The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America

The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America

by Susan Wise Bauer

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Whether you are a politician caught carrying on with an intern or a minister photographed with a prostitute, discovery does not necessarily spell the end of your public career. Admit your sins carefully, using the essential elements of an evangelical confession identified by Susan Wise Bauer in The Art of the Public Grovel, and you, like Bill Clinton, just might survive.

In this fascinating and important history of public confession in modern America, Bauer explains why and how a type of confession that first arose among nineteenth-century evangelicals has today become the required form for any successful public admission of wrongdoing--even when the wrongdoer has no connection with evangelicalism and the context is thoroughly secular. She shows how Protestant revivalism, group psychotherapy, and the advent of talk TV combined to turn evangelical-style confession into a mainstream secular rite. Those who master the form--Bill Clinton, Jimmy Swaggart, David Vitter, and Ted Haggard--have a chance of surviving and even thriving, while those who don't--Ted Kennedy, Jim Bakker, Cardinal Bernard Law, Mark Foley, and Eliot Spitzer--will never really recover.

Revealing the rhetoric, theology, and history that lie behind every successful public plea for forgiveness, The Art of the Public Grovel will interest anyone who has ever wondered why Clinton is still popular while Bakker fell out of public view, Ted Kennedy never got to be president, and Law moved to Rome.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691170824
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susan Wise Bauer is the author of The History of the Ancient World (Norton), the first part of a four-volume history of the world. Her other books include The Well-Trained Mind and The Well-Educated Mind (both Norton). She holds a PhD in American studies from the College of William & Mary.

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Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13810-7

Chapter One


The policy of not cringing was not only necessary but the only possible way. -GROVER CLEVELAND, 1884

At the age of forty-seven, Grover Cleveland was just below the top rung of the political ladder. In fourteen years he had ascended from the post of Erie Country sheriff to the mayor's office in Buffalo, and then to the governor's mansion of New York. In early July of 1884, the Democratic National Convention nominated him for the presidency of the United States.

Almost immediately, he faced a career-ending scandal.

On July 21, just days after the convention, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke shocking news under the headline "A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man's History." Cleveland had seduced a helpless woman, made her pregnant, and then forced her to put the baby into an orphanage. Interviewed by the Telegraph's reporter, local minister (and Republican activist) George H. Ball warned the public that Cleveland was a predator, stalking the streets of Buffalo on a hunt for victims.

The Telegraph was a tabloid, and the tale wasn't given wider play until a Boston Journal reporter followed up on the scandal and published his own account. This version of the story also insisted that Cleveland was a relentless womanizer: "Women now married and anxious to cover the sins of their youth have been his victims ... and well-authenticated facts convict him." From the Journal, the story spread across the country.

This sort of scandal was particularly embarrassing for Cleveland, whose political reputation was built on uprightness. In his years as a public servant, the American political scene had suffered through revelation after revelation of financial corruption. In 1873, Democratic senator William Tweed had been convicted of stealing millions of dollars from New York City coffers, and scores of other politicians, from both parties, had been implicated. The Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant had been tarred by three separate major financial scandals and several smaller ones.

This had given Cleveland, a relative newcomer to the political scene, the opportunity to position himself as a plain dealer and a man of transparent honesty. His term as New York governor was marked by the passage of anti-corruption measures, and his presidential campaign-headlined with the slogan "Public Office is a Public Trust"-promised voters that he would bring accountability back to the national government. Corruption, according to Cleveland's supporters, was "stalk[ing] forth with impunity," and getting honest politicans into office overruled every other political consideration: "Is it of any avail to discuss the interior arrangements of a house ... while the house itself is on fire?" demanded one supporter, at an 1884 rally supporting Cleveland's candidacy. Cleveland, the speaker concluded, was "unpretending and straightforward; a man who hesitates not a moment to show the door to the friends of corruption ... [and] has repelled the corrupt elements of his party." Cleveland's stance of righteousness had earned him the nickname "Grover the Good," not only for his financial probity but also for his personal morality; an April 18, 1884, cartoon in Puck, titled "Cleveland the Celibate," showed him laboring away over New York state business, shunning the temptations of three beautiful women.

