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Sorry state of affairs


For expressions of such simplicity, apologies are enormously complex beasts. In its most basic form, to say "I'm sorry" is generally to express regret. But not always, as in "I'm sorry you misunderstood me," which expresses no regret at all and even casts aspersions in its wake.

When apologies do include regrets, they can vary tremendously in meaning. "I'm sorry I cheated on you," for example, can be a genuine expression of remorse for the inflicted pain, or it might mean "I'm sorry I got caught." Because the layers of an apology are difficult to nuance, and because context matters, forgiveness and absolution--the goal of most apologies--may be slow in coming. To speed the process, apologies must be accompanied by actions. In the case of public figures, those actions should include resignations, community service, repayment or other sacrifices that lend some credibility to the words.

At least that's the way it used to be in more honorable times. Lately, apologies for high-profile wrongdoing have been weak, with nothing to back them--if they come at all.

Republican Congressman Cass Ballenger apologized for his "poor choice of words" in saying he had "segregationist feelings" about fellow Rep. Cynthia McKinney, whom he also called a "bitch." Unlike Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned his position as majority leader in the wake of his own racially charged comments, Ballenger has lost little except the hue of the black lawn jockey at his Hickory home, which an aide painted white as part of what was deemed a "restoration."

If the whitewashed jockey was meant as part of the apology, Ballenger wasn't admitting it. In an interview with Charlotte radio station WBT, he said his wife called him a coward for defacing the family heirloom; according to Ballenger, the paint job would simply disarm Democrats who wanted to use it as ammunition against him.The lawn jockey had indeed been fodder for criticism in the past. Ballenger had previously defended himself as pure of heart. "If there is somebody in politics in North Carolina who is less of a segregationist I don't know who they are," he said in an interview.Perhaps even the staunchest opponents of segregation do occasionally have segregationist feelings, as the esteemed congressman suggests. Probably not. No matter, though, because that's ancient history, and he said he's sorry for his latest remarks. Until his next inadvertent outburst, or until some nosy reporter gets inside his house to view the other Ballenger family heirlooms, it'll be business as usual for Cass.

James Moeser appears to have fared even better. The UNC chancellor has been contrite for his sweetheart deal with outgoing university general counsel Susan Ehringhaus, on whom he lavished a fat severance deal worth almost $320,000. This despite budget cuts that have meant faculty and service cutbacks. After the details of the arrangement became public and drew fire, Moeser said in a prepared statement that he regretted "the controversy surrounding this issue" and admitted he'd made "an error in judgment." He refused to comment about a similar arrangement with another former administrator, Susan Kitchen, who was gifted with a year's salary ($143,000) after resigning July 1.

For this Moeser received high praise from select faculty and students. Law professor Charles Daye, who sits on the Faculty Council's executive committee, called the remarks "an extraordinary statement." Another committee member, Margaret Leigh, told the Daily Tar Heel "I think it's a pretty bold thing for someone to acknowledge they made a mistake. It's increased my respect for him."

A nice result for Moeser under the circumstances. While the chancellor no doubt does regret the controversy, it's not at all clear how sorry he is. As yet, he hasn't offered to donate a small portion of his salary back to the school foundation in repayment and perhaps restore a few adjunct positions to the faculty that have been lost to the budget crisis. Nor has he otherwise offered clues as to how he plans to demonstrate his remorse, other than suggesting that he'll vigorously pursue the goal of "making this University the very best it can be."

On the other hand, maybe Ballenger and Moeser deserve accolades for their words, hollow though they may be. At least they're on record. Convicted forger Jackie Wagstaff continues to resist suggestions that she may not be the best person for her Durham school board seat, since she claims to have only committed the crime for the underprivileged kids served by her redevelopment organization. The same rationale must apply to the organization's mismanagement of city funds uncovered in an audit and by The Herald-Sun.

The media have repeatedly noted Wagstaff's lack of penance, verbal or otherwise. Except for Herald-Sun columnist Carl Kenney, who wrote in a Dec. 1 piece calling for her resignation from the school board that she did apologize, though he didn't say to whom or for what. Perhaps she made a private apology to a colleague, or maybe one of her many supporters: "I'm sorry the media has hounded me into a corner and forced us once again to take a stand on behalf of the community."

At least a private apology would be better than the example set by the Special Prosecutions Section of the attorney general's office. That group has offered no apology to death-row inmate Alan Gell, who was wrongfully convicted of a 1995 murder. As N&O reporter Joseph Neff revealed, the prosecutors withheld evidence that would have exonerated Gell, or at the very least would have made a conviction next to impossible. Knowingly putting an innocent man on death row doesn't seem to bother anyone in AG Roy Cooper's office enough to say "Gee, we're sorry we railroaded you to prison."

Duke Power goes one step further. Problems with the utility's response to the December ice storm yielded thousands of complaints from angry, freezing customers, but no apology from the company--even though CP&L and even tiny Piedmont Electrical Membership Cooperative were far better prepared for the power outages. Rather, said Duke Power spokesman Scott Gardner, the anger directed at the company had been "very hurtful." The hurt feelings won't last long, though, especially since an October settlement means the company will be forced to pay back only $25 million of the $124 million in profits it hid from the public between 1998 and 2001. For which the company admitted no wrongdoing, of course.

North Carolina is hardly unique among states with sleazy pols or corporate scungili who refuse to own up to their shortcomings. Jailbird James Traficante of Ohio refused to apologize for his racketeering, bribery and fraud convictions and had to be voted out of office by his colleagues. Helen Chenowith won her Utah congressional seat on a family values platform, then justified the adulterous affair that broke up her partner's family by saying she was single at the time. Presidents lie on a regular basis. Name the corporate CEO do-badder who has confessed to ripping off employees and shareholders and offered to do penance in the pokey.

It seems like eons, but it wasn't that long ago that the story of former Exalted Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan C.P Ellis made headlines. In the early 1970s, while fighting to keep the school system segregated, Ellis had a transforming moment, tore up his Klan card, and joined forces with the opposition. Ellis apologized for his past actions, but unlike the current crop of frauds, his apology went way beyond words. He made the struggle for justice his life's work.

You won't find too many C.P. Ellises today, an age in which shamelessness seems to have reached new lows. Instead we'll just have to sit back and watch the parade of moral deficients as they expose themselves in public, then try and minimize the damage. Like the married judge (who shall, for the time being, remain nameless) who bedded a reporter covering a trial over which he was presiding and made prejudicial remarks about the case during the affair--all involved are still awaiting some sign of compunction. As long as the public refuses to hold bloodsuckers accountable, they will continue to suck blood. Even as they apologize for spilling some in the process. EndBlock

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