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Now Say It Like You Mean It

Clinton was once the master of the apology act. So why can't he fake it again?

By Margaret Carlson

For three weeks, Bill Clinton has been on a World Apology Tour. It started in the Map Room, moved out to sea to a friendly island off the People's Republic of Massachusetts, then went on to the Kremlin and ended in Ireland. Not once, though, did he hit a pure, clean high note. In Dublin he finally coughed out an "I am sorry," but grudgingly, as if he were repeating something for a dense and demanding bunch of whiners.

It has been an odd spectacle for those who expected Clinton would be sorry enough that he'd been caught to be sorry enough to be contrite. The Speech That Would Put This All Behind Us failed by not putting an apology in front of us. And he knew it. As disappointment poured in--not just from the media elite but from his supporters--an expanded apology, although not another speech, was a possibility. The press went on red alert, hoping to cover a full Jimmy Swaggart. But when the vacationing President chose to mention forgiveness--in a chapel, no less--it was in the third person and past tense. He may, in fact, have done some damage. By invoking Nelson Mandela, who did nothing to deserve his captors, Clinton suggested he had done nothing to deserve Kenneth Starr. It was as if Clinton had been fighting for freedom, rather than boffing an intern in the Oval Office.

Most practitioners of the nonapology are politicians who like the passive voice and the conditional. Former Senator Brock Adams never admitted to pursuing anyone but apologized in case he had made "their sensibilities feel affronted." Gibberish is the hallmark of the conditional apology. Newt Gingrich, who pleaded guilty to ethics violations, was sorry "to whatever degree in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House." Senator Alfonse D'Amato said he was sorry "if I've offended anyone," when he knew full well whom he had offended with his buck-toothed, "no tickee, no laundry" mimicry of Lance Ito.

Last week Representative Dan Burton, a vicious critic of Clinton, broke new nonapology ground when he expressed pre-emptive regret for what a Vanity Fair reporter might have found in some 200 interviews. Burton suddenly remembered he had been separated from his wife three times. The next day his memory was jogged again when he learned that an Indianapolis paper would report that he had had an affair and fathered an illegitimate child. He wouldn't say more because of "everybody's heart being ripped out" and because "enough is enough." Sound familiar?

Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen tells TIME this week (see Notebook) that men hardly ever apologize because doing so "entails admitting fault," and that "shows weakness"--and the next thing you know, some stronger type is clubbing you over the head and taking over your cave. That may be why Clinton, in Moscow last Wednesday, felt he had to defend his refusal to apologize for his refusal to apologize. He said he reread his speech and thought it was just fine. That was one nonapology too many for friends like Senator Joseph Lieberman, who led an outpouring of criticism that had, until then, remained under wraps. In Russia, Clinton also volunteered that he was "heartened" by the understanding he'd found in "leaders around the world," a fresh take on the "In France this would be no big deal" defense. You would think Clinton was a recent emigre from Paris, completely taken aback by the customs of the native press.

Clinton's supporters argue he should get credit for not giving a faux-earnest Apology on Demand. But why would Clinton now, after seven months of sustained lying, suddenly choose honesty? His Slick Willie side has always known that the most important quality a politician can have is sincerity. And no politician is better at faking it than he is. In 1980 Clinton was a failed one-term Governor until he apologized for raising car-tag fees and got his wife to drop that fancy "Rodham" business with her name. In 1992 he became the Comeback Kid, miraculously saving a crashing candidacy by quickly apologizing for causing pain in his marriage. So why on Aug. 17 couldn't he live the lie a little bit longer in order to satisfy a huge TV audience looking for a reason not to impeach him, fearing that it would hurt them as much as it would hurt him? For whatever reasons of pride and arrogance and poll numbers, the magic word didn't inch out of him until Friday.

What an irony it would be if the man who won the presidency after claiming he was being unfairly penalized for a woman he didn't sleep with, a draft he didn't dodge and a drug he didn't inhale would lose it over an apology he didn't make quickly enough. This one was wheedled out of him while he showed the reluctance of a child who finally gives in and says, "O.K., O.K., I'm sorry. Are you happy now?"

He's a better politician than that. But never mind. He stopped the bloodletting for now. When the Starr report comes, if it is as damning and detailed as expected, the drama of when and how much he would apologize will be seen as an insignificant sideshow. The main event may be so devastating that no matter how sorry he is, the Comeback Kid will have no comeback.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 14, 1998

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