Boris Johnson’s Apology Is Part of a Long TraditionBoris Johnson’s Apology Is Part of a Long Tradition

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s self-abasing apology, for attending a party during a pandemic lockdown, joins a long list of mea culpas by the prominent and powerful.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s self-abasing apology, for attending a party during a pandemic lockdown, joins a long list of mea culpas by the prominent and powerful.

Some of the I’m Sorries are too little, too late, others are greeted sympathetically. Some are for transgressions that festered into scandal, others for spectacular errors of judgment or worse.

The common denominator is that the apologists are well-known, magnifying the significance of whatever they may have done wrong. And their words of penance did not necessarily help them.

The admission by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Wednesday that, yes, he did attend a Downing Street party in May 2020 while telling pandemic-weary Britons they must isolate — a party he had earlier denied knowing about — has weakened him. Whether the apology will relieve the growing pressure on Mr. Johnson to resign remains unclear.

Mr. Johnson’s contrition, of course, comes nowhere close to one of history’s most extreme mea culpas: Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s trek across the Alps in 1077 to beg forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII, who had excommunicated him. (The pope ended up being deposed by Henry three years later.)

But with that qualification, here is a random and unscientific look at some other notable apologies in politics, sports and entertainment around the world.

Theresa May

Mr. Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister and former leader of the dominant Conservative Party, Mrs. May, resigned in 2019 after repeated failures in finalizing Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union. She made a well-remembered apology in 2017 for having presided over one of her party’s worst parliamentary election losses. Coughing repeatedly and interrupted by a prankster, Ms. May, nicknamed “Maybot” by critics, called her campaign “too scripted, too presidential.”

Justin Trudeau

Mr. Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister of Canada — and his reputation as a hero of tolerance and diversity — was imperiled in 2019 by disclosures that he had masqueraded in black face and brown face. “I know there are Canadians, many, many Canadians, that I have deeply hurt with the choices I made,” Mr. Trudeau said in seeking forgiveness. “I am going to work very hard to demonstrate that as an individual I will continue to stand against intolerance and racism.”

Park Geun-hye

Ms. Park, the former president of South Korea who was engulfed in scandals that paralyzed her government, was impeached in 2016 and later imprisoned. In the weeks leading up to her impeachment for abuse of power, she apologized at least three times, including in a televised address in which she proclaimed: “All of this happening is my fault. It happened because of my neglect.”

Bill Clinton

After months of denial, Mr. Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, admitted in August 1998 that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. “I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that,” Mr. Clinton said on national television. He was even more contrite in a subsequent speech to clergy members, declaring: “I don’t think there’s a fancy way to say that I have sinned.” He was later impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstructing justice but was acquitted in a Senate trial.

Angela Merkel

Ms. Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, who led the country from 2006 until last month, was known for her deft stewardship of Europe’s most powerful economy, support for Western democracies and a science-based approach to combating the pandemic. But she made a rare admission of error last March, scrapping a plan to prolong an unpopular lockdown during the Easter holiday. Although well intended, she said, “the idea of the extended Easter break was a mistake.”

Tiger Woods

Mr. Woods, the world’s most famous golfer, admitted in 2009 to having committed unspecified errors of judgment after reports emerged that he had engaged in multiple extramarital affairs. “I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart,” Mr. Woods wrote on his website. “I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves.” His apology and plea for privacy were received positively, including from corporate sponsors.

Martha Stewart

Ms. Stewart, the celebrity homemaker and media personality, was convicted in 2004 of having lied to investigators about a stock sale, and was sentenced to five months in prison. While she sought to play down the conviction as a “small personal matter” and vowed to rebound from it (which she did), Ms. Stewart was also contrite about the effects. “Today is a shameful day,” she said. “It’s shameful for me, and for my family, and for my beloved company, and for all of its employees and partners.”

Mark Sanford

In June 2009, Mr. Sanford, then the governor of South Carolina and a rising star in the Republican Party, disappeared for six days without explanation — not even his wife knew. His spokesman later said he had been hiking the Appalachian Trail. Local journalists acting on a tip learned he was with his mistress in Argentina, confronting him at the airport upon his return. The scandal destroyed his marriage, and “Appalachian Trail” became a euphemism for infidelity. Mr. Sanford apologized in a speech that evoked biblical tales of redemption. “I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching on that front and what I find interesting is the story of David and the way in which he fell mightily, he fell in very, very significant ways. But then picked up the pieces and built from there.”

Mel Gibson

Mr. Gibson, the film star and director, was accused in July 2006 of having made virulently anti-Semitic remarks to an arresting officer who stopped him on suspicion of drunken driving near his home in Malibu, Calif. Mr. Gibson sought to make amends in a statement issued by his publicist. “I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said, and I apologize to anyone I may have offended.”

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