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Sin No More

Apologies differ, and so do the reasons to apologize.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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The Art of the Public Grovel

Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America

by Susan Wise Bauer

Princeton, 352 pp., $26.95

Naturally, one opens The Art of the Public Grovel with great expectations, especially since the subtitle is as full of promise as a bikini and the smell of banana oil. Or, for that matter, a well-snapped thong--an image adumbrated by a cover photo of Bill Clinton, his face flushed with what appears to be embarrassment.

Susan Wise
Bauer, like the sinners whose sexual foibles and public stabs at repentance she details at considerable length, seems to promise a lot of fun: love, license, weaseling, smarmy rhetoric, and lots and lots of self-abasement. And better still: Guess which groups the lustful weasels belong to? Politicians and clergy! True, this book was completed months before Big Bad John Edwards had a chance to cop to "narcissism" (a new synonym for messing around with Jay McInerney's cast-offs). But we can't really expect our sexual biographers to be any better at timing the market than, say, Wall Streeters.

Besides, these days, sexual history books masquerading as serious reading matter usually offer better returns. So imagine the depths of my disappointment when, on turning to page 90, I read Bauer's unusual take on why Edward Kennedy found his presidential hopes dashed when his car plunged into the channel at Chappaquiddick and the young woman who was his passenger drowned. It was a fairly consequential tragedy that had, as it happens, little to do with sex. At least that wasn't the gist of the problem. Following the incident, Senator Kennedy returned to his motel room, quite intact, having somehow failed that night to ring the police:

[H]e had swum away and summoned his lawyers as she drowned. His failure to admit moral responsibility demonstrated that he had almost no understanding of why his public needed to hear his confession. His constituency needed to see that Kennedy, whose political power was intensified by his position as senior member of a powerful political dynasty, would not use that power to oppress. Kennedy needed .  .  . to show that he was on the side of the common man.

Actually, the most important thing that Kennedy needed to show back then was why he shouldn't be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Confession--penitent open confession, which Bauer thinks perfectly wonderful and an excellent emollient for the career of the famous--might have given the senator a gold star from the author, but it also would likely have given him a rap sheet, which outside of the District of Columbia isn't a proven vote-getter.

As for the desires of "the common man," another favorite Bauer topic, since it is her contention that ordinary folk like to see their leaders cop to plebeian sins: The national electorate didn't disdain Kennedy because he refused to confess to sexual weakness; they were kind of worried about the senator's failure to recall how to dial the police.

And that's the real trouble with The Art of the Public Grovel. Bauer is so excited about the connection in American public life between sexual acts and confession--she thinks you can't have one without the other, and basically implies that a well-worded declaration of guilt is usually a get-out-of-jail-free card--that she lumps all sins, however puny or destructive, together. Adultery and an archbishop's tolerance of child abusers, for instance. Evangelist
Jimmy Swaggart, who watched prostitutes undress, and PTL preacher Jim Bakker, who fleeced his followers and messed around on Tammy Faye of the spidery eyelashes. Teddy K drying himself off in his motel room, and Jimmy Carter idiotically confessing (in Playboy of all venues, and during an election!) to harboring lust in his heart.

Launching this motley array of sinners is President Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97), about whom readers today possibly harbor very little interest. Yes, the guy fathered a child out of wedlock, an unsettling revelation particularly as it erupted in the midst of his campaign--"Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" was how Republicans greeted his stump appearances--but no, he didn't discuss the issue in public, much less confess his sins to anyone, except to admonish his supporters to "tell the truth."

And that's how he won a presidential election.

Clearly this resolute refusal to
grovel, which nonetheless brought Cleveland to national victory, poses problems for the thesis of this book. Even Bauer acknowledges as much: "How did Cleveland, living in an era when public standards of morality were much stricter, triumph?" she asks.