Forgive me, Ted Koppel, for I have sinned. I have made obscene phone calls (Richard Berendzen), and I may or may not have had sex with a woman other than my wife (Gary Hart). I fell from grace and into the clutches of a young woman (the Rev. Jim Bakker), but if you ask my wife, I have been both understood and forgiven. Will you, Ted Koppel, do the same?
Koppel does not change demeanor. As a television priest -- indeed, a cardinal of the media church -- he knows his theology. He does not have the authority to to forgive, exonerate, purge, exculpate. He is merely the inquisitor whose solemn duty is, through media torture, to arrive at the truth. Forgiveness rests with a higher authority, the highest authority in this secular age: the television audience. Only they can forgive.
If anyone understood Ted Koppel's role, it was Richard Berendzen. The former president of the grandiloquently named The American University was arrested -- and convicted -- for making obscene phone calls. On the very day he pleaded guilty to the charge, he went on "Nightline." He knew that a public sin needed a public confession and that Koppel has just the booth for it. Starting promptly at 11:30, Berendzen confessed and never varied from what has become the recent formula. He said he, too, had been a victim -- sexually abused as a child.
Here we have a contemporary version of what was done in the Middle Ages. After Thomas a` Becket was murdered in Canterbury cathedral, Henry II had himself publicly flogged in exculpation of the sin. The televised confession now plays the same role. The only difference is that the murder of Becket was a public crime and a public man was the victim.
Berendzen, of course, is a public figure of sorts (who isn't anymore?), but his crime was exceeding personal. It had to do with deviant sex, and there is nothing -- but nothing -- more personal or more shameful than that. You may cheat on your taxes or rip off your constituents and still get a good table at any Washington restaurant, but a sex crime is a different matter. For such people, all tables are booked.
I feel sorry for Berendzen and do not wish to make light of his plight. The man has clearly suffered greatly, and his shame -- and that of his family -- must be beyond calculation. Neither do I quibble when he says he has a sexual disorder, a sickness, and should be treated with a certain amount of understanding. Any person who risks his good name and his career to make an obscene phone call clearly has a problem.
But in the end, the harrowing plight of a man, not to mention the woman who received the call, is reduced to kitsch by airing it all on television. It becomes yet another entertainment. The indignity of being the creature of a sexual obsession becomes the indignity of talking publicly about it. It is watched by people who flick to another channel the minute interest wanes or things get too complex -- and the recitation of trauma is interrupted by commercials. It's like Freud saying, "Back after this."
In Berendzen's case, he got involved in a "victim-off," a contest between him and the woman he called. Which one was the greater victim? Berendzen said he had been sexually abused as a child by a woman he would not name. So what, said the Virginia housewife, Susan Allen. She has sexual trauma in her past too -- and she didn't make obscene phone calls. Oh yeah, you wanted to ask, what sort of trauma? Let us judge who is indeed the ultimate victim. How can we know if we don't get all the facts?
As in any inquisition, Berendzen was accompanied by his defender -- a psychiatrist. "He did not place the calls for prurient interests," Dr. Paul R. McHugh had earlier told the court. "Rather, in a confused way he was seeking answers to unresolved issues relating to his own abuse." Maybe. But what if Berendzen had placed the call for "prurient" reasons? What then? Is that somehow worse than what he had done? What is this man talking about?
But it hardly matters. We are not supposed to question psychiatrists, even though they practice the most primitive and tentative of all the sciences. In an age of expertise, we need experts for everything, even for things in which, truly, there are no experts. Shrinks are the theologians of the media theology. Never mind how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Those who dance are doing so because they were poorly toilet-trained.
Previous generations could never understand this public airing of personal problems. Future generations will hardly comprehend facile explanations for the most complex personality traits. Only Ted Koppel knows exactly what he is doing -- enabling us to get what Berendzen got through the C&P Telephone Co.: a cheap thrill.