11/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Being McCain Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry

Give him this: John McCain is a world-class apologizer for his sins so far.

It's just a matter of time before McCain says he's sorry to Sen. Barack Obama and the country for the mean-spirited turn his presidential campaign took since a well-dressed Hurricane Sarah made landfall at the Republican National Convention. Once the election is over, he'll seek to make amends and repair the damage done to his shattered image.

The strange thing is, it will seem endearingly sincere.

The first time this happened on a national stage was notably in South Carolina in 2000, where McCain was engaged in an early presidential primary fight with the governor of Texas, George W. Bush. When asked about the notorious Confederate flag that flew over the statehouse there, he replied it was a "symbol of heritage."

Later, after he lost that race, McCain 'fessed up he had sacrificed principle to personal ambition. His disarming candor helps to deflect attention away from the flawed deed.

Recently, the senator made a handsome apology to CBS's late-night talk show host David Letterman, whom he had previously stood up. Smiling broadly on the air, McCain repeated, "I screwed up." It's hard to stay mad at a guy like that.

As a rookie reporter covering Congress as the U.S. Senate adjourned in fall of 1996, I jotted down a side-scene where McCain warmly extended his hand to an Arkansas senator, David Pryor, who was retiring. Pryor had served on the Ethics Committee which investigated the Keating 5, of which McCain was one. For years, McCain had shunned and refused to speak to his colleague. Yet, the Arizona Republican said to Pryor, "Let's let bygones be bygones."

A gracious parting gesture, I thought then. That leaf of memory has now crystallized as part of a larger pattern reflecting an uneven character.

The Keating 5 debacle almost undid McCain. He was especially close to Charles Keating, the savings and loan head alleged to have improper dealings with 5 senators (4 of them Democrats) to influence federal regulation of the industry. Keating had contributed mightily to their campaigns.

In the end, McCain was cleared with an official rap of "poor judgment." But he spent many a day and night, as the New York Times reported, salvaging his reputation as a public servant. He had a mantra that began with acknowledging that meetings on behalf of Keating with government officials gave the "wrong appearance...of undue influence." McCain often concluded his remarks: "It was the wrong thing to do."

Dredging up the Keating 5 affair may be fair game. But McCain's style of the artful apology may be more relevant to voters today than the substance of the charges. Simply put, the man is the political maestro of the mea culpa. Whether it's a strategy of sorts is for you to judge.

One last thing, and it's personal. McCain's penchant for self-criticism extends to the end of his first marriage. He left his first wife Carol, and quickly started seeing his soon-to-be-second wife Cindy, in a late '70s whirlwind courtship which culminated in their 1980 nuptials. I don't doubt it's a true love match.

Yet McCain has said that was his worst moral failure. Sometimes, you can't have it both ways.

Methinks he doth apologize too much.

Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.