There’s an apology epidemic. If it’s not a corporate executive (Akiro Toyoda) then it’s an athlete (Tiger Woods, Mark McGuire) or a politician (Mark Sanford, John Edwards).

People seem to require it; I don’t know why. It reminds me of A Thousand Clowns, that very nice play (made into a very nice movie) written by Herb Gardner.

In it, the hero (a kind of superannuated Holden Caulfield, irresponsible in a charming way) describes a social experiment he’d conducted earlier in the day.

He says: “Y’know when you’re walking down the street talking to yourself how sometimes you suddenly say a coupla’ words out loud? So I said ‘I’m sorry,’ and this fellah, complete stranger, he looks up a second and says ‘That’s all right, Mac,’ and goes right on.

“He automatically forgave me. I communicated. Five o’clock rush hour in midtown you could say ‘Sir, I believe your hair is on fire,’ and they wouldn’t hear you.

“So I decided to test the whole thing out scientifically. I stayed right there on the corner…just saying ‘I’m sorry’ to everybody that went by…Oh I’m sooo sorry sir…I’m terribly sorry madam…Say there, Miss, I’m sorry…

“I swear, 75 percent of them forgave me….one fellah forgave me from a passing car, and one guy forgave me for his dog. ‘Sophie forgives the nice man, don’t you Sophie?’

“I had tapped some vast reservoir. Something had happened to all of them for which they felt somebody should apologize…if you went up to people on the street and offered them money they’d refuse it. But everybody accepts apology immediately…it is the most negotiable currency.”

And it’s being spent as though it were federal stimulus money.

Let me say this to my fellow sinners. Mark, John, Tiger:

Forget it. I don’t want your apology. In the first place, I doubt its sincerity. One can be genuinely sorry for getting stuck in traffic and being late or for spilling red wine on your hostess’s white couch, true accidents.

But when you’ve done something deliberately, be it cheating on your wife, using performance-enhancing drugs, or cheating on your expense accounts, you aren’t sorry you did it.

You’re sorry you got caught. I don’t see why I’m supposed to feel better because you apologize for getting caught.

In any case, it’s not my business if you cheat on your wife. That’s between you and your wife and the cheatee.

Neither do I care if you’re an athlete who uses performance-enhancing drugs. We live in a society in which performance-enhancing drugs are the norm. Why else do you think Viagra is so popular?

Batters used them, yes, but so did pitchers, as well as football players, basketball players, golfers (and doesn’t Tiger have a nice build, though?) and six-day bicycle racers.

Using them isn’t so much cheating as keeping up with the competition.

I’m in tune with the credo of that great philosopher Henry Ford II, grandson of Henry the Great. The younger Ford, who also ran the company bearing his name, was known as a womanizer. There were even stories—rumors, actually—of his engaging in sexual activity in downtown Detroit restaurants.

Whenever confronted by these rumors or any others, he would say “Never explain, never complain.” And he never did.

I admire that attitude but I realize that in that, as in most things, I am in the minority. Most people prefer the Herb Gardner philosophy: “When in doubt, apologize.”

So maybe Tiger did the right thing, apologizing. And maybe McGuire should keep right on doing it. So too with wandering politicians, so long as they observe the law and don’t steal too much.

I draw the line, however, at accepting the apology of an auto manufacturer who knowingly puts on the road cars that feature dangerous, potentially lethal, flaws and then tries to cover up the resulting mess.

For him, any apology he can make is too little, too late.

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Donald Kaul

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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