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No Regrets

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

People fall into three groups. The first consists of those who accept responsibility for mistakes and apologize with sincerity and genuine regret. They are an endangered species. The second group never admits mistakes and can't say "I'm sorry." Such people should never be hired, elected, married, or given power of attorney. But they usually are. The third group contains men and women who can, if pushed to the wall, apologize, but do so very badly. They stammer, ramble, twitch, and sort of admit responsibility. We've been seeing a lot of them on television the past few years — athletes, politicians, celebrities, and best-selling authors forced to 'fess up to misdeeds. They need help doing a better job of apologizing. They need their own Dr. Phil.
   What might a contrition counselor tell them? Here is an advice column from one of them:

Q: How should I dress for my press conference?
A: Dress comfortably, but don't be too casual. Muscle shirts and tank tops are out, especially for men. Oakland Raiders caps send the wrong message. Dress lightly because studios are hot and sweating makes you look even guiltier than you are. You don't want your forehead resembling a map of the Mississippi Delta. I have many other helpful hints in my best-selling, widely available Dressin' for Confessin'.

Q: I have trouble making eye contact when I'm being verbally attacked. What can I do?
A: Shake your finger at the attacker. On TV it appears that you're looking at him when you're really watching your finger.

Q: Who should I bring to the press conference?
A: Spouses are a good choice unless they've hired their own attorney. Avoid bringing children — they make faces behind your back — or "special friends." Pets are an absolute taboo. Dogs make statements of their own; your cat is already looking for a new home; and reptiles and rodents give a bad impression. If no one comes with you, use that to your advantage. "I stand before you, alone and unafraid" has a nice ring to it. Don't tell anyone that your mother changed her name and left no forwarding address.

Q: In accepting responsibility for my behavior, can I also blame someone else?
A: Absolutely. You should always explain why you allegedly did whatever you allegedly did. It is always the fault of people above you. If you blame people below you, it sounds like you were a bad manager. Besides, your superiors can afford better attorneys and are going to throw you to the wolves anyway. Don't forget to emphasize that your only failing was being too trusting. If there is no one else to blame, admit having a character flaw, but choose your flaw carefully. Anything requiring rehab is OK; greed doesn't get much sympathy. Be sure to note that the media blew the whole thing out of proportion.

Q: Can anything positive come from this horrible experience?
A: A book contract and at least one appearance on The Daily Show or Oprah if you're lucky, two if you really screw up. You will also learn new phrases like "shaded things a bit," "enhanced the facts," and "memory malfunction." For my own inspirational story read my semi-fictional memoir, Contrite Like Me....

Maybe a better class of confessions isn't the answer. Perhaps no group of people, however reprehensible, deserves another Dr. Phil. There is, moreover, no evidence that the public wants anything different from the squirmy, weasely spectacles we've been witnessing. Even if it did, no admission of wrong-doing brings back lives lost or ruined, pensions squandered, home runs hit, families shattered, votes bought, or fictions marketed as facts. If we can't have honest contrition for misdeeds, perhaps contemporary miscreants should quit faking it and take inspiration from their ancestors. In olden times, pirates, bound for the gallows, bowed and waved to the crowd, sincerely unrepentant to the end.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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