Today, apology drains regret of responsibility

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. insists he knew nothing about a staff member's spreading allegations online about Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life. He immediately demanded the man's resignation and has publicly repudiated his actions.

But when usually Ehrlich-friendly local talk radio took up the issue of longtime aide Joseph Steffen's actions yesterday morning, the buzz was that the governor needed to do one more thing: Say he's sorry.

"He should apologize for what [Steffen] did," WBAL morning host Chip Franklin said on his show yesterday.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he told Steffen to apologize immediately to the mayor, and Ehrlich said he would not issue a personal apology to O'Malley.

"I don't think that's appropriate because I didn't have any knowledge of it," Ehrlich said.

A Washington Post article yesterday said that O'Malley had called on Ehrlich to apologize but O'Malley has not publicly repeated the request.

At times, political apologies have been crucial in salvaging careers, but experts and political observers were divided about whether this is one of those times.

Democrats, many of whom said they did not believe Steffen acted without the knowledge of higher-ups, said yesterday that Ehrlich needs to publicly apologize to the mayor.

"He needs to take responsibility for what his people do, for what his political appointees do," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.

But former Gov. Marvin Mandel - no stranger to political scandal himself - said it's unreasonable to expect the governor to apologize for something a member of his staff did.

"No governor knows what 80,000 state employees are doing. You can't be responsible for the mistakes of every state employee," he said. "Why should you be required to apologize for something you didn't do?"

Stephen E. Lucas, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin, said a classical political apology is a refutation of charges and does not necessarily involve the politician saying he is sorry.

In this case, Ehrlich has offered his defense against Democrats' charges by saying he did not know of Steffen's activities and repudiated him.

The model political apology is then-vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech in 1952, Lucas said.

Nixon denied accusations that he had taken $18,000 from supporters for his personal use but admitted keeping the gift of a black-and-white cocker spaniel his daughter named Checkers.

Subsequent political apologies, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's explanation of a car accident in which a young woman drowned and several of President Bill Clinton's efforts to deflect the Monica Lewinsky scandal, were less effective, not because of their lack of contrition but because they did not include a persuasive refutation of charges, Lucas said:

"If you have to say 'I'm sorry,' it's an admission of guilt."

P.M. Forni, a co-founder of the Johns Hopkins University Civility Project, said a looser definition of "apology" has crept into European and American life in recent years, in which people say they are sorry for things they didn't do. Catholic leaders of today can apologize for misdeeds of the church's past, and President Clinton can apologize for American slavery, he said.

"Using the notion of apology in the looser way ... you can say, 'I'm apologizing on behalf of my employee.' This would be a step in the right direction from the point of view of those who claim the governor should apologize. I'm not sure that would satisfy them completely," Forni said.

Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., who was Steffen's supervisor, did make that sort of expression of regret. He said he called O'Malley and the mayor's father-in-law, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., to apologize yesterday.

"I just wanted to express personally my regrets that what happened happened," Redmer said. "I would have called with the same regret whether he [Steffen] worked here or didn't work here. ... I don't have a lot of patience for that kind of activity. I've got a wife and I've got kids and nobody's more protective of their family than I am, so I feel for him."

Steffen, however, continued posting messages on the Internet in the hours after he was dismissed, suggesting he was not entirely contrite.

"It wasn't even THAT big of a deal, as concerns what I actually said in the post," Steffen wrote on the Web site just before 1 a.m. yesterday. "I didn't start any rumor, I was commenting on rumors that were out there. What IS a big deal is the perception - and the fact O'Malley would have hammered the Governor over the head with me for the next 20 months."

Later, he wrote of the incident, "This might even burnish my reputation."

It was also unclear how much regret Ehrlich administration officials felt. After the governor spoke to reporters yesterday morning, his press secretary, Greg Massoni, asked what had happened at the news conference O'Malley had just held.

A reporter recounted a story, told at the O'Malley event by the mayor's wife, in which the couple's son asked that both parents sign his report card to prove to his classmates that his parents were still married.

Massoni, grinning, cocked his head to the side and wiped away an imaginary tear.

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.