04/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Apologizing Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

The death last week of Erich Segal reminded the world of Love Story, his 1969 mega-selling book, and the blockbuster 1970 movie of the same name, for which he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay. Both book and movie were adored by millions and mocked by critics, but no one can deny the staying power of the catchy-if-devoid-of-meaning promotional tag-line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Meaningless apologies are a time-worn strategy when the powerful and the famous screw up and then try to win back the love of their fans. Master apology sender-upper Harry Shearer's Apology of the Week segment on his syndicated radio program Le Show -- launched shortly after 9-11, when he noticed a marked increase in faux mea culpas -- features absurd expressions of regret from around the globe. Shearer tells me his faves are "any that begin with 'if,' as in 'if I offended anyone.'" Republican Committee Chair Michael Steele's comment after he took heat for using the phrase "Honest Injun" -- "If Honest Injun is a slur, then I apologize" -- is a recent example that needed no embellishment.

But as a new decade begins, fallen American heroes have zeroed in on a strange variation of the non-apology apology: saying they're sorry to the wrong people.

Former Presidential candidate John Edwards has finally owned up to the paternity of the two-year old child of Rielle Hunter -- the woman with whom he'd previously admitted having an affair only after getting caught red-handed by the National Enquirer over a year ago. Edwards' statement to the media said, "It was wrong for me ever to deny she was my daughter and hopefully one day, when she understands, she will forgive me....To all those I have disappointed and hurt, these words will never be enough, but I am truly sorry." Apologizing to a toddler via a public, written statement achieves a new level of apology-weirdness. Instead of one big apology to all the sentient beings he may have hurt, better -- and way harder -- to try and make amends to the former loyalists he treated so shamelessly during the 2008 campaign, as chronicled in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's new book, Game Change.

Major League Baseball's '90s home run machine Mark McGwire also admitted something that's been obvious to everyone for a long time -- that he took illegal, performance-enhancing drugs for years, including during the 1998 season, when his 70 round-trippers shattered Roger Maris's 35 year-old record of 61. McGwire's generic media spin, choreographed by former Bush PR flack Ari Fleischer -- "I shouldn't have done it and for that I'm sorry" -- was rendered even more vapid when he repeated in interview after interview -- summoning up tears each time -- that he'd only taken steroids for healing purposes, and would have hit all those home runs with or without the drugs. McGwire ought to be saying he's sorry to the non-steroid-taking players he showed up, like former Phillie Doug Glanville, who blogged, "At Busch Stadium in St. Louis, there was a section deep beyond left centerfield with the retired numbers from Cardinals history on waving flags...those flags were nowhere near reachable off any bat I have ever seen swung. Yet McGwire would hit them like he was playing rocket golf, or some twisted form of croquet."

Then there's Keith Olbermann, whose unhinged rant calling Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown "an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees" was compounded the next night when he repeated the slander and added a double-reverse non-apology: "I'm sorry. I left out the word 'sexist.'" Only after Jon Stewart provided a note-perfect take-down could Olbermann bring himself to say,'You're right. I have been a little over the top lately. Point taken. Sorry.' But he directed his apology not to Brown or his audience, but to Stewart!

These guys could all learn something from Tiger Woods, who seems to know exactly whom he should apologize to. He understands that the public is unlikely to be swayed unless he can successfully apologize to his wife Elin first. So he's disappeared from the media glare to concentrate his legendary laser-like focus on that. If it works, he'll have a heart-warming narrative for media consumption.

I think Erich Segal would agree that love gets better when you do say you're sorry every now and then. You just need to mean it -- and say it to the right person.