Maybe Roger Clemens isn’t lying about steroids. I certainly hope he’s not. As I watched him last week, huffing and stammering in front of his congressional hearing, I thought: Please be a righteously indignant athlete, and not one more guy digging to China because he can’t acknowledge the hole he’s in.
Men have been screwing up since the beginning of time — and owning up to it since about 1971. Admitting fault has never been a male strong suit, but public men are the worst. They confront their guilt in a variety of styles, ranging from “quiet remorse” to “docking of the Hindenburg.”
Let’s examine a few apology styles, from some of our recent public penitents.
The Pete Rose: Stubbornly insist, against all evidence and common sense, that black is white, up is down and you are innocent. Upside: One simple story to remember and repeat. Downside: People begin to sympathize, but it’s because they suspect you’re brain-damaged.
The Isaiah Washington: Instead of owning up to your offense, insist that it is no big deal. Then, to prove your point, commit the same offense again, several times, in front of cameras and microphones. Upside: Years from now, they’ll say, “He made ‘a bold choice.’ ” Downside: They’ll only say this after someone asks: “What was the name of that guy who torched his own career?”
The Dick Cheney: Offer only the peripheral facts of your mistake (“A lawyer was shot in the face”), then take several excruciating news cycles to fill in details (“I was around when a lawyer was shot in the face”). Accept responsibility only after Trappist monks and 5-year-olds have already connected the dots (“I was around, with a gun, when a lawyer was shot in the face”). Upside: Some people will be dead before you actually admit fault. Downside: Stubbornness, combined with poor hunting etiquette, will make you a joke piñata until the end of time.
The Jimmy the Greek/Alec Baldwin: Once you’ve put your foot in your mouth (slurred blacks/called your daughter “a little pig”), go directly to the eye of the storm (Jesse Jackson/“The View”), admit your guilt and accept a public flailing. Upside: It’s over in the length of a single news cycle. Downside: It seems a lot longer at the time.
The Duke Cunningham: Wait until a mountain of damning evidence compels you, then call a press conference, narrate your own fall from grace, and weep. Upside: It feels good to finally get it off your chest. Downside: Your chest will have to enjoy that feeling for at least eight years and four months.
The Hugh Grant: Find the largest possible public forum (like “The Tonight Show”), then beat yourself up so zealously that the host has to pull you off yourself. Upside: You’ll still have a career when this is over. Downside: This may only work if you’re British.