Now his greatest strength had suddenly crumbled. Consulted by panicked Democratic friends, Cleveland told them that the Democratic party should speak for him and "tell the truth." He himself refused to speak of the matter at all. Even when crowds of Republican voters greeted him by chanting, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?", Cleveland held his tongue.

It was a risky decision. But in November, Grover Cleveland-still declining to acknowledge his illegitimate child-was elected to the presidency. His Democratic supporters taunted his detractors with an additional line to the chant: "Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha!"

* * *

Cleveland's victory presents us with a double riddle.

A century later, in an America with a much greater tolerance for sexual escapades, Gary Hart was forced to give up his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination when he was photographed with model Donna Rice sitting on his lap. Fifteen years later, the Republican Speaker of the House Robert Livingston resigned his position due to rumors that he had committed adultery. How did Cleveland, living in an era when public standards of morality were much stricter, triumph?

From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, what seems even odder is that Cleveland won without ever admitting to his fault. At the end of 2006, an Associated Press reporter mused on CNN, "Why have public apologies become such a mainstay of our culture?" He was looking back on a year filled with confessions of wrongdoing: comedian Michael Richards's admission that he had gone on a racist rant in a nightclub; actor Mel Gibson's confession that he had spewed anti-Semitic rage; Congressman Mark Foley's apology for sending sexually explicit emails to underage boys; Pastor Ted Haggard's revelation that he had both taken drugs and hired a prostitute. "It seems that the minute a transgression occurs, be it small or large, we wait for penitence," the reporter concluded. "It's the other shoe that needs to drop before we can move on." Yet the voters who put Cleveland in office-voters who expected their public officials to be good Christians, regular church-goers, and moral men-did not insist that Cleveland humble himself and repent.

There is a double answer to the double riddle. Cleveland had committed a moral sin, but he did so in an era when confession was still practiced within sacred spaces. And as he dealt with the repercussions of his sin, he managed to reassure the voters that he was not a man who would take advantage of weakness.

Cleveland's entrance into politics came at a time when the financial misdealings of elected officials (particularly in New York) had come close to shattering the Lockean contract between American voters and their leaders. Elected politicians were using their power-granted to them only by the consent of the governed-to raid public coffers, acting (in Locke's words) as princes who had "distinct and separate interest from the good of the community." Reaction to financial scandals highlighted the helplessness voters felt as they watched their leaders wheel and deal without their consent. "[I]n a democracy," the New York Times editorialized in late 1884, "the fragment of political power falling to each man's share is so extremely small that it would hardly be possible ... to rouse the interests of thousands or millions of men if party were coupled with another political force. This, to speak plainly, is corruption." Corruption-the use of public funds for private gain-lifted one man above his peers; it amplified the "fragment of political power" belonging to a single personality beyond what it should be. It created a sort of aristocracy, a ruling class willing to treat the masses of American voters as "a herd of inferior creatures under the dominion of a master, who keeps them and works them for his own pleasure or profit."

Cleveland, on the other hand, had a history of identifying himself with the American people, against the rich who hoped to exploit them. "We are the trustees and agents of our fellow citizens," he had told his fellow civil servants after his election as governor in 1882, "holding their funds in sacred trust, to be expended for their benefit ... [W]e should at all times be prepared to render an honest account to them touching on the manner of its expenditure." This was language he had already used in accepting the nomination: "Public officers are the servants and agents of the people," he had told the nominating committee. Cleveland was no political aristocrat. He was a "fellow citizen," a servant of the people.

