This past weekend, a comic playing Bill Clinton on Saturday Night Live told the world’s leaders not to pull anything on Hillary when she becomes Secretary of State. It's not even worth trying, he indicated, because she’ll see right through you. But he offered some reassuring advice on how to finesse things, if necessary. “The only words you’re gonna need when Hillary shows up: ‘I ... am ... sorry.’ It don’t work all the time, but it’s a good place to start.”
A friend recounted this skit to me when he saw the galleys of Susan Wise Bauer’s new book The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America (Princeton University Press). Its cover shows the former president in a posture of contrition: hands in front of his face, as if to pray; his eyes both wide and averted. But Bauer’s point is that effective public groveling requires a lot more than just assuming the position, let alone saying “I am sorry.”
There is (so her argument goes) a specific pattern for how a public figure must behave in order to save his hide when caught in a scandal. It is not sufficient to apologize for the pain, or offense to public sensibility, that one has caused. Still less will it do to list the motivating or extenuating circumstances of one’s actions. Full-scale confession is required, which involves recognizing and admitting the grievous nature of one’s deeds, accepting responsibility, and making a plea for forgiveness and asking for support (divine or communal, though preferably both).
The process corresponds to a general pattern that Bauer traces back to the Puritan conversion narratives of the 17th century. Confession started out as a way to deal with Calvinist anxieties over the precarious nature of any given believer’s status in the grand scheme of predestination. Revealing to fellow believers an awareness of the wickedness in one’s own life was, at very least, evidence of a profound change in heart, possibly signaling the work of God’s grace.
Secularized via pop psychology and mass media, public confession now serves a different function. In the 20th century, it became “a ceremonial laying down of power,” writes Bauer, “made so that followers can pick that power up and hand it back. American democratic expectations have woven themselves into the practice of public confession, converting it from a vertical act between God and a sinner into a primarily horizontal act, one intended to re-balance the relationship between leaders and their followers. We both idolize and hate our leaders; we need and resent them; we want to submit, but only once we are reassured that the person to whom we submit is no better than we are. Beyond the demand that leaders publicly confess their sins is our fear that we will be overwhelmed by their power.”
Leaders who follow the pattern may recover from embarrassing revelations about their behavior. Major examples of this that Bauer considers are Jimmy Swaggart (with his hobby of photographing prostitutes in hotel rooms) and Bill Clinton (intern, humidor, etc.) Because they understood and accepted the protocol for a “ceremonial laying down of power” through confession, they were absolved and returnd to their positions of authority.
By contrast, public figures who neglect the proper mode of groveling will suffer a loss of support. Thus Edward Kennedy’s evasive account of what happened at Chappaquiddick cost him a shot at the presidency. The empire of televangelist Jim Bakker collapsed when he claimed that he was entrapped into extramarital canoodling. And Bernard Cardinal Law, the bishop overseeing the Catholic community in Boston, declined to accept personal responsibility for assigning known pedophile priests to positions where they had access to children. Cardinal Law did eventually grovel a bit – more or less along the lines Bauer suggests – but only after first blaming the scandal on the Boston Globe, his own predecessors, and earlier church policy. The pope accepted his resignation six years ago.
It’s one thing to suspect that a set of deep continuities exist between evangelical religion, group psychotherapy, and “performances of self” in an age of mass media. Many of us found ourselves positing this quite often during the late 1990s, usually while yelling at the TV news.
But it’s a much tougher prospect to establish that such continuities really exist – or that they add up to an ethos that is accepted by something called “the American public” (a diverse and argumentative conglomeration, if ever there were one). At the very least, it seems necessary to look at how scandals unfold in nations shaped by a different religious matrix. Bauer doesn’t make such comparisons, unfortunately. And her case studies of American scandals don’t always clinch the argument nearly so well as it may appear.
The discussions of Jim Bakker and Bill Clinton form a center of gravity for the whole book. The chapters on them are of almost equal length. (This may testify less to the historical significance of Jim Bakker’s troubles than to their very considerable entertainment value.) And in keeping with Bauer’s analysis, the men’s responses to embarrassment form a neat contrast in approaches to the demand for confession.
Having been exposed for using church funds to pay blackmail to cover up an affair with a church secretary, Bakker has always presented himself as more sinned against than sinning – the victim of a wicked conspiracy by jealous rivals. In other words, he never performed the sort of confession prescribed by the cultural norms that Bauer identifies. He never handed over his power through suitable groveling, and so his followers punished him.
“Refusing to confess, unable to show his one-ness with his followers, ” she writes, “Bakker remains unable to return to ministry.” Which is inaccurate, actually. He has been televangelizing for the past five years, albeit on a less grandiose scale than was once his wont. Bakker’s inability to reclaim his earlier power may have something to do with his failure to follow the rules for confessing his sins and begging forgiveness. But he still owes the IRS several million dollars, which would be something of a distraction.
Bakker’s claims to have been lured into immorality and disgrace are self-serving, of course. Yet Bauer’s account makes clear that his competitors in the broadcast-holiness business wasted little time in turning on him – the better to shore up their own reputational capital and customer base, perhaps. The critical reader may suspect that Bakker’s eclipse had more to do with economics than with the reverend's failures of rhetorical efficacy.
Former president Clinton, by contrast, is rhetorical efficacy incarnate. Bauer’s chapter on l’affaire Lewinsky attributes his survival to having met the demand for confession.
Of course, he did not exactly make haste to do so. Bauer includes a set of appendices reprinting pertinent statements by the various figures she discusses. The section on Clinton is the longest of any of them. More than a third of the material consists of deceptive statements and lawyerly evasions. But the tireless investigative pornographers of the Starr Commission eventually corned the president and left him with no choice. “In Bill Clinton’s America,” writes Bauer, “the intersection of Protestant practice, therapeutic technique, and talk-show ethos was fully complete. In order to survive, he had to confess.”
He pulled out all the stops – quoting from the Bible on having a “broken spirit,” as well as a Yom Kippur liturgy on the need to turn “from callousness to sensitivity, from pettiness to purpose” (and so forth). It worked. “Against all odds,” writes Bauer, “his confessions 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. Most amazingly, this white, male lawyer, this Rhodes Scholar, who held the highest elected office in the land, persuaded his followers that he was just like the country’s poorest and most oppressed.”
That is one way to understand how things unfolded ten years ago. According to Bauer's schema, Clington underwent a “ceremonial laying down of power,” only to have it handed back with interest. No doubt that description accounts for some people’s experience of the events. But plenty of others found the whole thing to be sordid, cynical, and cheesy as hell – with the confession as less a process that strengthened socials bonds than a moment of relief, when it seemed like the soap opera might end.
So it did, eventually. But there will always be another one, perhaps involving some politician we've never heard of before. That is why The Art of the Public Grovel ought to be kept in stock at Trover’s, the bookshop on Capitol Hill, from now on. While not entirely persuasive in its overall analysis, it might still have non-scholarly applications.