The Sorry Art of Euphemism— Mea Culpas Cataloged

In October of 2003, when he was still just an overpaid action hero and a Kennedy-by-marriage, gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger

In October of 2003, when he was still just an overpaid action hero and a Kennedy-by-marriage, gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger was called to the mat over charges of sexual harassment that allegedly occurred over a 15-year period. No fewer than 16 women who’d known him as a bodybuilder and an actor came forward with stories charging that he had made “unwelcome advances,” temporarily stalling what had been a steamroller of a campaign. Mr. Schwarzenegger, the heavy favorite in a field of recall candidates vying to replace ousted governor Gray Davis, initially dismissed the charges as “trash politics” and tried to go about his business as usual.

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But within a day, the Los Angeles Times story that broke the news had snowballed into Gropegate, forcing the neophyte politician to reverse his strategy. Following in the footsteps of guilty parties as different as Richard Nixon, Hugh Grant and Capt. Joseph Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez, Mr. Schwarzenegger asked the public to forgive him. His apology is reproduced in My Bad, an amusing compendium of mea culpas assembled by humorist Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin, an actress, producer and television writer.

“Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful but now I recognize that I have offended people,” the candidate said during a campaign stop in San Diego. “And to those people that I have offended, I want to say to them I am deeply sorry.”

Four days later, he was elected the 38th governor of the most populous state of the union by a huge margin. Apparently it mattered little to the voters in California that the actions for which he was apologizing, downplayed to make them seem like harmless tomfoolery and relegated to the anything-goes terrain of the movie sets, offered troubling insights into his character. In a culture that nurses at the bosom of Oprah and her treacly theater of confession, deliverance can be bought for the price of a well-planned public-relations stunt. The content of the apology and the nature of offense matter less than the hollow posturing, which also conveniently functions as the final word in the public record of these disgraceful, idiotic or harmful missteps.

It’s our present immersion in the Era of the Insincere Apology that inspired My Bad, which sets out to examine the “sheer volume of wrongdoers rushing forward to get their repentance on record, and the culture’s willingness to grant them speedy pardons despite the obvious lack of sincerity that imbues most of their efforts.” Unfortunately, while the authors cast a wide net, they aren’t interested in taking a hard look at this ubiquitous phenomenon. The book is a well-stocked anthology rather than a work of cultural analysis.

Organized by genre—13 separate categories of contrition are represented, including sports, show business, corporate America, politics, religion and the media—the collection is made up of hundreds of verbatim apologies, followed by short explanations of the circumstances which gave rise to them. Some of the commentaries are entertaining. For example, with respect to the terse apology of Ray Brent Marsh (the Georgia crematorium operator who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for dumping bodies instead of cremating them), the authors wonder why his chosen disposal technique was more appealing to him than simply using the crematorium. Often, however, the commentaries are too short to provide any real insight or context.

Many of the boldface personalities you’d expect to find in such a book turn up on cue, including Bill Clinton (for both the Lewinsky affair and an incident involving gay politicians greeted by Secret Servicemen in rubber gloves); Pete Rose (for gambling on baseball); Marge Schott (for being a racist baseball owner); Roseanne Barr (for spitting and grabbing her crotch during the singing of the national anthem in 1990); Russell Crowe (for his recent misadventures in a Soho hotel lobby); Bill O’Reilly (in a lukewarm non-apology over the fact that he was wrong about W.M.D.’s in Iraq); Mike Tyson (for biting the ear of Evander Holyfield); and, of course, Ted Turner (for being Ted Turner, many times over—he scores more coverage than anyone else in the book).

There are some glaring omissions, including Robert McNamara’s long-awaited mea culpa for his role as the architect of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, delivered in the form of a 576-page memoir. On a related note, My Bad also inspires one to think about apologies we’re still waiting for. Two entities with roots in Houston—the Bush administration and the Enron Corporation—come to mind as flagrant non-apologizers (though in fairness, W. does have one citation in the book, for an apology made to an Egyptian newspaper following the Abu Ghraib prison revelations).

Just as interesting are the apologies that seem completely unnecessary, usually delivered because of commercial pressure or political correctness. ABC’s pathetic pandering over Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” is the most notorious of these, but just as silly is the fact that the president of the Fox Network had to apologize in 1992 for a song featured on a Simpsons episode, which referred to New Orleans as “crummy, lousy, rancid and rank.” In response to the uproar, the executive was forced to explain that the song was “a parody of the opening numbers of countless Broadway musicals.” Satire? In a Simpsons episode? Say it ain’t so.

Many of the apologies included in My Bad reflect the fact that we live in what Robert Hughes referred to as a culture “where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism.” It’s also true that more people are forced to apologize today because more misdeeds are being exposed by the ever-encroaching media, endlessly hungry for fresh scandals. (Would James Frey have been outed had A Million Little Pieces been published a decade ago, before the advent of Internet? Quite possibly not.) These are points worth exploring.

Do the authors regret that they failed fully to investigate these issues? Are they sorry that their book is an entertaining if inevitably redundant catalogue? Perhaps they’re planning to issue a formal apology.

Peter Hyman is the author of The Reluctant Metrosexual: Dispatches from an Almost Hip Life (Villard).

The Sorry Art of Euphemism— Mea Culpas Cataloged