The Art of the Public Grovel

By SUSAN WISE BAUER

John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Ted Haggard — another day, another high-profile leader publicly admits to a sexual transgression. Susan Wise Bauer argues persuasively that unspoken but strict rules of etiquette surround these confessions and that getting it right can make the difference between being permanently shunned or — as in the case of Bill Clinton — emerging from a scandal more popular than ever. Apologizing — merely expressing regret — doesn’t cut it, says Bauer. What’s required is a full-fledged confession: “I am sorry because I did wrong. I sinned.” And forget trying to treat contrition as a private matter. A grovel isn’t a grovel unless we all get to watch. Bauer, who holds a Ph.D. in American studies, traces the expectation that leaders beg our forgiveness for sexual sin to the influence of an American evangelicalism that preaches public confession an essential step toward redemption. She makes a strong case. But whether a reader accepts her premise or not, this exhaustively researched book offers a fascinating trip through more than a century of America’s top sex scandals — from Grover Cleveland’s bastard child to Cardinal Law’s protection of pedophile priests. The sex is the least of it. What’s most intriguing is the history of arrogance, dissembling, bizarre self-justification, and, on occasion, canny political maneuvering. In the future, disgraced politicians and clergymen could use Bauer’s book as a primer on the dos and don’ts of rescuing a career. Do: Confess and ask for forgiveness (Clinton, eventually). Don’t: Confess in the pages of Playboy (Jimmy Carter). Really Don’t: Claim you were “wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends?with the aid of a female confederate” (Jim Bakker). It’s a safe bet that sometime very soon yet another leader will find himself needing to practice the “art” described in this book.