It Depends on the Definition of Grovel

Posted October 20, 2008 at 3:40pm

Don’t judge this book by its cover. Or its title. Or its subtitle. Or its press release.

In fact, “The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America” is really not about what it claims to be about.

The new book by Susan Wise Bauer — with a big picture of Bill Clinton on the cover, hands clasped in front of his face as if in prayer or in agony — argues that with the rise of evangelical Protestantism in America over the past 100 years, with its emphasis on public confession and repentance, the nation has come to expect that its public figures will publicly confess their sins and seek redemption from their constituents.

Bauer offers several examples of confessions by public figures over the decades, including Clinton, televangelist Jim Bakker, and then-presidential candidates Grover Cleveland and Jimmy Carter, and she evaluates the relative success of their pleas for forgiveness.

The problem is, none of them really confessed.

In fact, the most striking feature of the book is the fact that the public figures whom she describes as having successfully confessed and been redeemed generally were redeemed precisely because they confessed as little as they could get away with.

Clinton is the perhaps the best example of Bauer’s odd prism on the subject of repentance.

Clinton, she reminds readers, was caught in a sexual relationship with a White House intern, and he made three public “confessions” about it. Clinton had initially (and famously) said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but when he had to go before a grand jury to testify about it, he went on national television and admitted, “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” But he also essentially told everyone to butt out of his personal life. Not such a good confession, Bauer says, and in fact, Clinton was lambasted for his performance.

Two weeks later, Clinton spoke to a congregation in Martha’s Vineyard, marking the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. Clinton said, “I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness … It is important that we are able to forgive those people we believe have wronged us, even as we ask forgiveness from people we have wronged.”

Bauer claims that “although he did not directly talk about the Lewinsky affair, Clinton was widely seen as having apologized for it.”

A month later, Clinton invited a carefully hand-picked group of ministers to the White House prayer breakfast, where he gave perhaps his most explicit public confession — but it was neither fully public nor fully a confession. The remarks were not broadcast, and Clinton again admitted to no specific misdeeds. Instead, he said, “I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.” Clinton said he would direct his lawyers to “mount a vigorous defense,” but “legal language must not obscure the fact that I have done wrong.” And the president asked that “God will search me and know my heart. … [and] give me a clean heart, let me walk by faith and not sight.”

According to Bauer, “Clinton had now confessed three times — the last two times successfully … his confessions had managed to convince a significant segment of the American public that he was neither a predator nor an evildoer, and that he was fighting the good fight against evil.”

But perhaps the more widely held version of events is that Clinton never really apologized, never really made much of a confession at all, and survived the whole impeachment debacle largely because his Republican tormentors were seen as more hypocritical than even the womanizer in chief. Even Bauer acknowledges that Clinton’s “confessions” succeeded in part because he was able to paint independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the impeachment managers as witch hunters, hellbent for his scalp on any pretext possible.

Clinton’s most famous utterance about the whole Monica Lewinsky affair is that the allegations of perjury that he faced depended on “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” That is, when asked whether he was fooling around with an intern (he was), Clinton said, “there is not a sexual relationship,” which was technically true only because he was not actually fooling around with the intern at the moment he was answering the question.

Bauer breathtakingly asserts, “This lawyerly redefining of language succeeded in producing sympathy for Clinton’s plight because Clinton was actively using his words to avoid being victimized by a vengeful legal system … This was immediately understandable to every American watching him.”

What Clinton really succeeded in producing with his statement was a T-shirt slogan about the definition of “is,” and a deep derision that may well have helped doom his vice president’s own White House bid two years later.

Beyond the scorched earth of the later 1990s, Bauer has found several other examples of public confessions that are equally striking for the fact that nobody really confessed.

Her book devotes significant attention to a 1920s-era evangelist named Aimee Semple McPherson who apparently was one of the pioneers of televangelism, building huge radio broadcast towers beside her church to reach the masses across Southern California. McPherson’s story sounds like a fascinating tale, and to some degree “The Art of the Pubic Grovel” reads like a master’s thesis on McPherson that at some point ran off the rails, got tangled up in a bunch of other tidbits about public figures and turned into a book about public scandal.

When McPherson apparently ran off with her married lover, her mother announced she was dead. About a month later, McPherson resurfaced, with an extraordinary tale of having been kidnapped, taken to Mexico and held for ransom, only to miraculously cut the ropes that bound her hands and escape into the Arizona desert.

From Bauer’s retelling, it is clear that none but the faithful believed this cockamamie tale, and it is also clear that McPherson never came clean about where she was during the period of her disappearance. McPherson apparently survived by convincing followers that the whole affair was the work of the devil trying to discredit a woman of God. A successful and fascinating strategy, sure, but hardly a “public grovel.”

The other strange thing about Bauer’s book is that the people who she says misunderstood the requirements of a public confession don’t seem to suffer much for their failures.

Bauer conducts a detailed study of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy’s stilted and weird television appearance in 1969, attempting to explain away his role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned in the Senator’s car when he drove off a bridge after a party. Kennedy admitted in his television appearance that his own actions — returning to the scene with friends to try to extract the young woman, returning to his hotel after the fruitless search and waiting until morning to contact police — were incomprehensible to him.

He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of leaving the scene of an accident.

“Kennedy had failed to understand the growing public expectation that confession should be part of the storytelling that surrounded scandal,” Bauer writes. In 1972 and 1976 he announced he would not run for president; in 1980 he lost the Democratic nomination to Carter.

Perhaps his failure to offer a more full public confession of his role at Chappaquiddick denied the Senator the presidency, but he has remained, in the nearly 40 years since the accident, one of the most prominent figures in the Democratic Party, a man whose appearance at the Democratic National Convention in August brought tears to the eyes of millions. And if Kennedy had publicly confessed more wrongdoing that night, he may well have spent time in the Big House, not the White House.

Bauer also makes much of Carter’s botched “confession” — which is strange because Carter never actually did anything scandalous. In this case, the “confession” was the Democratic presidential nominee’s admission to Playboy magazine in the summer of 1976 that “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Surely this was one of the more bizarre chapters in American political history, a candidate confessing not to fondling women, but to wanting to. Bauer explains how the evangelicals Carter was courting saw his confession as a betrayal — an admission of loose morals in the pages of a publication that celebrates loose morals. “His words about lust and adultery were always heard with the hedonistic, exploitative world of Playboy shaping them,” Bauer writes.

It may have roiled the nascent religious right, offended feminists and provided succor to Satan, but Carter’s confession was less than terminal to his career. It may be recalled by some readers that Carter won the election that year and actually became president, where he managed to resist the lust in his heart.

Perhaps there is, as Bauer suggests, a longing among the American electorate for leadership that will lay itself bare to the populace, admit its shortcomings and beg for forgiveness and redemption at the ballot box. But it is hard to imagine that former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D) political future would have been more rosy had he stood before the cameras in tears and said “I have sinned! I’ve been dating a high-priced hooker! I am so very sorry! Please forgive me and let me stay in office!”

In the press release accompanying the release of her book, Bauer is quoted as saying, “Who grovels most effectively may very well be the next president.”

But it seems far more likely that the next president will be the man who most successfully avoids taking the blame for anything, who can sidestep any stain of scandal and who can paint all allegations as the vengeful fantasies of partisan attackers.

The true art of the public confession may be to confess nothing.