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Image: Mel Gibson
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Impulse control was a problem for a much bigger star — Mel Gibson — on July 28 when he was pulled over for drunken driving and spewed anti-Semitic comments at the arresting officer.
updated 12/1/2006 2:31:22 PM ET 2006-12-01T19:31:22

"Love means never having to say you're sorry," Ali MacGraw said in the 1970 tearjerker "Love Story," a line whose iconic status belies its lack of any discernible logic.

But that was so last millennium. In 2006, a better line might be: "Apologizing means never having to say you're sorry."

Rarely have there been so many prominent public apologies coming so close together, saying at once so much — "That wasn't really me, it was the booze talking, I have inner rage, I have a dark side, I'm in rehab" — and so little. So little, that is, about the actual transgression that made them necessary.

Entertainers, politicians, media figures, religious leaders. Why have public apologies become such a mainstay of our culture? It seems that the minute a transgression occurs, be it small or large, we wait for penitence. It's the other shoe that needs to drop before we can move on.

Maybe it's because as much as we love scandal — and we love it especially now that we can capture it on cell-phone video or stream it on YouTube — we love something else even more: "Everybody," says Ken Sunshine, a veteran publicist in both entertainment and politics, "loves a story of redemption."

And so, a thematic look back at a year in apologies, if you can call them that:

The ‘I am not a (fill in the blank)’ apology
The most recent specimen: Michael Richards, aka Kramer from "Seinfeld," who's having an unwanted second moment in the sun with his stunning "n-word" rant. In the first of several apologies, Richards made an awkward appearance on David Letterman's "Late Show" and explained that it was rage at being heckled that sparked his tirade: "I'm not racist — that's what's so insane about this." (His publicist said Friday he also planned a personal apology to the men he targeted.)

Was it effective? "There's a piece of it that doesn't fit for me," says Jerry Deffenbacher, a psychology professor at Colorado State University who studies rage. "It's not unusual for a comic to be heckled. I would want to know more about his impulse control history."

Impulse control was clearly a problem for a much bigger star — Mel Gibson — on the July night when he was pulled over for drunken driving and spewed anti-Semitic comments at the arresting officer.

"Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite," Gibson said in a statement soon after the incident. "I am not a bigot." Jewish leaders said the healing would take work. "Anti-Semitism is not born in one day and cannot be cured in one day and certainly not through the issuing of a press release," noted Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

For cultural critic Roger Rosenblatt, the whole apology business is just that — a business. "It's basically the way you get on with your career," says Rosenblatt, an author and essayist at Time magazine. "It wouldn't be made — or publicly received — if there weren't some tacit understanding that this is what you do in order to keep earning a living." Which means that those who accept the apology — the public, in other words — are part of the deal.

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'It was the (fill in the substance) talking'
Gibson fits in here too. Diane Sawyer eventually got the big interview, and the movie star blamed his problems on alcohol: "Once you're loaded, you know, the balance of how you see things — it comes out the wrong way." The claim led experts to debate whether booze could actually change one's social beliefs. In any case, Gibson is hardly the only figure this year to attribute his troubles to alcohol.

Rep. Mark Foley, the Florida congressman forced to resign over his sexually explicit computer messages to congressional pages, never made a public apology himself, but through attorneys announced he had alcohol problems (some colleagues were skeptical), was gay, and had been abused by a priest as a teenager. He recently finished about a month in treatment for alcoholism.

Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio resigned late this year after pleading guilty in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation. Apologizing in September, he said he'd checked into an alcohol-abuse program.

And Rep. Patrick Kennedy entered rehab for addiction to prescription pain drugs in May after a nighttime car crash that he claimed not to remember. The Rhode Island Democrat was re-elected easily in November.

The ‘I have a dark side’ apology
"There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life," the Rev. Ted Haggard wrote his congregation in November amid allegations he consorted with a gay prostitute and snorted meth.

The former president of the National Association of Evangelicals is now on a course of rehab — which is a common denominator of virtually all the prominent apologies this year.

"When in doubt, go to rehab or find God," says Sunshine.

For one analyst of popular culture, it's a measure of the "therapeutic culture" that we live in. "It's like a huge moving conveyor belt. Once you declare yourself to be a client of our therapeutic culture, we say, 'OK great! Welcome aboard,'" says Jerry Herron, professor at Wayne State University. "Somewhere, there will be a sofa waiting for you." (It could be Oprah's couch — remember author James Frey? — or Letterman's, or Don Imus' studio — remember Sen. John Kerry's regrettably botched joke involving the Iraq war?)

One of the many problems with that approach, says Herron, is that it becomes all about one individual's recovery — not the larger problem. Whatever the Michael Richards flap reveals about the actor, he notes, it probably says something important about latent racism in our society decades after the civil rights movement. And yet, he says, we'll never talk about that bigger issue: "It's all about him."

In this very sorry year, even the pope has been called upon to apologize, for comments seen by Muslims as offensive to Islam. While not making a full-scale apology, Benedict XVI has expressed regret for offending Muslims and said the remarks did not reflect his personal views.

Herron, of Wayne State, looks back to the 19th century for a lesson on how to do an apology right in America. Grover Cleveland, running for president in 1884, was faced with accusations that he'd fathered a child out of wedlock; the bachelor acknowledged right away that he'd had a relationship with the woman and said he'd support the child even though he had no idea if it was his (this was pre-DNA testing.) He won the election.

Whoever was doing Cleveland's PR, Sunshine, the publicist, approves. The important lessons to remember for a successful public redemption, he says, are to come clean and be honest. Don't spin a lot of baloney. Don't pretend to be a saint. And don't go expecting a "quick fix" — that doesn't work anymore in our crime-and-punishment obsessed world.

Oh, and one more thing, something our mothers told us:

"Don't ever do it again."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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