Who's Sorry Now?
09/28/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Bill Clinton may or may not have more to apologize for than any of his White House predecessors, but he has almost certainly expressed regret more often. Between his address to the nation on Aug. 17 after, testifying to a grand jury, and Sept. 11, when he spoke at a prayer breakfast just before independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report was made public, the President apologized, in one way or another, more than half a dozen times. Now the question is, has he found the right words to persuade the American people to forgive, if not to forget?
The perfect apology, says syndicated etiquette columnist Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, "consists of some combination of 'I'm ashamed of myself,' 'I didn't mean it,' 'I've learned my lesson' and 'I'll never do it again.' " Such an apology, says Martin, can be "amazingly successful," but there's a catch: "It only works if those who are offended are convinced the offender feels worse than they do."
To be convinced, says psychologist Renana Brooks, the aggrieved party has to want to forgive. "The hurt party must feel, 'I taught him a lesson. I feel good about that,' " says Brooks, director of the Sommet Institute in Washington, D.C. "They have to feel they have something they never had before—a better marriage, or a better President."
Can the President's apologies make things right? A look through history suggests that the answer is a resounding maybe. National notables apologizing for incidents deemed scandalous have struck. notes ranging from grudging regret (Marv Albert) to tearful repentance (Jimmy Swaggart), with decidedly mixed results.
Herewith, a sampler of penitents.
Problem: In 1988 photographs showed Swaggart leaving a Louisiana motel room with a woman known to be a prostitute.
Apology: "I have sinned against you," the televangelist sobbed to his Assemblies of God congregation in Baton Rouge.
Outcome: Swaggart briefly stepped down from the pulpit but was soon welcomed back by his congregation. Three years later, in October 1991, he was again found with a prostitute when police in Indio, Calif., stopped him for a traffic violation. This time less contrite, he told his congregation, "The Lord told me it's flat none of your business." Swaggart, 63, operates his own church in Baton Rouge, and his sermons are aired in 30 countries.
Problem: Last year the sportscaster was charged with assaulting his former mistress Vanessa Perhach, biting her repeatedly on the back at a hotel outside Washington, D.C.
Apology: "I'm sorry if she felt she was harmed. In the past there was consensual biting, and this particular evening I did not realize, until her testimony, that she was harmed."
Outcome: Fired from NBC, Albert, 57, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault but received no jail time. On Sept. 9 he wed TV producer Heather Faulkiner, 40, and recently returned to broadcasting in New York City.
Problem: In the midst of Hart's campaign for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, the Miami Herald reported that the telegenic former senator from Colorado had spent a weekend at his Capitol Hill home with model Donna Rice.
Apology: "I made a serious mistake. I should not have been in the company of any woman who was not a friend of mine or my wife. I should not have been with Miss Rice."
Outcome: Hart, now 61, quit the race. Since leaving politics he has pursued a career as a globe-trotting lawyer and written five books, including this year's The Minuteman: Restoring an Army of the People, which argues for downsizing the military. His marriage of 40 years has endured.
Problem: Washington, D.C.'s mayor was arrested in a 1990 undercover sting operation and later convicted of cocaine possession.
Apology: "I'm sure I've pained the citizens of Washington.... For that I'm truly and deeply sorry."
Outcome: After serving six months in prison, Barry, now 62, staged a remarkable political comeback, winning a seat on the city council in 1992 and regaining the mayoralty in 1994.
Problem: The first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury had an affair in Philadelphia with Maria Reynolds. Both were married, and Reynolds's husband blackmailed Hamilton. Hamilton's political opponents discovered the payments and claimed that the treasury secretary was using Reynolds as a front to make illegal investments on inside information.
Apology: "The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation," wrote Hamilton. "My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife...."
Outcome: Though a confessed adulterer, Hamilton remained a trusted adviser to George Washington and an influential politician. His portrait is on the $10 bill.
Problem: Implicated as an unindicted coconspirator in the Watergate scandal. His role in the cover-up of a June 17, 1972, break-in at Democratic party headquarters by operatives of his re-election committee led to impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives.
Apology: "I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision [to resign]. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong—and some were wrong—they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interests of the nation."
Outcome: Nixon resigned from office effective Aug. 9, 1974. He had almost 2½ years of his second term remaining. On Sept. 8 his successor, Gerald Ford, pre-emptively pardoned Nixon for any crimes he might have committed while in office. In later years, Nixon, a respected authority on foreign policy, advised several Presidents. He also wrote a number of books. He died in 1994.
Problem: In 1992, 16 women accused the Oregon Republican of making unwanted sexual advances towards them during his Senate career, which began in 1969.
Apology: "Am I sorry? Of course, if I did the things they said I did."
Outcome: In 1995, Pack-wood resigned from the Senate. Now 66, he runs a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. Last year he earned $600,000 from lobbying and consulting. And though his behavior ended his first marriage, Packwood plans to wed his former administrative assistant Elaine Franklin in November. "Things have very well," he says.
Problem: In 1989 the married third baseman ended a four-year affair with Margo Adams, who hit him with a $12 million lawsuit.
Apology: "It's not like I killed the President or anything," Boggs said.
Outcome: Boggs, 40 and almost certainly destined for the Hall of Fame, made peace with his wife and reached a settlement with Adams for an undisclosed amount.
Problem: Springer was Cincinnati's vice mayor in 1974 when police raided a massage parlor and discovered his personal check.
Apology: "This behavior—this particular incident—sets a bad example for anybody else to follow and of which I am obviously not very proud."
Outcome: Springer resigned but three years later became mayor of Cincinnati at age 33. When he sought Ohio's governorship in 1982, the scandal resurfaced. "I spent time with a woman I shouldn't have," he said then. "I paid her with a check. I wish I hadn't done that." Springer, now 54, lost the Democratic primary but went on to host the nation's No. 1-rated daytime TV talk show. He was reportedly paid $1 million for Ringmaster, his tell-all book due out in November.
Problem: The Illinois Democrat, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was indicted in 1994 on 17 felony counts. Prosecutors alleged that he spent on his own behalf $636,000 in federal funds and $56,000 in campaign contributions.
Outcome: Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and was released last October after 15 months in custody. "What is it with you reporters about contrition?" asked the 70-year-old Chicago political consultant after his release. "I mean, what do you want? Do you want somebody to walk around with a crying towel?"
Problem: The Secretary of Agriculture, who served under Presidents Nixon and Ford, came under fire in 1976 for a racist joke he told aboard an airplane after the Republican National Convention. The joke, about "what coloreds want," was reported by former White House counsel John Dean III, who was covering the convention for Rolling Stone magazine.
Apology: "I regret any offense which may have been given to any person or to any group.... Although I was merely repeating a comment made decades ago by a ward politician in a large midwestern city, even that is no excuse for the incident."
Outcome: "I resigned to save further embarrassment to the administration. I wasn't happy about it," recalls Butz, who resumed teaching agricultural economics at Purdue University in Indiana. He says he has earned a million dollars giving speeches. "In retrospect, the controversy added to my popularity as a speaker," says Butz, still on the lecture circuit at 89. "Every politician makes apologies. It is part of the job."