Paul Prather

Paul Prather: In praise of Rielle Hunter who apologized and said 'I'm sorry'

On Oct. 15, a first-person column appeared on the Huffington Post website that didn't get as much attention as it deserved.

The piece was called, "I, Rielle Hunter, Apologize."

It was important, I think, because it was among the few apologies in recent memory by a public figure that sounded like a true apology.

Therein might lie a lesson for us all.

The list of celebrities and politicians caught acting despicably is endless. Think Paula Deen, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford. Ad nauseam.

I'm a softy by nature — a sap, a sucker, a bleeding heart — ready to hug contrite sinners at every whipstitch.

Even so, when public figures "apologize," it often leaves me more creeped out than their original misdeeds did.

Their apologies tend to follow a script that sounds to my ears like, "Well, I sort of did something ugly that actually wasn't anyone else's business. Poor me, I'm catching flak nonstop from the snoopy media and my political opponents. I'm the real victim. But let me say that if perhaps some actions, allegedly committed by someone, offended oversensitive souls who ought not have been offended, well, I'm regretful these mistakes happened — if they did."

Not so for Hunter.

You may or may not remember her as the woman who had a scandalous affair with former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. His wife, Elizabeth, was beloved by the public for her fight against the cancer that eventually killed her.

Both Hunter and Edwards were nationally reviled.

Hunter later wrote a book (which I haven't read) about the matter. She has now concluded that it missed the mark by downplaying her culpability.

She has written a second book (which I haven't read): In Hindsight, What Really Happened: The Revised Edition: John Edwards, Our Daughter and Me.

Yes, I know. I'm a softy, but I'm not daft. The Huffington Post column was a not-so-subtle plug for In Hindsight; I understand that.

Still, it was a serious notch or six above your typical book promotion — and your typical public apology. Here's how it opened:

"I behaved badly. That may seem obvious to you but it's taken me a long time to admit that, even to myself. For years I was so viciously attacked by the media and the world that I felt like a victim. I now realize that the attacks are actually beside the point. The point is: I behaved badly.

"I am very sorry for my wrong, selfish behavior. Back in 2006, I did not think about the scope of my actions, how my falling in love with John Edwards, and acting on that love, could hurt so many people. I hurt Elizabeth and her kids. I hurt her family. I hurt John's family. I hurt people that knew Elizabeth. I hurt people who didn't know Elizabeth but loved her from afar. I hurt people who gave their hard earned dollars to a campaign — a cause they believed in. I hurt people who are married and believe in marriage. Many of these people have let me know that I hurt them. Unfortunately, I was not thinking about anyone but myself. I was selfish."

Hunter's essay continued from there. You can easily find it online.

It was what an apology is supposed to be and rarely is.

Yes, she referred to hits she took from the media. But she didn't blame reporters.

She, in fact, got it: She was a target because she'd hurt innocent people.

That wasn't the media's fault. It wasn't the Republicans' fault. It wasn't the fault of Edwards' Democratic primary opponents.

It was her fault. She did it. She was guilty. (Of course it was equally Edwards' fault, but it's not her job to apologize for him. That would be his job.)

It took her a while, but she finally realized the truth. She grew up. She wanted to do the only thing she could: Say she's truly sorry.

A cynic might wag a finger and growl, "You stupid cow. How could you have not recognized the damage you were causing? And now you want off the hook? No way!"

But I don't think most of us are cynics. We're not bitter and cruel and petty.

Most of us really want to accept others who've erred.

We relate to errant behavior because we've messed up ourselves.

Maybe we haven't done what Hunter and Edwards did, but we've done something. We understand what it's like to drag around leaden shackles of guilt.

We also understand that often you don't know what you don't know until, finally, agonizingly, you know it.

You immaturely live for yourself and don't understand how you're wreaking havoc in others' lives. Until one day your eyes are opened.

And then you're so, so sorry. But it's too late.

Hey, that's the human condition, isn't it? That's all of us who are honest and at least marginally adult. We've done stuff we long to undo but can't.

At that point, the only thing left is to take total, unconditional responsibility.

The amazing thing is, if we do that, people forgive us. They welcome us back.

The other amazing thing is how often wrongdoers are so self-pitying, egomaniacal or childish that they're incapable of real apology even when they see they were wrong.

I've always wondered how many wounds in this world could be healed, how many divorces and wars averted, if somebody would just say, "I screwed up. It was my fault and no one else's. I'm terribly sorry. I'll try to never do that again."