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After “Rolling Stone” quoted Serena Williams blaming the 16-year-old girl victim in the Stuebenville rape case, the tennis star issued a statement that fell short of a sincere apology, or anything resembling one. Rather than own her remarks or express genuine repentance, Williams interspersed her statement with burden-shifting qualifiers, placing herself on a long list of public figures whose poorly crafted, transparent attempts to rectify lies, stupid gaffes and serious moral transgressions would surely make Aristotle weep.
Cringe-worthy mea culpas have become something of a regular occurrence, but Chris Brown ranks high on the growing list of famous people who don’t seem to understand the basic elements of an apology. Over the last four years, the 24-year-old R&B artist has repeatedly squandered second chances he doesn’t deserve after physically abusing on-again-off-again girlfriend Rihanna, and generally acting like a sociopath.
This past April, Brown flew into a rage on “Good Morning America” when Robin Roberts tried to steer the conversation back to Rihanna. The R&B artist proceeded to storm off the set, smashing a window on his way out. He subsequently appeared on the BET show “106 & Park” and said he was disappointed in his behavior, but blamed GMA for exploiting him, bungling his apology.
When two hecklers went after Michael Richards during his 2006 set at L.A.’s Laugh Factory, Cosmo Kramer’s less-lovable, real life counterpart lost his temper and let his racist flag fly. Obviously a cellphone video caught Richards’ tirade, and the n-word-filled rant quickly went viral. Richards went on Letterman, presumably to right his wrong. But his explanation, in which he claimed that his outburst didn’t reflect his true self, proved underwhelming. Then, in 2012, Richards reminded America that he’s a bigot at heart when, on the web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” he alternated moments of remorse with offensive anecdotes that, at best, made him seem out of touch and, at worst, solidified his reputation as a racist.
In his best-selling memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” James Frey exposed his needle-ridden past in an excruciating addiction tale. Millions of readers embraced the once needle-dependent author, including Oprah Winfrey and her national book club. But, after the Smoking Gun exposed Frey as a fabulist, Winfrey shamed Frey on-air. Though Frey added an apology note to the book, he continued to defend his story as an essentially true, emotionally honest account of his once drug-addled life. But Frey invented central details and characters, whose absence would have amounted to a different story, factually and emotionally.
Five years after the deserved and brutal redressing, Winfrey reached out and apologized to Frey. Even if Frey had mustered up something more sincere than his initial dodgy non-apology, he wouldn’t have deserved Winfrey’s misguided olive branch.
Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh owes at least some of his fame to incendiary bombast that delights the far right and riles up the left (and most reasonable people). And until 2012, Limbaugh managed to spew red-state rhetoric without officially apologizing for anything he said. But after 20 years, Limbaugh called Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute, inciting strong enough public wrath to wring out an apology from the talking head. But Limbaugh couldn’t just say, “I’m sorry.” Though he admitted to choosing the wrong words, Limbaugh made sure to apologize specifically, and only, for his word choice:
“My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
In 2009, Kanye West stormed the stage at the VMAs to proclaim best female video winner Taylor Swift unworthy of her mini moon-man. He apologized on “The Tonight Show” and again with an all-caps blog post. Though not everyone believed that West was, as he claimed, truly sorry for taking Swift’s moment away from her, he professed regret in a few mediums — it was a gesture. But, in a recent New York Times interview that illustrated a mounting god complex apparent on his new album “Yeezus,” West basically retracted his apology, saying he has “no regrets” for stealing Swift’s thunder in 2009.
“I don’t have one regret…If anyone’s reading this waiting for some type of full-on, flat apology for anything, they should just stop reading right now.”
Sarah Palin has a record of issuing apologies as muddled as her grasp of geopolitics. While on the campaign trail in 2008, the former Alaska governor lauded small towns as “the real America” and “pro-America.” Palin’s version of an apology for implying less patriotism in other parts of the country was, “If that’s the way it has come across, I apologize.”
Four years later, after referring to congressional Republicans as “wusses” being “wobbly” in the fiscal cliff debate, Palin took another stab at a cheeky apology:
“Well I guess I shouldn’t call politicians names,” she said to Fox News, “so I apologize for calling the wobbly ones wusses.”
Serena Williams hopefully won’t repeat anything like her ugly sentiments about the Steubenville case, but if she does, she should take some pointers from successful public apologies.