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A sorry excuse

As more wayward celebrities use rehab as damage control, the public is bound to become cynical.

February 07, 2007

LAST THURSDAY, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom admitted with a directness rare in a politician that he had an affair with the wife of his campaign manager. "I want to make it clear that everything you've heard and read is true, and I'm deeply sorry about that," Newsom said at a news conference.

The mayor's apology came with no ifs, ands or buts. For once, the public was presented with a simple and frank admission of wrongdoing. Most refreshing of all, Newsom did not undermine his sincerity with the by-now-obligatory confession that he has a substance abuse problem and will be entering rehab. For four days, anyway.

On Monday, the mayor announced that he would be seeking treatment to stop drinking. "Upon reflection with friends and family this weekend," he said, "I have come to the conclusion that I will be a better person without alcohol in my life."

In his defense, the mayor did say that his problems with alcohol "are not an excuse for my personal lapses in judgment." Still, the timing of his announcement inevitably recalls the recent two-step programs executed by former Rep. Mark Foley (alcohol treatment for inappropriate conduct around congressional pages), Miss USA Tara Conner (alcohol rehabilitation after reports of underage drinking) and Mel Gibson (the Promises Center for ranting against the Jews).

It's Crisis Management 101 -- first you apologize (while avoiding specifics; wouldn't want any trouble from the lawyers), then take "full responsibility" for your actions, then loudly announce that you are seeking a treatment whose first step is admitting you are "powerless." The inference to be drawn by the public is that it wasn't you who did those bad things, it was the disease (or disorder or lack of cultural sensitivity or "issues" that haven't been "worked out"). Your obligation isn't to "sin no more," it's to "get help."

The problem is that, after seeing so many compromised celebrities seek therapy, the public is likely to come to a different and more cynical conclusion: that the primary purpose of rehabilitation is damage control. The further afield the alleged disease is from the damaging symptom, the less likely people will buy it as an excuse and the less likely the cure will even be appropriate.

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