Tuesday, February 10, 2009

We're in the Era of Apologies

I think I'm reaching my saturation point for apologies.

My kids often like to say "I'm sorry" as a free pass to get out of whatever dilemma they've caused. I believe apologies have to be made when they are sincere and self-actualized, as opposed to a convenient "get out of jail card."

After enough transgressions, I've thought that at some point, if they are not learning from their mistakes, "I'm sorry" is not going to cut it. I say to them: "You've run out of 'I'm sorry's.'"

Lately, this is how I feel about the proliferation of public figures who have bombarded the public with apologies for their misdeeds. Sometimes apologies are like pulling teeth when the public demands somebody's head and ego gets in the way. Bernard Madoff has apologized to nobody but his neighbors for all the reporters surrounding his co-op building.

Now we're experiencing the opposite effect: everybody is admitting their trip-ups and the results feel a bit numbing. We wanted accountability and now we're getting more than we bargained for.

Start with the investment bank industry this past fall, when former Lehman Brothers CEO
Richard Fuld admitted he was wrong to the House Oversight Committee after his company went bankrupt and disrupted the financial lives of millions.

Swimmer Michael Phelps is already paying for his pot smoking ways with lost sponsorships and sanctions from the sport's official board. President Barack Obama admitted he "screwed up" with Tom Daschle's aborted Cabinet appointment, while Daschle had to make amends for not paying taxes for flights he took. Actor Christian Bale was caught on audio tape cursing a crew member of his forthcoming "Terminator" movie. Actress/singer Miley Cyrus apologized for making "slanty eyes" at a photo camera.

I'm waiting for the inevitable apology from R&B singer Chris Brown to arrive, after he was arrested on his way to his Grammys performance, allegedly for beating up his girlfriend, singer Rihanna.

Yankee baseball player Alex Rodriguez couldn't wait to confess to ESPN that he took steroids for three years as a Texas Rangers player. As admirable as that was for coming clean, he committed the one sin that makes his admission damaged beyond repair: he lied. He told Katie Couric a little over a year ago that he never took steroids. Of course, it didn't help that former Yankees coach Joe Torre said in his new book that everybody called the third baseman "A-Fraud."

Trust me -- this is all the tip of the apology iceberg, should you decide to type "apologize" into Google News and read the more than 22,000 entries from the last 60 days.

No wonder why WCBS-AM Newsradio 88 was playing Billy Joel's song "Honesty" when I woke up this morning: "Honesty is such a lonely word."

The PR playbook says that when apologizing, you talk about moving ahead, making things better in the future, not looking back but not forgetting it either. A-Rod is already following the script to the letter: "I'm ready to put everything behind me and go play baseball. You know, we have a great team this year. I couldn't be more excited about the guys that we've brought in, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett ... It's an important time in my life to turn the page and focus on what's next."

However, I believe that there ought to be a quota on apologies. I'm weaning my kids off the free pass aspect of saying "I'm sorry" because if they don't do the right thing from the start, they'll just assume that phrase will erase any punishment. If it's good enough for them, then it should be good for corporate executives, athletes, celebrities, politicians and any other people who should know better.

I'm thinking of a "three strikes you're out" policy. If you have to apologize three times for stupid, offensive or criminal behavior, then you've run out of apologies. What would be the fitting punishment?

I kind of like the idea of nicking what Bart Simpson does at the opening of every "Simpsons" episode: have the perpetrator write "I will not... [fill in crime here]" on a blackboard 100 times in a public square. I'm all for public humiliation of the people who are supposed to be idols, subjects of Fortune magazine covers, and example-setters.

If you are a liar, like A-Rod, not only should you perform blackboard duties, but you would have to donate a minimum of 10% of your financial assets to public schools and housing.

Of course, if you don't apologize at all, you should be sent right to an Alabama highway chain gang for up to 10 years in addition to all of the above penalties.

President Obama doesn't have to create the Apology Police. The public has taken that mantle already. They just have to be given the power to enforce the rules.

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