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.

She hasn't the faintest idea. Instead, she moves quickly on to another oddity: "The outcry for [Bill] Clinton's admission of wrongdoing was matched four years after by a call from the pews of the Catholic church: a demand that the Catholic hierarchy admit its own sin in allowing known pedophiles to 'minister' to children," Bauer writes.

Now let's parse that a bit. On the one hand we have Clinton, who after falling briefly for a thong-snapper, did what most men do on being questioned about it. He lied. And on the other we have Bernard Cardinal Law, bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, who had sheltered and reassigned a number of criminal priests who were repeat child molesters.

Cardinal Law's first response when a Boston newspaper reported the scandal was to say, "We would be less than the community of faith and love .  .  . were we not to attempt to respond both to victim and betrayer in truth, in love and in reconciliation." When that didn't go over so well, he tried an apology. In other words, when caught he didn't lie; but by then, who cared? The guy was toast.

In fact, in practically every chapter, Bauer manages to ignite a spectacular incineration of her premise. "Law's three apologies had not averted blame," she writes. But Clinton, who didn't apologize until really late in the game, "was able to arouse a certain public sympathy for his lies."

Why? Once again the author doesn't seem to know, so I'll tell her. Clinton survived because everyone understands that politicians are mass seducers. That's their central talent, and it's really hard for any of them to stop plying their trade in private. The reason Cardinal Law had to go is that most people also understand that someone who coddles child molesters has nothing to say, however self-abasing, to the rest of us.

Nothing we want to hear, anyway.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

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