A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

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In April of 1998, President Clinton was in the midst of an apology spree. Though he had yet to apologize for the still burgeoning Lewinsky scandal, the president had apologized on a trip to Africa that year for America’s role in the slave trade, as well as for his administration’s failure to respond immediately to the Rwandan genocide.

To diffuse criticisms over his constant contrition, Clinton decided to poke fun at himself at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said as part of the riff, “I regret so much. I regret our long neglect of the planet Pluto. It took until 1930 to welcome Pluto into the community of planets, and that was wrong. And I am so sorry about disco. That whole era of leisure suits and beanbag chairs and lava lamps—I mean, we all had to endure the cheesiness of the ’70s, and that was wrong.” President Clinton went on to apologize for the size of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the expression “happy campers,” and pineapple on pizza.

Clinton was using humor to shrewdly address an accelerating trend, one I call the apology treadmill. For most of human history, public apologies have been rare. But once public figures start apologizing, people expect more apologies in more situations. Rather than being a brave or unexpected move to express shame or sorrow, it not only becomes normal but is demanded. And so, with each apology, the treadmill runs a little faster. We demand more and more apologies, and value them less and less.

Four months after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when President Clinton finally did apologize for having sexual relations with an intern half his age, he forever changed the pace of the treadmill in American politics and culture.

In his first public Lewinsky apology, Clinton tried to make a point: while he admitted he was “full of sorrow” for what he had done, he believed there were “some things that even for a president should remain private.” The media pounced. As sorry scholar Ashraf Rushdy told NPR’s Throughline, “Editorials and commentary and pundits immediately said this was an insufficient apology. Polls were conducted that showed a decline in popularity.” The public had scrutinized the apology and came back to Bill with one message: not good enough.

So then he tried again. And again. And again. Clinton apologized five more times. He had “let his family down.” He said he had “made a big mistake.” Clinton asked “for your forgiveness on this journey we’re on.” But none of it seemed to stick.

Then, at a Prayer Breakfast on September 11, 1998, two days after Ken Starr’s report laying grounds for impeachment came out, Clinton tried a new tactic. He admitted his past apologies had been bad. “I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified that I was not contrite enough. I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.”

Apology historians point to this moment as an inflection point. Rushdy argued, “The importance, I think, is that we see that the public has a role to play in defining these scripts.” Indeed, the speech set a new standard. It wasn’t enough for Clinton to be sorry. You had to be sorry the right way, the way the public demanded.

The media and the public’s consistent criticism of Clinton’s contrition attempts paved the way for how most progressives engage with public apologies today. If Republicans have opted out, doubling down on never apologizing, Democrats and left-leaners have gone the other way. Liberal leaders are expected to apologize constantly now. And their constituents have become experts in scrutinizing their sorrys.

In 2022, Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy celebrated ten years of blogging on SorryWatch.com by publishing a book, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies. The book matches the tone of their blog, where the writers, in their own words, “fling metaphorical monkey poop” at bad apologies “using savage words and holding them up to ridicule.” SorryWatch evaluates public apologies of all kinds by seeing how well they follow the 6.5 steps the authors believe every good apology must contain. Flip to a random page in their book, and you’ll see “Bad Apology Bingo Card #1” on one side and an in-depth explanation of why the authors believe it’s better to say “I’m sorry” as opposed to “I apologize” on the other.

This kind of nitpicking is typical among progressive-minded people when they encounter a public figure apologizing. A New York Times op-ed last year embodied this same mode of analysis, declaring in the title “Famous People Don’t Know How to Apologize.” The author expressed confusion and dismay at why every single apology she encountered was badly done. “Even my eight-year-old son knows the difference between a desultory eye-rolling ‘sorry’ and genuine remorse.”

I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I’ve made fun of bad apologies before, and I’ll probably do so again in this column. The scrutiny makes sense: powerful people are self-interested, so we are rightfully skeptical of their sorrys. Most public apologies probably come from a desire for self-preservation rather than a desire for collective repair. And some attempts at apology are just truly, horrifically bad.

But stop to think for a moment: when was the last time you can remember the public accepting an apology outright? And why is this so rare? Is it because every liberal politician, celebrity, and CEO is failing to do what an eight-year-old knows how to do? Or are their failed apologies, in some way, our fault too?

The historian Jill Lepore thinks it is—and that we’re the weird ones. “The practice of establishing and enforcing strict requirements for public apology is not a human universal,” she argued in the New Yorker. “It happens only here and there, and now and again. You see it in fiercely sectarian times and places—like twenty-first-century social media, or seventeenth-century New England.”

To Lepore’s point, the apology that finally “worked” for Bill Clinton was a religious one. And it’s no coincidence that the rules in Sorry, Sorry, Sorry read like dogma. Our sectarian scrutiny is the result of an apology treadmill run amok. Now, the belt is spinning at speeds only the devout can survive.