Responsibility, accountability and apology

by Ogi Overman

Remember the ’70s movie Love Story? Even if you didn’t see it (which I didn’t), it was impossible not to hear the phrase Ali McGraw uttered to Ryan O’Neal, or vice versa (Like I say, I never saw it) as she lay dying: ‘“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’”

Although the phrase, as well as its various permutations, became ubiquitous for a while, I never did quite understand it. I suppose it made sense in the context of the sappiest movie ever made (so I am told), but how exactly does it pertain to real-life love or human interaction? Does it mean you never do anything wrong when you’re in love, or that your partner automatically knows you’re sorry, or that love transcends human frailty? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now.

My take on the concept of being sorry ‘— meaning willingness to apologize, not being worthless ‘— is actually the polar opposite. It is a necessary part of the human experience to apologize, to set things right, to make amends. Unless, that is, we never make a mistake, never make an inappropriate remark, never make a factual error. To never have to say you’re sorry implies perfection. Moreover, it is both arrogant and self-delusional to think that you are above apology, that somehow your worth is diminished by having to admit an error in judgment or a behavioral lapse.

In my view, apology is the third leg of the equilateral triangle, the first two being responsibility and accountability. But the irony is that if the first two are upheld, then the third lessens, making the triangle isosceles. If one takes responsibility and is held accountable, then the need for apology becomes less frequent.

Three cases some to mind in this area of apology ‘— or lack of same ‘— that illustrate the point. The most grievous, as always, is ‘“President’” Bush. By now we all know it’s not in his psychological makeup to utter the words, ‘“I’m sorry.’” His veneer of power might actually crumble if he were to admit to a mistake. His veil of supremacy might unravel, exposing him as the naked emperor if he were to stoop to making an apology for something. Anything. The classic egomaniac with an inferiority complex, to apologize for any of the hundreds of blunders of his administration would open the floodgates to the lies, deceit and duplicity that are the hallmarks of his reign. Plus, it would reveal him as the scared, lip-biting, approval-seeking little kid who curries favor with the playground bully by picking on the kid with a lisp.

Even recently when he said he regretted using the famous ‘“Bring ’em on’” and ‘“Don’t mess with Texas’” machismo, it was an apology for the tone, not for the actual deed of unilaterally invading a sovereign nation. Yet, given his tragically twisted sense of moral superiority, that’s the closest he can come to an actual apology. He’s caught in a trap of which there is no escape.

So too is Barry Bonds, albeit of a different sort. While his trap, like Bush’s, is of his own making, for him there is a way out. Yet, again like Bush, he appears incapable of taking it. The way, of course, is to simply admit guilt, show contriteness and beg forgiveness. If Bonds were to apologize, I guarantee the American public would embrace him as a legitimate sports hero. We are, after all, a forgiving lot, but the guilty party has to make the first move. He has to ask.

Now, I hesitate to mention the third party in the same breath as the B&B boys, but I must. Greensboro mayor Keith Holliday, for all his sterling qualities, has yet to admit any guilt on the part of the city for its role in the Nov. 3, 1979 Klan-Nazi massacre. From day one he has failed to support the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, fearing that it would portray Our Town in an unfairly negative light and preferring not to dredge up old wounds that might give the city another black eye.

I love you, Mayor, but it’s time to get over it. There is a concept of residual guilt that needs to be applied here. It’s the notion that it’s okay for white Americans to feel badly ‘— but not necessarily guilty ‘— over slavery, or that it’s okay for present-day Germans to feel badly ‘— but not necessarily guilty ‘— for Nazism and the Holocaust. Even though you were not personally involved in any of the events of Nov. 3, it is okay for you, as head honcho, to at least admit to some shortcomings in the way the city handled it.

Build the bridge; add a piece to the Mosaic you believe in; offer the olive branch. Do the right thing.

Maybe love means saying you’re sorry.

Ogi may be reached at