At the same time the Halpin scandal broke, Cleveland's Republican opponent, the Maine senator James G. Blaine, was struggling unsuccessfully against accusations that he had used official powers to grant railroad rights that would profit him personally. Even juicy tales about Cleveland's sexual past did not eclipse Blaine's misdeeds. In a Harper's Weekly cartoon from August 9, Blaine appears as a knight in tarnished armor, charging full tilt at a bag labelled "Public Money"; the caption reads "The 'Great American' Game of Public Office for Private Gain." In a Puck cartoon from August 13, Cleveland stands at the center of a courtroom, striking a heroic pose in front of a jury of voters, while behind him a headline reads "Tell the truth." At the side of the courtroom, Blaine creeps away with his pockets stuffed with stocks and bonds. The caption reads "[Blaine] Instituted the Ordeal-Can He Stand It Himself?"

Blaine also had to deal with a more subtle accusation: that he was the friend of the rich, a "political aristocrat," enemy of the common man. A huge percentage of Blaine's support evaporated when, on October 29, Blaine allowed a supporter to call the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." This was widely seen as a slur against Irish Catholics, the poor working men who had once supported Blaine. In a spectacularly stupid act of misjudgment, that very same night Blaine attended a "prosperity dinner" in his honor, with two hundred of the richest men in America. This placed him firmly in the company of the resented aristocrats of capitalism.

The New York World responded with a cartoon that placed Blaine in clear opposition to the public good. Blaine and a dozen or so wealthy men sit at a huge and lavishly set table, beneath a banner that reads, "The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings." In front of the table, a ragged working-class family stands, pleading for food, but no one notices their presence. They represent the poor of the entire country, while Blaine is associated with the biblical Belshazzar, who used his royal status to throw a feast and get drunk while his city and its people were invaded and conquered by foreign enemies. The juxtaposition must have brought John Locke's words into many minds:

If a man in the state of Nature be so free ... why will he part with his freedom, this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of Nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain and constantly exposed to the invasion of others.

American voters yield power to their leaders in order to protect their own wellbeing and prosperity. A leader who interpreted election as the acknowledgment of some inborn right to enrich himself had violated the terms by which he came to power.

By contrast, Cleveland's handling of his scandal kept the focus firmly on his willingness to accept financial responsibility for his alleged child. He didn't admit paternity, but he allowed his friends to broadcast the fact that he was, in fact, paying generous support to the baby's mother, a widow named Maria Halpin. Cleveland also ordered his campaign workers to entirely ignore the fact that Blaine too had sexual indiscretions that might have been paraded before the election (in figure 1.3, the closed book labelled "Blaine's Private Life" represents this decision). This kept any head-to-head comparison of the sexual lives of the two men out of the headlines, and the focus straight on their financial reputations: an arena in which Cleveland could clearly triumph.

Set against Blaine's identification with the rich and famous, Cleveland's sexual misdeeds played more as a joke than as a disqualification for public office. On September 27, the New York paper The Judge showed "Grover the Good" jumping up and down with frustration, while a baby in the arms of a well-dressed woman yells, "I want my Pa!" The cartoon repeats the assertion that Cleveland was the father of Halpin's child, but there are no true victims in the picture; tears notwithstanding, both the baby and the woman are well-fed and well-dressed.

The prosperous appearance of the figure of Maria Halpin in the cartoon reveals that, throughout the scandal, Cleveland managed to cast himself not as victimizer, but as something closer to a victim. The first stories about Halpin had portrayed him as a wolfish womanizer who had satisfied his own desires at the cost of a helpless widow's health and reputation. In order to keep the Halpin scandal from destroying his carefully constructed financial persona as friend of the common man, the helpless and disenfranchised, Cleveland had to avoid appearing as a predator.

He did this by refusing to address the issue himself, while allowing his friends to construct a different version of events on his behalf. His direction that the Democratic party should "tell the truth" gave party supporters the freedom to investigate Halpin's story. There was no question that Cleveland had been carrying on a sexual relationship with Maria Halpin. But the story of their relationship, as told by the Democrats, removed Cleveland from the role of sexual predator and recast the story as yet another example of his righteousness. According to this version of events, Halpin was a drunkard, possibly the seducer rather than the seduced, and Cleveland had rescued the baby from neglect by paying for it to be raised in a reputable orphanage. The Reverend Kinsley Twining, a well-known Protestant minister, came out in public support of Cleveland: there had been "no seduction," he insisted, "no adultery, no breach of promise, no obligation of marriage," and since the baby's birth Cleveland's behavior had been "singularly honorable, showing no attempt to evade responsibility, and doing all he could to meet the duties involved, of which marriage was certainly not one."

