WASHINGTON - Trent Lott joins a long line of politicians who tried to apologize their way out of tight spots, with mixed results.

Sometimes, it turns out, saying you're sorry isn't enough.

President Clinton's nationally televised mea culpas for his affair with Monica Lewinsky helped him withstand impeachment. And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., managed to turn his role in the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal into a platform for campaign finance reform.

But Bob Packwood's public regret for "stupid and boorish" behavior toward women didn't save his Senate seat. John Sununu lost his job as chief of staff to the first President Bush despite his tepid remorse for "the appearance of impropriety" in his use of government jets and limousines.

Words that sounded nostalgic for segregation cost Lott his post as the Senate's Republican leader despite multiple attempts to explain them away.

Making matters worse for themselves, politicians as a group are notoriously bad at shouldering blame and voicing remorse.

Few can muster a straightforward apology along the lines of "I'm sorry. I was wrong. I will never do it again."

Instead, it comes out more like "mistakes were made."

"There's a tendency to try to use rhetoric to weasel out of the situation," said University of Pennsylvania professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies political communication.

Confronted with a report blaming him for the swapping of arms for hostages in Iran, President Reagan found a fuzzy way to retract his long-standing insistence that no such deals were made.

"My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true," Reagan told the nation in 1987. "But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

About his violation of House rules on the use of tax-exempt funds, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered: "To whatever degree, in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize."

"The car that I was driving went off a narrow bridge," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said in 1969 in his roundabout explanation of the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, at Chappaquiddick.

Then-Rep. Wilbur Mills blamed a drinking problem as he tried to say why an exotic dancer named Fanne Foxe jumped from his limousine into Washington's Tidal Basin in October 1974.

"I now believe that the fatigue and pressure built up by years of dedicated work for my constituents and for the whole nation had an impact on me far beyond what I suspected," Mills said.

"We don't want to hear a bunch of excuses," said Bill Benoit, a communications professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "We just want to hear 'I'm sorry.' Then we want to hear 'I'm going to fix it."'

Even a sincere apology can't guarantee forgiveness, despite the Washington myth that just the right words can slide a smooth politician out of any predicament.

"Apologies have their limits," said Eric Dezenhall, a Washington damage-control consultant. "And some things are unspinnable."

A wrongdoer who is well-liked and makes a convincing case that the misdeed was an aberration has the best chance of survival, he said. But, "if the public views the sin in question as part of a larger problem, you're in trouble."

Lott's remarks praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign would have been more easily forgiven if Lott had a strong civil rights voting record, Dezenhall said.

Some politicians remain defiantly unapologetic.

Years after resigning in disgrace, President Nixon made clear he wouldn't apologize for Watergate, saying: "If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never."

The senator at the heart of Lott's remarks, Thurmond of South Carolina, long ago condemned segregation and endorsed racial equality. Yet, in a 1998 interview marking the 50th anniversary of his presidential campaign, Thurmond told the Charlotte Observer he wasn't sorry about his past.

"I don't have anything to apologize for," he said. "I don't have any regrets."


EDITOR'S NOTE - Connie Cass has covered events in Washington for The Associated Press for nearly 10 years.

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