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Who's Sorry Now? : While It's a Simple Thing, Making an Apology Simply May Not Be Part of the American Way

December 16, 1990|JOSEPH TREEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Treen, a former Newsweek general editor, is a New York writer

Forgive me for saying this, but 1990 has been a sorry year for apologies, if not their makers. Look at Roseanne Barr, Marion Barry, Victor Kiam, Ivan Boesky, Charles Keating, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Rose and Michael Milken--to name a few. They all botched the job.

It would seem that Americans are simply no good at saying "I'm sorry." We don't like to do it. We hold off. We stonewall. We wait until we are in front of a judge or are led by the hand of a public relations specialist and ordered to commit damage control. Our contrition often comes off as begrudging, forced, insincere, expedient--and too late.

Perhaps we should blame it on Erich Segal. Without "Love Story," we would never have had "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

No, wait. My apology. It's all John Wayne's fault. In "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," he said over and over again, "Never apologize, it's a sign of weakness." Blame it on John Wayne.

Oops! Wrong again. Mea culpa. It's the lawyers. The first thing they tell clients is to keep their mouths shut. Don't say "I'm sorry." Don't even speak. Why? Harry H. Lipsig, undisputed dean of negligence attorneys, has it down to three words: "Apologies encourage lawsuits."

What's wrong with Americans anyway? When the People's Republic of China mistakenly shot down a British plane in 1954, Beijing quickly apologized.

When the United States mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, the White House sent a brief letter to Tehran expressing "deep regret." But the same letter tried to blame Iran, calling the dead "the latest victims in a conflict that should have ended long ago."

Actually, there is evidence that Americans do have a tradition of apology. Certain individuals have expressed their regrets with dignity and honor. Their apologies are legendary. A tearful Robert E. Lee, for example, told straggling survivors of Pickett's ill-fated charge that it was all his fault. John F. Kennedy went on television to apologize for the Bay of Pigs. Jimmy Carter did the same after the failed rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran.

Despite all this, many Americans seem to live by a never-apologize, never-explain code of conduct. How come?

"Pride," says Msgr. William Smith who teaches moral theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. "Most of us are very good at picking out where everyone else is wrong. But when it comes to ourselves, amnesia seems to set in."

It can't help that some of the country's most famous citizens have long espoused non-apology. Oliver Wendell Holmes called apologizing "a very desperate habit . . . egotism wrong side out." Henry Ford II once counseled, "Never apologize; never say you're sorry."

But, without a doubt, the two biggest culprits are Erich Segal and John Wayne. Oddly enough, both their lines may have been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Segal, now at work on a new novel in London, says the key word in his famous line "Love means never having to say you're sorry" is not sorry-- but rather say. Lovers, unlike other people, don't have to verbalize their apologies, Segal says. They can make amends with body language.

"What Miss (Ali) MacGraw is telling Mr. (Ryan) O'Neal is, 'You don't have to say it. I can read it in your face.' She could feel it," Segal explained in an interview.

(Unfortunately, it seems this was not explained to MacGraw. She delivers the line with the emphasis on sorry , not say. And later in the movie, O'Neal gives it the same reading.)

"With 20 years of hindsight," sighs Segal, "I can say that I never meant to write a universal truth."

The meaning of John Wayne's "Never apologize, it's a sign of weakness" also has been distorted. It does not mean to shun responsibility, but rather to accept it, says Tim Lilley of Akron, Ohio, who publishes a newsletter analyzing Wayne's films.

Lilley says that the Duke's film persona is that of a man of integrity who makes a tough decision, acts on it and then takes full responsibility for his action.

In other words, scoffs Boston University ethics professor Edwin Delattre, act like Oliver North, who has never apologized for his part in the Iran-Contra scandal. "Exceed the authority of your office," Delattre says, "and then say to the public, 'I would do it all again.' "

But American politicians are not all like Oliver North. In the last two decades, some have discovered the art of the apology. Only they call it "damage control."

"When you say I made a mistake, you start to establish credibility," says media guru David Garth. But an apology alone is not enough, he adds. A politician must also point to his successes.

Garth first employed the tactic in 1969 when John Lindsay was running for a second term as New York City mayor. Lindsay was in deep trouble with the voters, partly because large areas of the city were not plowed after a snow storm. Garth had the mayor apologize, rather than let his opponent use his mistakes against him--and Lindsay won a second term.

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