washingtonpost.com
"The sexual sin is a stand-in, it's a symbol."
Susan Wise Bauer Looks at the Art of Public Apology

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Susan Wise Bauer's new book, "The Art of the Public Grovel," traces the growing influence of public confession in America, touching on the roles of the Puritans, televangelists, group therapy and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Bauer, who teaches American literature at the College of William & Mary, dissects the personal scandals of political figures such as Ted Kennedy, David Vitter and . . . Grover Cleveland?!

-- Libby Copeland

Talk to me about how you got the idea for this book.

In the late 1980s, I was actually a student at Liberty University, which was Jerry Falwell's university, when Jim Bakker went through his huge public confession -- well, he didn't actually confess, but he was exposed. . . . He said he was a victim of evil forces.

It has fascinated me ever since: Why is it that some public figures are eventually willing to come out and say, "Yes, I sinned -- this is what I did" and . . . actually survive afterwards? And why is it that some public figures are unwilling to do this -- or do it in a way that makes their situation worse?

It's your feeling that President Clinton -- it took him a few tries, but he eventually got it right?

With Clinton, what you saw was someone who really nailed the central purpose of public confession in the 20th century. . . . The confession becomes this very powerful way for a leader to lay down power and say to the people, "I know I'm no better than you are. I know I'm just one of you. I'm a sinner like you."

The sexual sin is a stand-in, it's a symbol. . . . When a sexual transgression comes out, it sort of confirms our fears -- if he'll cheat on his wife, he'll cheat on us.

How do you think John Edwards did earlier this year?

If only his advisers had called me. . . . This is a man who thinks he's special. He thinks he's got power because he deserves it. And in everything he said about his sin afterward, you see that attitude coming through. "It's just between me and God, you know, nobody else has anything to do with it. My wife has forgiven me." . . . It's that attitude -- the refusal to be called to account -- that really turns followers against a leader.

Is there ever a danger of taking confession too far?

I don't think you can ever go too far with your groveling. . . . But you can certainly get too detailed.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company