The revelation that Mary Mapes, a senior producer for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” was involved in hooking up Joe Lockhart of the Kerry campaign with Bill Burkett, the man behind the Bush forged-documents scandal, is deeply disturbing.

This is a story that severely erodes the partiality and credibility of CBS News, especially since Burkett is now alleging he only provided the anti-Bush documents to CBS on condition that they arrange access to Lockhart. I think it is clear that Mary Mapes will have to go.

But not so Dan Rather. Although he has been severely and tragically compromised in this story, I believe that he should be spared. And why? Because he apologized. And he did so unreservedly. And we have to begin to forge a culture in America where apologies that are unaccompanied by buts (as in, “I apologize, but …”) are accepted. Only this way can we restore to our broken culture the idea of personal accountability.

Rather is a really big name, the most important in American broadcast journalism over the past two decades. It’s not easy for guys at that level to ever say they’re sorry. So when they do, it should be applauded. Fully and unconditionally.

Some will wish to examine his motives for the apology. Others will say he had no choice. But I personally will not examine his motives. I will not scrutinize his intentions. He was man enough, big enough to apologize, and I admire him for it, even though what he did in coming after the president with unsubstantiated allegations was despicable.

I met Dan Rather at CBS’ studios four years ago when I was interviewed for a segment on “60 Minutes II.” He struck me as a humble, Midwestern gentleman. After the interview, he gave me a full tour of CBS’ studios. He could not have been kinder. Three years later, he saw me at a Broadway play, and remembering my face, made a beeline for me and talked to me throughout the intermission. I was impressed with his earthiness and approachability.

That’s why he so disappointed me with the hatchet job he did on President Bush with the phony National Guard documents. Not only did Dan Rather stupidly stake his reputation on the fraudulent papers, he even flared his anger – on the air – at those who dared to question them. As more and more experts questioned their authenticity, rather than fairly and objectively examining their veracity, Rather dug in his heels.

And he has paid a big price for his obstinacy, and possibly even his bias against President Bush. After all, it did seem that Dan Rather was prepared to stake all his journalistic credibility on this one story that most Americans did not seem to care much for anyway.

Everyone knows that George W. Bush may have been a profligate and misguided youth. The country knows about his alcoholism. But the country doesn’t care because the George W. Bush who may have been a bum in his youth is not the same man who became one of this country’s most visionary presidents.

He embarked upon that rarest of things – an authentic religious transformation. A makeover based not on stupid nip-and-tuck surgical procedures, ala so many of our damaged Hollywood celebrities, but a radical transformation of faith. He found Jesus, and his Christian faith brought out immense qualities of fortitude, vision and moral resilience.

Bush the bum became Bush the giant who, even as a I write, bestrides the world like a colossus. A man who instills within me a sense of awe for his simple ability to stay the moral course even as he becomes the most hated man on earth for doing so.

I would not be surprised if President Bush did not completely fulfill his Guard duties, but nor do I care. I would only care if he were the same irresponsible man today as he was 30 years ago. But he is anything but.

So why Dan Rather was so hell-bent on sticking to an old, stale story is beyond me.

But now that he has apologized, I believe that none should call for his resignation. Elton John famously said that “sorry is the hardest word to say.” In America, that certainly is true. Most people only say they’re sorry when they’re forced to by circumstance (think of Bill Clinton and Kobe Bryant as examples). And the only way we’re going to change that sorry situation is by regularly demonstrating the power of an apology.

We have to show people that sincere apologies can change a dire situation into a blessed one. We dare not shove an apology in a person’s face. And we dare not tell an individual, after they have offered a sincere apology, “Ah, but you only said it because you had to, because you were caught.”

Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, is this week, and Jewish tradition declares that when we come before God and ask for His forgiveness, He turns right back to us and judges us by our own standards. When people came to us and apologized, did we accept it?

I do a lot of marital counseling, and I can tell you that husbands and wives find it nearly impossible to say they’re sorry to one another, even when they know that doing so will bring happiness into their lives and resolve an outstanding dispute. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that many people are so stubborn they would rather be right than be at peace. And I always tell them, it’s better to be wrong and be married, than to be right and be divorced.

But the second, more important reason is they fear saying they’re sorry because they’re convinced it will just be shoved back in their face. “Oh, now you’re sorry? Huh? After you caused me so much pain. Take your apology and shove it.”

I think people underestimate just how difficult it is for someone as influential as Dan Rather to say he’s sorry, especially in front of the entire country, and on his own broadcast. It’s humiliating to be proven wrong, especially for a national TV news anchor. Rather could have blamed everyone else for his mistake. He could have said it was the fault of his producers. Instead, he said was sorry, directly, forcefully and simply. And he once again earned my respect for doing so.

He could go further, however, and apologize to the man he falsely maligned. Because even though he is the most powerful man in the world, George W. Bush is still someone, like the rest of us, whose reputation is as important to him as his very life.

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