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Press materials for I’m So Sorry: The Stories Behind 101 Very Public Apologies declare that it “ushers in our Age of the Public Apology.” Not quite. Closer to the truth is the admission that the book “has the look and feel of a real tabloid magazine.” Of which there are not enough? Author James L. Dickerson, however, spends several long pages of text in a ludicrous attempt to elevate the book above the level of gag gift and justify his claim that America is a nation of penitents. He stretches so far as to find vindication in Steve Martin’s trademark “Well, excuuuse me!” routine. He writes:

With Christianity built on a foundation of divine forgiveness for mortal sins—God forgives those who ask for forgiveness and mortals are instructed to ‘forgive those who trespass against’ them—it was inevitable that government would appropriate building blocks from that same foundation. As a result, saying ‘I’m sorry’ has been an integral ingredient of both public and private life in America for over two hundred years….With the introduction of thousands of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, et cetera, into the nation’s melting pot, first- and second-generation Protestant and Catholic Americans found themselves apologizing on a regular basis for trampling on the religious rights of others.

Well…maybe. More like, “I’m sorry, we don’t allow your kind in here.”

Indeed, the Puritan ethos held sway over the workings of this country well into the last century. That the Puritans, then and now, used the shame brush too liberally and too broadly against too many is undeniable. But what I’m So Sorry really shows is that none of it stuck. Too many truly guilty, shameful people do not know how to truly apologize. So many nasty folks simply refuse to admit their unworthiness to breathe the same air as us righteous Protestants…oh, OK, and some Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, et cetera.

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Where once the sight of a 60 Minutes camera crew sent crooked officials running, now it’s just another opportunity to be on TV—as evidenced by the recent segment on a 16-year-old financial whiz whom the SEC smacked down for misleading investors. Asked, after having been forced to pay a couple hundred thousand dollars in fines, if he thought he’d done anything wrong, the kid smirkingly said no—while his parents beamed and gushed how proud they were of his accomplishments. Hey, he’d bought them a car.

With the Springerization of the public arena, where being on TV is its own reward and no deviant secret goes unbroadcast, people are sorry only for getting caught.

The book is organized into categories of apologies (sports, politics, religion), but many of Dickerson’s examples aren’t really apologies—or aren’t at all satisfying. Cannibalistic Mike Tyson’s three attempts at contrition failed, and today he’s once again practicing his profession. The “apology” from snotty David Spade, who upset the nice gays and lesbians of GLAAD, is a denial from his publicist. Exhibitionist Dolly Parton—who has nothing to apologize for, in my book—merely tells one of her endowment jokes. Frank Gifford is included not really apologizing for winding up on tabloid covers cavorting with a stewardess (the incident was “a spiritual experience that made me stronger”), but where is his wife, Kathie Lee, who owes everyone with a television set, eyes, and/or ears an abject apology?

President Clinton, his face collapsed like a Muppet, is represented by his famous prime-time mea culpa—which was instantly rejected by the pundits, even though 200 percent of the American public was willing to accept it and move on to some, like, real news. Which brings up the point that the media apologies in I’m So Sorry are for the most part the routine hazards and mistakes of journalism (Joe DiMaggio’s death foretold slightly ahead of time). But whoever came up with the notion that “if it bleeds, it leads”—and the subsequent disservice and disgrace that local TV news broadcasts have become—is not identified. That should be a book—followed by a witch hunt and a public flogging.

In true tabloid fashion, Dickerson recklessly writes that “for decades” Washington, D.C., was known as the “murder capital” of America. This as introduction to the Marion Barry entry. Barry, of course, has never apologized for anything, and he does not do so here.

In recounting Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss’ courtroom apology, Dickerson quotes the presiding judge: “I believe you will be a positive role model for other young people and other women who could benefit from the experiences you’ve had.”

Wha’?! I demand his apology!

If only the premise of this book were true—that more people were sorry, more often, and with more conviction. That people would maybe even learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others.

But by and large, I’m So Sorry is just a catalog of unpleasant people. However, it does include the very pleasant proto-supermodel Bettie Page, who spent time in the loony bin for stabbing her elderly landlords, was released, and repeated the crime against her next landlord. I forgive her.

But should I forgive myself for writing a pretty crappy review? After all, I only did it for the money. Yes, I do forgive myself. I’m not sorry at all. CP