Not having to say sorry

December 30, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- What a perfect way to end 1997: The year when apologizing meant never having to say you're sorry.

All across the world, we watched leaders perform acts of contrition for things that happened long before their time. In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair, circa 1997, apologized for the Irish potato famine, circa 1845. In Washington, some members of the 105th Congress urged an apology for slavery that ended during the 38th Congress.

A 1997 classic

Meanwhile, those folks who were actually, personally guilty continued the current tradition of the un-apologetic apology. The 1997 classic was Marv Albert, who threw himself on the mercy of the court with this wrenching rhetoric of regret for dental assault: ''I did not realize until her testimony that she felt she was harmed by this and I am sorry.'' Hold the hankies.

Against that dubious background, I have nevertheless determined to continue my own tradition of cleaning the calendar, the plate and the slate by taking personal responsibility for the mistakes and journalistic malfeasances that appeared over the past year on my own small piece of turf. Once again, my annual Media Culpa.

Allow me to begin with the prediction I made last month that Bill Lann Lee, the nominee for the top civil rights post, was ''a goner.'' It turns out that my rumors of his political death were premature. He was recast by the president from ''goner'' to actor, as the ''acting'' head of the office. Long may he keep his starring role.

Speaking of bad predictions, during the same infamous Albert ++ trial noted above, I questioned why the media was protecting the identity of the assaulted woman. ''By the time this column is printed,'' I wrote, the victim herself ''may have put her name and face out on the airwaves.'' Good point, bad timing. In fact, I had barely gotten that thought on the wire before Vanessa Perhach showed up, name and all, on the tube.

Indeed, the only wholly discreet celebrity of the year was a Scottish clone named Dolly. But when this sheep arrived on the scene, I blithely repeated assurances that cloning people would remain an ethical no-no. Faster than you can say ''Baa, baa,'' we now have folks at fertility centers condoning experiments and looking forward to reproductive immortality. Out with Dolly, in with Folly?

What's in a name? Last summer, in writing about the travails of island postal service, I referred to Cliff Island's ''Postmistress.'' It turns out that the official title for either gender is postmaster. As an Illinois employee wrote, without going postal, ''She is nobody's mistress.''

I also described Sheila Widnall, the first female secretary of the Air Force, as the only woman in her Massachusetts Institute of Technology class to go to graduate school. Wrong. She was just the first to go for an MIT-Ph.D., a different kettle of degrees.

While we are talking gender, last summer I wrote about the statue of suffragists Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- a.k.a. ''Three Ladies in a Bathtub'' -- that was moved from the Capitol basement to the Capitol Rotunda. I said two of those ladies met as delegates to an abolition convention. Well, picky picky. I stand corrected. For the record, Mott was a delegate but Stanton was there as a spouse.

The historians were after me again when I referred to Franklin D. Roosevelt's Kitchen Cabinet in a piece about Clinton sleep-overs in the Lincoln Bedroom. It turns out that Andrew Jackson had the Kitchen Cabinet, FDR had the Brain Trust. OK, but they probably met in the kitchen.

If you think the history police are tough, try the grammar police. Once again, I used the word ''disinterested'' when I meant ''uninterested.'' Or did I misuse it? Abuse it?

Finally, when I criticized the president on land mines, I reminded him of the Clinton theme song, ''Let's Start Thinking About Tomorrow.'' Yipes. The title is ''Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.''

And now with my deep apologies to Fleetwood Mac and fond farewells to 1997, let's start thinking about tomorrow.

;-

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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