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On the scout with the Apology Patrol

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Apologies are cheap, which is why they usually don't mean very much. You could ask the wife of any wife-beater. She has probably collected more apologies than she has teeth.

Or you could ask the Wachovia Bank of Atlanta. If that's too far to go, you could ask two of our saddest senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia.

Wachovia has been busy of late apologizing for its tie to slavery, a connection so fragile and remote that it had to hire researchers from something called the "History Factory" to search for connection. If they couldn't find one, they could manufacture one.

Mzz Landrieu and Mr. Allen put on a demonstration of manufactured remorse last night in the Senate to persuade their colleagues to apologize for having never enacted a federal anti-lynching law. The resolution of apology sailed through the usual fog of pious Senate bloviation to a voice vote of what was surely 100 to 0. The vote wouldn't have been that close if some of the senators could have voted more than once. Even Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the old Ku Klux Klansman who still occasionally uses the notorious n-word in his fulsome oratory, presumably voted with his fellows to apologize for something neither he nor they ever did. No one now in the Senate has ever had an opportunity to vote one way or the other on an anti-lynching statute.

Neither, in fact, has Wachovia Bank ever owned slaves, nor so far as we know have any Wachovia executives taken the rope to a lynching. The "History Factory" may be researching that now.

Only the Lord knows the depth of a man's sincerity in these matters, so we're left to measure as best we can. To judge by the size of the Landrieu and Allen press releases, Mzz Landrieu is the sorrier senator. Her press release runs to 80 lines, 23 paragraphs and 791 words, and that doesn't even count the nice color photograph of the smiling blond senator atop the page. Mr. Allen's press release, on the other hand, is a mere 66 lines in 27 paragraphs and 396 words. However, the Allen press release has more ambitious graphics, with several paragraphs adorned with bullets. (Are bullets insensitive in this context?)

Wachovia's route to remorse is a circuitous one. The municipal fathers of Chicago, where cheap politicking is not unknown, demanded to know, as a requisite for doing business with the bank, whether Wachovia had ever trafficked in slaves. The "History Factory," which it hired to find out, struck gold. Or at least costume jewelry. Wachovia acquired First Union Bank in 2001, which in turn had acquired First Railroad & Banking Corp. (1986), which had acquired Georgia Railroad Bank and Trust Co. (1954), which had acquired Georgia Railroad Bank (1929), which had acquired Georgia Railroad and Banking Company (1835), which had acquired the Georgia Railroad Company. Georgia Railroad was organized in 1833 to lay tracks from Augusta into the interior of Georgia, and Georgia Railroad had once purchased a slave blacksmith.

But there was more. Another acquisition in Wachovia's gene pool was the Bank of Charleston, which during the three decades before the War Between the States had accepted title to "up to 529 slaves" as collateral for loans.

We have much to regret in our history, and slavery and the treatment of blacks is at the top of the list. But cheap apologies only dilute authentic shame and genuine remorse. What makes these particular apologies cheap is that none of the apologizers really suggests doing anything more than trying to rewrite history and bask in applause.

Wachovia offers no reparations, at least not yet, nor interest-free loans, free checking or even an old toaster to the descendants of slaves. Neither Mzz Landrieu nor Mr. Allen has offered to give up their seats in shame for having served in what must have been an infamous, insensitive and derelict United States Senate. Neither senator, so far, has introduced a bill to compensate descendants of the lynched. Mzz Landrieu, in fact, has never even apologized for arriving at the Senate via a tainted election. We can be sure the Senate apology will be prominently featured in Mr. Allen's campaign literature when, as expected, he runs for president three years hence.

The people they apologize to are used as cardboard extras and Styrofoam stand-ins in a morality play. That's a shame, too.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.