On Saying ‘I’m Sorry’

It was a strange encounter in an unlikely place.

I attended a national nominating convention in 2012 as an alternate delegate. Delegates sometimes exchange credentials with their alternates allowing us to be on the main floor of the convention rather than in the bleachers. The main floor is a fun place to be! Delegates and alternates meet counterparts in other states, and political and media personalities we see on television. It’s a great talk-fest.

I was wandering about on the main floor in my delegate’s stead when I came upon former Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. I greeted him and told him it had been our privilege to have him in Alabama a few years before as a convention speaker. In those days he was rumored to be interested in the White House. The governor said to me, “Mike, I let you people down in Alabama. I’m ashamed of what I did, and I need you to forgive me.”

Sanford disappeared for a few days after his Alabama trip, and later revealed he’d been in Argentina with his “soul mate.” Now, years later, his marriage was done and he’d narrowly escaped impeachment in South Carolina. I was struck by his desire to apologize, as though I had some power in his life. But I’ve never forgotten his humility that evening.

Sanford was elected to his old congressional seat the next year, but lost a primary this month, allegedly due to his criticism of the president.

President Clinton had a unique apology, too. He delivered his Map Room Speech on Aug. 17, 1998. Robert Shrum revealed in his book, “No Excuses,” that he was hired to write Clinton’s apology to the nation about the Lewinsky matter. However, the president’s advisers urged him not to “grovel,” especially since Saddam Hussein was threatening in Iraq. Accordingly many hands wrote the televised speech. We often compare the two speeches in public speaking class and most people find Shrum’s speech humbler and the delivered speech angrier. It’s interesting that Clinton was questioned about his apology to Lewinsky again in recent weeks, some 20 years later.

What makes an apology good or bad? I suppose it depends on the situation and the number of people involved. As a pastor I’ve gone to people privately to ask forgiveness for a slight, but I’ve also made apologies publicly when the offense involved a larger group. Apologies must be sincere and the apologizer must not claim any justification for bad behavior.

But apologies also need reinforcement. An apology without a life change is a hollow thing, indeed. As Jesus said to a woman he forgave, “Neither do I condemn you, but go and sin no more” (John 8:11).