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Ritual of Repentance
The Post-Scandal Litany of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer Has Familiar Echoes

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

We are riveted, but why? Nearly every post-scandal news conference is like every other. There's a script to these things, as we all know, and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer followed it to the letter yesterday in seeming to acknowledge his involvement with a prostitute and apologizing for it.

He and his wife got up onstage, they stood close, he took responsibility, he took no questions. We've seen all this before, but across America, people watched for the panic, the angst, the teary eyes and, most of all, for that moment of clarity when Silda Wall Spitzer might rear back and slug her husband in the jaw.

That, of course, didn't happen. It never does. The post-scandal news conference, by its formulaic nature, attempts to project order and control in the messiest of public moments. If you hit all the right lines, you can at least contain the damage.

We test the crisis-management script.

First, we watch the news conference. There's Spitzer, with his wife by his side. He says, "I want to briefly address a private matter." Then he expresses remorse (albeit vaguely) and promises to "dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family."

Then, we call Mark Geragos, the high-profile criminal defense attorney, who -- as it happens -- has not actually seen the news conference. He proceeds to describe the news conference that he has not seen.

"You've got to have the dutiful wife and you have to have the 'it's a private matter,' " Geragos says. "And remorse for the past and plans for the future."

Whoa.

"If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all," Geragos says.

How strange that so many of us watch when we already know what will happen. And as we watch, random thoughts emerge: Did Silda Spitzer know when she got dressed this morning what she was dressing for? And did he change his tie from blue to a bold red, knowing that this image of him would be indelible? How do you dress for a scandal?

And what about that last line?

"I will report back to you in short order," Spitzer said at the end of the news conference, like he was closing a business deal and just needed to check some numbers, like he was completely in control of the situation.

The post-scandal news conference is all about control. The husband and wife must present a united front, which is why the wife has to be there, as Dina McGreevey was when New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey announced an affair with another man, and as Suzanne Craig was when Idaho Sen. Larry Craig denied allegations of soliciting a man for sex in an airport bathroom, and as Wendy Vitter was when Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, accused of involvement with a prostitute, apologized for his "very serious sin."

"If you don't have the spouse with you, the signal sent is one of abject debauchery and guilt," says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant. "When the wife or the family is with you, that suggests, well, somebody close to this person loves them and thinks they're worthwhile."

The cynic might say that the audience for these news conferences is engaging in schadenfreude, that we watch such dramas because we are bad, bad people. But a kinder truth is that we watch others to learn about ourselves. We are always amazed to find that high-profile people's lives are as troubled as our own, or even more so. And it's not joy we feel, but a certain a-ha of recognition. They are fallible, after all.

We wonder about hypocrisy, and the political sphere's's unending capacity for it. We wonder about the difference between appearances and reality -- the difference between the crusading attorney-general-turned-governor and his alleged private crookedness.

And we wonder about grace, too. What tranquil space do wronged spouses visit in their mind's eyes during these news conferences? Do they all go to the same grassy field?

We have questions upon questions. We wonder what we will know tomorrow.

Because if this scandal follows the script of so many others before it, there will be more revelations in days to come.

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