag -- or that the offending ascot she wore at her throat was not real mink but fake-fur. These things aren't seen as truly hers, just as charged symbols of an enviable high life. (The Daily News's investigative energies were immediately assigned to find that she did indeed have more than one bag.)

Martha's critics fail themselves to "get" the best thing about Martha. Her passion for her business is not "tasteless." The fact that her eyes still light up when she talks about a new paint line is not very cozy, but it's honest. It's who she is.

Professional pain can be just as deep as the personal kind, but it's not PC to say so if you're a woman. For Martha, the authentic moment the public seems to crave would not be tears, regret, or an admission that the "small personal matter" was nothing of the kind. For this complicated woman, the truest cry of pain -- the one that people missed -- was the bereft look on her face when she declared to Walters: "I've lost my job! I am no longer the chairman and CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia!"

(c)2004, Tina Brown

Martha Stewart on the steps of the courthouse Friday: Still refusing to understand -- or accept -- the narrative she's stuck in.