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The Suggestion Box: Mama Mia, That's a Mea Culpa

By Walter Shapiro

TIME magazine

(TIME, June 30) -- I'm of the generation that believes A Thousand Clowns holds all the secrets of human existence. In one of the rambling monologues that give the 1960s play and movie its enduring appeal, Murray (played by Jason Robards) reveals the mystic power of a simple three-word sentence. I can hear Robards' gravelly voice as he declares, "I could run up on the roof right now and holler, 'I am sorry,' and half a million people would holler right back, 'That's O.K., just see that you don't do it again.'"

This speech foreshadowed the current Age of Apology, as public remorse has become the refuge of middle-aged politicians too timid for body piercing. Bill Clinton has raised these I'm-so-sorry sermonettes to an art form. The survivors of the Tuskegee, Ala., syphilis experiments and the victims of 1950s radiation research have all been awarded the presidential seal of sorrow. Tony Blair, an adroit mimic, apologized for the Irish potato famine before he even got around to hearing the latest Di-and-Fergie gossip from the Queen.

Now Congress has embraced contrition chic. A formal apology for slavery would certainly teach Jeff Davis a thing or two. But would the ghost of John Calhoun materialize in the well of the Senate to filibuster against it? There is a splendid irony in this worldwide rush to repentance. All the remorse is for misdeeds committed by others, decades and even centuries ago. The Pope got the ball rolling in 1995 when he apologized for the stake burnings and other pious tortures meted out by the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century. What comes next? The Italian government, heir to the gore and glory that was Rome, should certainly express regret for the intemperate sack of Carthage. (Reparations optional.) Congress could withhold aid to Egypt until the Mubarak government sheds a few public tears for holding the ancient Israelites in bondage. And isn't it high time the new socialist government of France admitted it was a mite sorry for the heedlessness that left Louis XVI headless?

Despite this logorrhea of lamentations, our political leaders are reluctant to apply this apologetic demeanor to their own conduct. Never once has the President said, "I am sorry about the way we raised money for my 1996 campaign." Instead, he has resorted to bizarre arguments like claiming that the White House coffees were designed to assuage his loneliness. Soon Clinton will be reduced to blaming the whole thing on Libyan hit squads.

A politician as deft as Clinton should know that Americans are suckers for a sincere apology. I'm surprised that some self-help huckster hasn't written Apologizing Your Way to the Top. As Murray riffs in A Thousand Clowns, "If you went up to people on the street and offered them money, they'd refuse it. But everybody accepts apology immediately. It's the most negotiable currency." But Gresham's law also applies here: Debased sentiments drive out genuine remorse.

None of this is likely to prevent the White House from setting up a Contrition War Room, polling every historical grievance to determine mawkish priority. I can't wait to see how Clinton handles Sally Hemings or watch him apologize to the Puritans for Demi Moore's The Scarlet Letter.





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