Lis on Law: Who's Sorry Now?

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Senator George Allen (R-VA) is really sorry — or so he’s been saying.

While making a speech for about 100 of his supporters recently, Allen decided to publicly recognize a young volunteer from the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb. The young man, an Indian-American and Virginia native named SR Sidarth, had been trailing Allen’s re-election bid with a camcorder, as is the custom with both campaigns. Sidarth was the only non-white person in the audience.

“This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us everywhere. And it’s just great…” Allen said to appreciative laughter. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

The word “macaca” can refer to a genus of monkey, a town in South Africa, or a French racial slur (it’s the French equivalent of “darkie,’” according to the Los Angeles Times). Incidentally, Senator Allen’s mother is French-Tunisian, and he speaks French fluently. “I don’t know what it means,” Allen said in an interview with the Washington Post. Nevertheless, he added, “I do apologize if he’s offended by that.”

Senator Allen is not the only politician who has been feeling sorry lately. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) recently apologized for a taped comment he made, in which he stated that Cubans and Puerto Ricans are feisty because of their mixed black and Latino “blood.” Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) asked forgiveness after a C-Span microphone caught him saying, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) said he was “very sorry” after calling the World Trade Center site a “hole in the ground.” Florida Republican Congressional candidate Tramm Hudson apologized for saying that blacks were bad swimmers, and Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (R) said he was sorry after using the term “tar baby.”

“None of these apologies are effective because no one believes them anymore,” said Chuck Todd, editor of the daily political tip-sheet, “Hotline.” In fact, they’ve become so ordinary that writers Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin filled 238 pages with them in “My Bad,” a book subtitled “25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior that Inspired Them.”

“People don’t feel true remorse anymore,” Sorkin told Tom Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer . “There’s no shame. It’s a little ritual you do now to get out of trouble. We tell our kids, ‘Don’t say sorry because I told you, say it because you mean it,’ but people in the public eye have forgotten that. Some of them don’t even sound like apologies.”

Pete Rose, after finally admitting that he had bet on baseball remarked, “I’m sure that I’m supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I’ve accepted that I’ve done something wrong. I’m just not built that way.” Sportscaster Marv Albert did several rounds of talk shows in order to apologize for assaulting a woman, but reportedly used the appearances more to defend himself. According to Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Albert not only defended his sexual behavior, he defended his toupee, calling it a ‘weave.’”

Mark Leibovich writing for the New York Times credits President Clinton with bringing a “confessional, talk show ethic” to the realm of public apologies. That dynamic was readily apparent in the apology following Mel Gibson’s widely-publicized drunken, anti-Semitic tirade. “I'm not just asking for forgiveness,” Gibson stated, “I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.”

In a similar vein, we may never know what Tom Cruise said to Brooke Shields when he apologized after rebuking her for her use of anti-depressants to recover from postpartum depression, but she assured "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno that the sentiment was “heartfelt.”

Perhaps even more noteworthy are the instances where apologies should have been made but were not. Dick Cheney never apologized to Senator Patrick Leahy (R-VA) for angrily suggesting he should go ‘fornicate’ with himself while posing for a photograph on the U.S. senate floor. Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) never apologized for remarking that the United States confronts a “faceless enemy” of terrorists who “drive cabs in the daytime and kill at night,” nor did he apologize for calling Arabs “ragheads.”

Of course, sometimes apologies are totally unnecessary. Case in point: Harry Whittington’s somewhat surreal apology for getting his face in front of Dick Cheney’s shotgun.

Apology or not, however, public gaffes only become part of someone’s reputation when they confirm an existing stereotype. For example, in 1972, when Ed Muskie appeared to tear up over rough campaign tactics in the New Hampshire primary, it fed the public’s perception that he was too emotional.

In George Allen’s case, it has been widely reported that he owns a Confederate flag, his high-school car bore a Confederate bumper sticker, and he displayed a Confederate flag pin on his lapel in a high-school senior picture. Since he’s been in office, Allen has also decorated his workspace with a noose hanging from a tree, and opposed dedicating a federal holiday to Martin Luther King Jr.

Concerns about racism aside, however, “singling out a young person for ridicule — a lone Democrat in a crowd of Republicans — is behavior unbecoming a gentleman, senator and certainly a [potential] president,” wrote Kathleen Parker for the Orlando Sentinel.

Ultimately, we may never know whether George Allen is actually sorry about his “macaca” moment. But according to Mark Leibovich, one thing is certain: when politicians deviate from the “talking point orthodoxy that is demanded of them — they crack open an unintended window into their character. Public apologies are an effort to shut this window as quickly as possible.”

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.