Saying 'Sorry'

'Love means never having to say you're sorry" was one of the most famous - and ridiculed - bits of movie dialogue of its time. To some, the signature line from "Love Story" (1970) got things exactly wrong: Actually, the ability to fess up to mistakes should be seen as essential to any successful relationship.

The world has seen a spate of public apologies, near apologies, and calls for apologies. Dissidents again asked - and failed to receive - an apology from China's government for the June 4, 1989, massacre at Tiananmen Square. When it comes, it will be a great leap forward indeed. And former South Africa President P.W. Botha still refuses to apologize for his apartheid-era actions before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which could help bind up that country's wounds.

The longstanding test is that "actions speak louder than words" in gauging the sincerity of an apology. With that standard in mind, how do some recent apologies rate?

* Taiwan has passed a law declaring a holiday to apologize for the actions of Chinese nationalists toward native Taiwanese. Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 when communists took over the mainland. The "actions" rating? Very high. Taiwan's government, now a vibrant democracy, also said it will give compensation up to $200,000 per person to those persecuted under martial law, known as the White Terror, which ended in 1987.

* Australia marked its first "Sorry Day" for its policy of taking Aboriginal children from their families, presumably to protect them. The practice continued until the early 1970s. The "actions" test: More than 600 "sorry books" were filled with notes from a half-million Australians giving their personal apologies. Impressive. Even more impressive would be more efforts to improve the lives of Aborigines, an impoverished minority.

* On his spring trip to Africa, President Clinton apologized for the slave trade. "Actions" test: He gets credit for visiting the continent at all and for spotlighting some of its successes. But a better sign of sincerity would be to lead an effort to get the US and other wealthy nations to provide debt relief to overburdened African countries.

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