An all-American lack of apology

Successful Americans have the constitutional right to refuse to feel embarrassed about anything
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WHY DID it take President Clinton so long to say "I'm sorry" about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and all his lies? It's simple. Americans hate to say "I'm sorry". The words go deeply against their native grain.

This seems strange to you since it's difficult to survive a single day on British soil without uttering "I'm sorry" half a dozen times. Even when there is absolutely no reason to apologise - when a stranger crashes into you on a crowded train platform, when an aloof waiter delivers a plate of marinated winkles that you never ordered, when a sales clerk busy chatting to her friend hands you pounds 10 less than you're owed, the automatic response is "I'm sorry", hesitantly followed with "but..."

I learned this the hard way when I first moved to London from New York 22 years ago. I grew up in a city where being street-smart meant knowing that the first person to grab the taxi door handle got the ride, where the most you would ever say to someone in your path was "Excuse me". Ex- cuuuse-me! Not an apology, but a demand, a warning to get out of the way.

I understand Bill. I can "share his pain", at least for a few nanoseconds. When I first moved to London, people used to exclaim, "You're so aggressive!" I would blush at such flattery. Where Bill and I grew up, being aggressive is a high compliment. In American sports, politics, business, even the literary world: when the going gets tough, the tough really get going. Bill is nothing if not tough.

Our American culture was founded on the frontier myth, on Davy Crockett carving survival out of a Walt Disney wilderness. It's just not an "I'm sorry" culture. Successful Americans have the constitutional right to refuse to feel embarrassed about anything.

Embarrassment, however, is Britain's most common emotion. Soon after I arrived, another expatriate offered some invaluable advice. "If you want someone to like you in this country, tell them an anecdote about yourself that ends with the words, `I was so embarrassed'. They'll immediately warm to you. Even if you weren't even slightly embarrassed at the time, just say it!"

I tested his advice and it worked like a charm. Now, of course, after more than two decades in Britain, I no longer have to fake it. I feel genuinely embarrassed from dawn to dusk.

Bill Clinton's glaring lack of embarrassment has been, I suspect, somewhat unnerving for most British observers. But in this, Clinton is an outstanding example of his culture - he's a living embodiment of American self-made political legends like Lincoln, Truman and Reagan. As Clinton grew up in a redneck Arkansas backwater, it made his rise to become "the most powerful man in the world" all the more American and legendary. It would be a miracle if he didn't believe his own myth.

Thus when Clinton finally managed to say "I'm sorry" in Dublin on Friday, the words staggered out of his mouth as if clamped to a twisted frame of rhetorical struts. "There is nothing that he [Senator Lieberman] or anyone else could say in a personally critical way that I don't imagine I would disagree with, since I have already said it myself to myself." Only then: "And I'm very sorry about it."

In Clinton's place, of course, most British men would be donning sunglasses and slinking off to Patagonia. Even a British politician like Jonathan Aitken felt it necessary to disappear from sight after his lies were exposed in court.

Until now Clinton's personal disgrace has not been a tragedy, but a travesty, the stuff of a thousand chat show sex jokes. But after Wall Street plummeted 500 points, American chat show host David Letterman quipped, "Did you see what happened to the stock market today? It went down faster than a White House intern."

That joke - linking Clinton's sexual disgrace and America's economic bad news - must have made the White House spin doctors gyrate in panic. If Wall Street collapses, if American investors see their own profits melting away, Bill Clinton could be back in Arkansas for Christmas, unembarrassed, weeping and hugging his way right back into America's favour, just like his predecessor Richard Nixon.

However Clinton's impeachment would be a huge embarrassment for Tony Blair. He would have to apologise to the British people for putting Britain's national reputation at Clinton's service, particularly after the missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan. Even more embarrassing, Blair would have to apologise to the Americans who follow Clinton into power. And, if the Republicans reclaim the White House in the 2000 election, I suspect Blair's "I'm sorry" will be answered with a very cold "Excuse me".