20 Questions with Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin & Public Confession in America, sees herself not as the judge and jury of unfaithful politicians. Rather, she studies the groveling that comes after politicians engage in such behavior and assesses who does it successfully and who does not. Wise Bauer dissects the roots of what has become common practice for some politicians. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William & Mary, an M.A. in English literature and a master’s in divinity from the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The subject of your book, groveling, is a timely subject considering that a new member, Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), is being sworn into Congress after beating Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), who lost his race because he had an affair while running for Congress against ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) on ethics. How do you think Mahoney handled groveling?

Poorly. He didn’t grovel at all. He [tried] on the tired old “It’s a private matter” hat. When will these guys — by which I mean elected officials — figure out that this response will not fly? Sex may be a private matter. But a leader’s response to a sexual scandal cannot be private, because the scandal gives us, the voters, a little window into his personality. The response “None of your business” — which is, in more polite terms, exactly what “This is a private matter” means — tells us: “This man does not think he is accountable to you.” This is an attitude that makes voters very, very nervous.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote it because in the late 1980s I was a student at Liberty University when Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker both had their public disgrace. I was struck by how Swaggart [groveled] and Bakker didn’t.

That made an impression on you.

Yes, the impression I was left with is that Swaggart ended up in a lot better shape. His congregation really prayed for him and rallied around him. Bakker had a huge public flame-out. I thought it was a truly fascinating contradiction.

Do you have more respect for Swaggart, then?

I don’t know if I have more respect for him. I think it takes a lot of courage and confidence to grovel in public. Sometimes that’s respect-worthy and sometimes it’s not.

What is the premise of your book?

When a leader makes an honest confession [he is saying], “I am willing to be accountable to you.” When you publicly say you have sinned and you are asking the voters for forgiveness, that is making a powerful gesture toward them.

What we’ve seen recently is a mixed level of success. I think [former Sen. John] Edwards [D-N.C.] hit totally the wrong note. “God has forgiven me, my wife has forgiven me, it’s none of anyone else’s business.”

So hardly groveling.

He did say, “I made a mistake.” That was good, I suppose. But he really did take this attitude of “I am not responsible to the general public.” The thing with Edwards in particular is he was really fighting a perception that he sees himself as better than others. Really? You really think we’re that fascinated with your daily movements?

That’s interesting. So there was an arrogance to him in the first place.

A confession shows what’s really there, what’s at the heart of someone’s personality. I could be wrong, but I’ll be surprised if he makes a return.

What about Bill Clinton?

His most explicit confession was at the prayer breakfast. He at first tried to deny it. Bit by bit he modified his responses until he could say what the voters wanted to hear. The whole way through, he had this posture of humility. The fact that he was willing to modify until he got to what they wanted to hear showed a lack of [the] arrogance that Edwards displayed.

Do you believe it was sincere?

Whether it was or not is beside the point. I think most of the voters took it as sincere. It was such a good confession that the ministers at the breakfasts went back to their congregations and said, “You have to forgive this man, we are all sinners.” He certainly hit all the rhetorical notes people needed to hear.

Do you have to have true humility to pull it off?

If you have an elitist attitude it really will come out. When you’re talking about someone confessing sexual sins, if the confession is humble enough I think almost anyone could get out of trouble.

There are exceptions: 1) sins involving children [and] 2) if the sinner is taking financial advantage of the public. Mark Foley could have confessed up one side and down the other and it would have never made a difference. There’s nothing [then-New York Gov. Eliot] Spitzer [D] could have said.

So Rep. Foley didn’t have a shot at this.

He did what you shouldn’t do. He excused himself and blamed other people. You can’t excuse it by saying, “Well, someone did it to me first.” Voters are not going to forgive that no matter what you say. [Note to readers: After Foley’s inappropriate e-mails to pages were revealed, he admitted he had been sexually abused as a child.]

But shouldn’t they grovel after such acts?

Yes, they absolutely should. It’s only the smart ones who figure out that that’s what they need to do. It’s the counterintuitive strategy. But you have to be pretty confident and strong to be willing to say publicly that “I really did something bad here.”

Are you surprised Bill Clinton is still so popular despite his lying and cheating and lying some more?

I am a little surprised. The thing that is most surprising to me is he didn’t just recover from a sexual scandal. He recovered from harassing essentially someone who was much less powerful than he was. Here was a young woman who was in a subordinate position.

But she seemed to be going after him.

I think she had to be portrayed as the aggressor if he was going to survive. I would not accuse her of that. I would be willing to say that someone on his staff knew what needed to be done. There was someone on his staff who said to everyone, “The president is never to appear as though he is victimizing or speaking badly of her.”

How do we know she wasn’t the victimizer?

We don’t. All we know is how she was portrayed. If he had been a CEO it would be have been unthinkable for us to see the woman as the victimizer, yet much of the American public was willing to believe that Monica was the aggressor. There’s no more powerful position than president of the United States. It was amazing he pulled this off.

Where do the theories in your book stem from?

Confession, before the Protestant Reformation, was something you just did with a priest. After the Protestant Reformation the priest falls out of the equation for Protestants … Rather than confess in private, Protestants stand up in public. What happened in the second half of the 20th century, with broadcast of religious services, is that this mode of confessing in public became wider.

At the same time, there’s an intersection in popularity of group therapy, TV shows based on group
therapy — Oprah, Dr. Phil — these two things together, made this something that leaders have to do, a ritual they have to complete if they want power.

In your book you discuss Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chappaquiddick. Isn’t it a little unfair to pick on Kennedy since he has a brain tumor he’s struggling to beat?

I wrote the book before he was diagnosed. My analysis of Kennedy and Clinton doesn’t make a judgment of whether what they did was right or wrong, but about the effects, how we reacted. In some ways what you do is fair game when you’re a public figure because your private and public lives become so intertwined.

What do you think of the politicians who cheat?

I will say I admire Bill Clinton’s skill as a politician. If I were married to him I would have killed him. When a politician cheats, I think we as voters are entitled to think, “If he has broken his oath to his wife, he may break his oath to us.”

Do you admire those who can grovel well? Should we?

I don’t actually tend to admire those who can grovel well because it suggests to me that they have done something to grovel well about and that they have done it many times.

How did former Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig do in the groveling department?

Very badly. He did a horrendous job. He did two really stupid things. The first was to submit a guilty plea and then he tried to withdraw it. Second thing, he was trying to use public funds to try to combat his charges. If the guy really was in a bathroom stall making a pass at another guy, he could have come out and said, “I am gay.” The openness would have served him better if he was, in fact, gay.

Did we see any groveling during the last campaign cycle, aside from John Edwards?

I actually think [Sen.] David Vitter [R-La.] did a very good job. He was helped by the fact that it came out that Larry Flynt offered a reward to anyone who could out a badly behaving politician. Right from the beginning he appeared to be a victim because someone was pursuing him and wanted to expose him. As soon as it came out, he said, “I apologize, I did it, it was wrong. I need you to forgive me.” He almost apologized before the scandal hit the national news. That’s the way to do. Don’t prevaricate, don’t put it off, don’t delay.


To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Betsy Rothstein at (202)628-8516 or e-mail her at betsyr@thehill.com.