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So, so sorry

National | What apologies can do and what they can't

Issue: "Clinton: Capitol crimes?," Sept. 26, 1998

What's the big deal about how Mr. Clinton says "I'm sorry" for the Monica Lewinsky affair? Some people say apologies aren't needed, others that they make no difference, still others that if only the president would truly apologize, the nation could forgive, forget,and move on.

These views can't all be true. It's worth pondering what apologies by public officials can and cannot do. The question will be with us long after Mr. Clinton is gone, because in a fallen world there will always be misdeeds.

Can do: Apology limits the moral harm of scandal. The original meaning of "scandal" isn't "titillating media circus," but "stumbling block"-something that causes us to fall. Perjury and adultery by politicians are scandalous not because they give politicians a bad name, but because they give perjury and adultery a good one. You can be sure that liars and philanderers across the nation are now using the president as their excuse. How can our present moral bleeding be stanched? The best way is if the one who is causing it stops in his tracks and repents of his bad example. Public repentance acknowledges the moral facts that the deed itself denied.

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Cannot do: Apology cannot fully neutralize the harm already done. Some things in life are irreversible. You can't restore lost virginity, put lost blood back into a wound, or unsay lost words as though they were never spoken. God does bring good from repented evil, but it is not the same as the old good that was broken; even heaven will not be Eden, but something new. When we apologize, we put an end to our bad example, but we cannot mend all the harm it did while it was going on. Some cynicism persists, some ideals stay broken, some people who followed us off the path will never get onto it again.

Can do: Apology removes a cause of unproductive conflict. Highly public sin by a highly placed official triggers a demoralizing fight between allies who deny or minimize the sin and enemies who call attention to it for the wrong motives. Nothing could be better calculated to spread cynicism throughout the body politic-to convince the citizens that all statesmen lie and all virtue is just a fraud. How can this debasing spectacle be ended? By taking away the main cause of contention: If the wrongdoer admits to both his enemies and his allies that he has committed a terrible wrong, they can no longer bicker about what he did or whether it matters.

Cannot do: Apology cannot put unproductive conflict to an end. A public confession and apology may remove the main cause of contention between a man's enemies and allies, but its other causes will remain. Apology cannot quench the two groups' smoldering resentments over what they did and said to each other before he confessed, nor can it spare them the torture of deciding what to do about him now. To end this secondary scandal, the repentant official may have to remove himself even further from the scene of war by resigning and submitting to justice.

Can do: Apology removes an obstacle to the laborious reconstruction of trust. Until a man admits that wrong is wrong, there is no reason to believe that he will not go on doing it; the nation cannot "move on" from what he has done unless he himself "moves on" by sincere repentance. The first sign of repentance is to express deep contrition, not only to God but to the citizens whom one has betrayed. As public wrongdoing destroys public trust, so public apology is the first step in rebuilding it.

Cannot do: Apology cannot restore trust by itself. There is a duty to forgive, but there cannot be a duty to forget, for the simple reason that not even love requires us to expose ourselves to further harm. Behind a grand sin there is usually a succession of petty ones. What that means is that by the time a highly placed official is caught, his wrongdoing has probably become habitual. He may have not only a roster of deeds to repent and a ledger of persons to repay, but a lifetime of habits to break. That's why public apology is only the first step in rebuilding trust. It cannot be the last. Is apology a big deal? A very big deal, but not a quick fix. Only the Divine Surgeon can close the wounds opened by public vice.

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