It is difficult to see why marriage to Halpin was so entirely off the table, but for the Reverend Twining to say this, rather than Cleveland himself, implied that there were perfectly good reasons. Cleveland knew that he must not be seen as an exploiter. And so, while refusing to explore Blaine's private life, he did allow Halpin's personal life to be made public, to the extent that this assisted him. Halpin was an alcoholic, which made Cleveland's decision to take the child away from her an act of rescue. Even Cleveland's refusal to admit the child's paternity worked in his favor, leaving open the possibility that the child wasn't his-which made his sexual relationship with Halpin appear, paradoxically, less damaging. It turned Halpin into a loose woman, possibly a seducer, not marriage material and certainly neither innocent nor vulnerable.

This was a task made simple by Halpin's absence from the scene. Cleveland's supporters, while investigating her story, never spoke to her; no one could find her.

Chapter Two


Look back into your lives, call to mind thy sins, as many as possible. -GEORGE WHITEFIELD

The Reverend Kinsley Twining, having assured the public that Grover Cleveland was "certainly not" obliged to marry Maria Halpin, did not let the matter rest. Cleveland, he explained, was an honorable man, but he was no stranger to wild oats. He had been guilty of an "illicit connection" or two when he was "younger than he is now" (a conveniently vague phrase); in fact, he had fallen into a "culpable irregularity of life, living as he was, a bachelor."

Cleveland supporters cringed at this frankness, but the Reverend Twining's words did Cleveland much more good than harm. Twining did not appear on Cleveland's behalf as a character witness; his role was that of absolving cleric. His presence signals the answer to the double riddle's second half: Cleveland was able to avoid public confession, at least in part, because his public believed that he had already confessed in private.


Excerpted from THE ART OF THE PUBLIC GROVEL by SUSAN WISE BAUER Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgements xi

Introduction: From Private to Public Confession 1

Part I: The Shift toward Public Confession

Chapter 1: Grover the Good, Belshazzar Blaine, and the Rapacious Woman 11

Chapter 2: In the Presence of the Elect (With the World Looking On) 22

Chapter 3: Aimee Sample McPherson and the Devil 38

Chapter 4: Confession Goes Public 56

Chapter 5: Ted Kennedy Misreads His Public 76

Part II: The Age of Public Confession

Chapter 6: Jimmy Carter, Traitor to the Cause 97

Chapter 7: Jim Bakker Shoots His Allies 115

Chapter 8: Jimmy Swaggart's Model Confession 143

Chapter 9: Clinton and the Three Public Confessions 152

Chapter 10: Unaware of Change 183

Conclusion: Predictions 207

Appendixes: The Texts of the Confessions
Appendix A: Edward Kennedy's Confession 221

Appendix B: Jimmy Carter's Confession of "Lust in My Heart" 225

Appendix C: Jim Bakker's Original Confession 228

Appendix D: Jimmy Swaggart's Sermon of Confession 235

Appendix E: President Clinton's Statements and Confessions 240

Appendix F: Bernard Law's Apologies 265

Notes 287

Works Cited 315

Permissions for the Texts 323

Index 325

What People are Saying About This

Stephen Prothero

Interesting, well-written, and well-researched, this book should have wide appeal. Who doesn't want to read about sex and confession and how the mighty fall and, in some cases, get up again?
Stephen Prothero, author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn't"

Alan Jacobs

This very fine book will enrich and deepen the conversation about religion and public life in America. Bauer writes clearly and vividly and she balances good storytelling with sound scholarship.
Alan Jacobs, author of "Original Sin: A Cultural History"

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