Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Susan Wise Bauer's "The Art of the Public Grovel"

Susan Wise Bauer is the author of The History of the Ancient World, the first part of a four-volume history of the world. Her other books include The Well-Trained Mind and The Well-Educated Mind.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Art of the Public Grovel raises one of the central dilemmas of a public person forced into confession of some private misdeed: Confession can be a powerful way for a leader to get back his followers’ confidence, but if the confession is misplayed, it can cripple or even destroy. You can’t just confess: you have to do it properly. In The Art of the Public Grovel I suggest that successful confessions do three things: they demonstrate that the leader is no better than his followers; they place the leader on the right side of a war (either secular or sacred) between good and evil; and they give power to the listeners by allowing them the chance to forgive.

The page starts off in the middle of a quote--Jimmy Carter’s response to Playboy reporter Robert Scheer, who had asked him whether his Baptist faith would predispose him towards harsh, top-down legislation. Carter denied this, hotly, pointing out that his faith would actually prevent him from taking advantage of his power as an elected official. Unlike Nixon, Carter would never be caught

distorting the truth. Not taking into consideration my hope for my strength of character, I think that my religious beliefs alone would prevent that from happening to me....1

On September 11, Robert Scheer and Playboy editor Barry Golson appeared on the Today show to talk about the interview. On the same day, they sent a copy to Carter’s headquarters. Journalists covering the Carter campaign also received copies. Although the interview was not due to come out until October 14, Playboy released Carter’s remarks to the Associated Press and NBC Nightly News on September 20, a decision which allowed newspapers to pick and choose their quotes. The Los Angeles Times quoted his interview extensively, headlining it “Carter Admits to ‘Adultery in my Heart’.” The New York Times called the confession of lust and mental adultery “unusually candid for a Presidential aspirant.” 2 On September 23, Lee Dembart of the Times pointed out that the full interview was “much less stunning than the few excerpted quotations imply.”3 However, those three or four sentences from the multi-part, nine-page interview continued to be quoted and requoted for the next three weeks. By the time the full interview was published in Playboy, the entire four-part, nine-page article had been labelled the “Lust in his Heart Confession.”

The results of the interview, according to the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, were “Bad, bad, bad....uniformly negative.”4 The numbers bear him out. As a reward for his willing confession of moral fault, Carter lost 15 percentage points in national polls.5 His lead--the “largest ever recorded in a presidential race”--was wiped out.6

Unlike Kennedy, Carter was concealing nothing. Unlike Kennedy, Carter was placing himself in the shoes of his followers. Unlike Kennedy, Carter was admitting that he was essentially flawed and fallen, without trying to explain his way out of moral responsibility for his actions. And if anyone was sympathetic to Carter’s desire to confess the sins of his heart, it should have been his Protestant Christian supporters.

The results of Carter’s confession were “bad, bad, bad” because he violated the second principle of successful confessions. He confessed to lust in the pages of Playboy--a horrendously bad idea.

Consider the setting of Carter’s admission that he had lust in his heart. The interviewer, Robert Scheer, saw Carter’s faith as a source for possible rigid top-down legislation, and he was asking Carter for reassurance that Carter would not use power granted to him by the voters for his own gain. In Scheer’s case, the “gain” in question was legislation based on Carter’s Baptist principles. Scheer’s questions reflected the democratic fear that an elected official would wield his power for personal gain (in this case, religious dominance); Carter’s insistence on his sinful heart was an attempt to reassure Scheer that this abuse would never happen. Carter sensed that a confession of moral fault would achieve the purpose of showing voters that he was “one of them,” rather than a man who would use an inborn superiority--in this case, a moral superiority--to support autocratic legislation.

This was all well and good, but Carter completely failed to realize the symbolic effect of testifying to all of this in the pages of Playboy, a magazine which promoted every one of the self-oriented “humanistic” principles that evangelicals condemned. As a Christian, he had not only to repent and confess, but to demonstrate that he stood solidly in the ranks of holy warriors. His evangelical supporters could easily have rejoiced over seeing a Christian point of view infiltrating one of the country’s most self-oriented publications--but Playboy was too far behind enemy lines. Any holy warrior skulking around the Playboy tent had obviously gone over to the other side.
Read an excerpt from The Art of the Public Grovel, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Susan Wise Bauer's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue