A 9/11 Apology From the Heart?

At Tuesday night's press conference, White House reporters tried relentlessly to get President Bush to say he had made mistakes in not doing more against terrorism before Sept. 11. Perhaps they hoped for a prime-time apology.

Mr. Bush said the blame simply lies with Al Qaeda.

The idea of a Bush apology has gained momentum since former counterterrorism czar Dick Clarke gave a collective apology on behalf of government to the families of 9/11 victims during recent hearings on the tragedy. It was what TV producers call a "hot" moment, and the media want more.

But is any apology that's extracted by even the mildest coercion ever really genuine enough to serve its purpose of healing?

And if Bush truly erred by an act of omission, would not an apology from the heart, rather than one from the lips - and given under political pressure - show the kind of sincere contrition and humility that can make a difference?

Apologies have real power, but their power lies first with the individuals making them. If an apology for 9/11 is needed, the first step is to lift the pressure for one, and dispel the partisan nature of the request.

Here's one way out of this dead-end drive for a Bush apology, one we hope isn't taken as a command: Perhaps Presidents Bush and Clinton can have a private, honest talk about what they both regret not having done to stop Al Qaeda, and then stand together before the nation to give a joint apology.

It's hard to imagine these political foes doing that. But if that act of conscience lifts a burden off their hearts, it will probably lift the nation's heart as well.

But that's up to them.

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