I did not have sex with that prostitute

51QCVGSDPXL  SS500 OK, about that Eliot Spitzer business. There have been public calls for the New York governor to step down or face impeachment. So far, he has not announced an exit, stage left, but this is a developing news story. It’s possible that by the time you read this, New York Lieutenant Governor David Paterson will be in charge.

However, it looks like Spitzer may — and I stress, may — brazen it out.

Why would he think he could get away with that? Hasn’t he likely violated all kinds of laws here, repeatedly, over perhaps as long as 10 years? Didn’t he not only crack down on a prostitution ring while state attorney general but get all huffy about it? Didn’t he make roughly one billion enemies with his aggressive prosecutions and bigshot attitude?

How could Spitzer think that people would be merciful now, when he has basically refused to show mercy to anyone he’s ever tangled with? He’s supposed to be able to step up to a microphone, mutter a few vague words of regret, and all will be forgiven? How could he think such a thing?

Easy. This is a sex scandal, and many voters are not terribly perturbed when politicians lie about sex. In fact, we’ve gotten so used to it, says Washington Post writer Libby Copeland, that the pols have developed a “ritual of repentance.” Case in point: Copeland watches the Spitzer press conference, and then calls defense attorney Mark Geragos for comment.

Geragos has not seen the press conference, but that doesn’t stop him. “He proceeds to describe the news conference that he has not seen,” and nails it:

“You’ve got to have the dutiful wife and you have to have the ‘it’s a private matter,’ ” Geragos says. “And remorse for the past and plans for the future.”

Whoa.

“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all,” Geragos says.

Copeland poses the question, If the process has become this formalized, if we already know what is coming in these press conferences, why do we watch? Is it “because we are bad, bad people” or something else?

She brushes up against the religion angle when she says viewers likely “wonder about grace” but then flinches. Copeland frames that “grace” entirely in the context of the wronged spouse: “What tranquil space do [they] visit in their mind’s eyes during these news conferences?”

I’m guessing Greenland.

No, seriously, this piece raises a number of questions about why Americans would appreciate this sort of ritual apology. Religious mores and civic religion seem to merge. It’s public confession that puts penance and absolution up to a vote.

SHAMELESS PLUG: Speaking of voting, tmatt let me jump back in here as a returning GetReligionista to let you know that I have a new book out. It’s called The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency. It attempts to tell the story of most underappreciated institution of all time. Almost exactly one third of America’s presidents started out as the nation’s understudy. He’s the politician you never see coming… until it’s too late. Click here to read an excerpt of the book, or here to order.

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  • Matthew

    Language Log has a humorous take on the same thing here

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005447.html

    They have discussed this phenomenon before, mainly from a linguistic viewpoint. These are linked to from here

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005386.html

    Also, I am unclear that this really counts as a sex scandal. It doesn’t seem to to me. It sounds like the real issue is the criminal nature of the event, and also his hypocrisy with regards to his previous stance on prostitution. Adultery is sex scandal; prostitution seems something more than that to me.

  • http://davidkearns.com/ Kearns

    No Kindle version?

  • http://www.lowly.blogspot.com/ Undergroundpewster

    Adultery is the religious ghost in this story. The story goes that when Moses came down from the mountain and the people asked him how the negotiations with God were going on the commandments, Moses replied, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. THe good news is that I’ve talked Him down to 10, but the bad news is the one about adultery is still in there.”

  • Dale

    Speaking of voting,

    Voting? I thought we were talking about “vice” part of your book.

    The “ritualized repentance” has become a scripted process to avoid the consequences of behavior. Defense attorneys like Mark Geragos prepare their clients/defendants to present a sympathetic image to a jury (“cut out the flashy jewelry and stop smirking”), so, unlike Copeland, I’m not surprised that Geragos could predict the image presented by a wayward politician at a press conference. Copeland’s piece is helpful in highlighting the manipulative character of this form of political theater.

    I’m sure that Governor Spitzer is sorry for what he did, and I honestly wish him no ill; but unfortunately he seems to think that there should be no consequence for his flagrant violation of the law. He built a public image around the idea of integrity, while apparently believing his fellow citizens and law enforcement officials were too foolish to notice his own misbehavior. He was wrong; as a result, he has lost all credibility as a political leader and should resign.

    I like your idea of examining the parallel of the “mea culpa” press conference and the religious concept of repentance “Repentance” means a turning toward God and away from sin. In nontheological terms, it means acknowledging and altering not just the immoral behavior, but other parts of your personal and public life that permitted the immoral behavior. The “mea culpa” press conferences are an attempt to cut the processs of repentance short at mere acknowledgement; further criticism can be dismissed as unforgiving or judgmental.

    There’s more going on in this man’s life than a momentary of weakness during which he hired a $1000 an hour prostitute. The fact that an elected governor, who ran on a reformist, anti-corruption platform, showed such lack of judgment and self-control to take the risk of hiring prostitutes is a bit frightening. I don’t think a public airing of his dirty laundry is necessary, but I do think he needs to get out of public life to straighten it out.

    It’s not a matter of the public avenging itself on the guilty politician; it’s a matter of acknowledging that someone has gotten himself in over his head morally, and not minimizing what got him there.

  • Julia

    There’s more going on in this man’s life than a momentary of weakness during which he hired a $1000 an hour prostitute. The fact that an elected governor, who ran on a reformist, anti-corruption platform, showed such lack of judgment and self-control to take the risk of hiring prostitutes is a bit frightening.

    I can’t recall the technical name for it, but there is a psychological syndrome that involves just such a thing. It’s the kid who tortures dogs and grows up to be a veterinarian. It’s the arsonist fascinated with fire who becomes a fireman.

    I guess the motivator is hatred of self for urges one cannot control and a pattern of publicly doing the opposite in an attempt to control it. That’s why the fireman hates arsonists – he is one and is extremely angry at himself for his inability to master his urges. He takes it out on people just like himself.

  • Jerry

    Julia makes what I think is an important point. It’s happened so often to so many no matter what their ideology or professed religion. Partly the wall between private behavior and public office is gone. There are stories about Eisenhower and Kennedy, but in those days private behavior was kept hushed up unless it became obvious like it did for Wilbur Mills in the 1970′s. Today such behavior is publicized and endlessly discussed by our sensationalist media.

    Of course, in the case of Spitzer, it appears that laws might have been broken thus going beyond behavior. And that is a different matter.

    Looking through some news stories, I came upon a biblical reference to put things in context:

    “There’s an element of `I’m so special, the rules don’t apply to me,”’ he said. “Powerful men have had sexual issues for a long time. Look at King Solomon. The Bible says he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. What was that all about?”

    http://www.delawareonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080312/NEWS/80312023

  • Dale

    Partly the wall between private behavior and public office is gone. There are stories about Eisenhower and Kennedy, but in those days private behavior was kept hushed up unless it became obvious like it did for Wilbur Mills in the 1970’s.

    Apparently the press was more willing to cover for politicians’ peccadilloes in the past. On the other hand, I think if Spitzer hadn’t been acting in a way that attracted the attention of law enforcement, the story wouldn’t have become public. From what I understand, he was moving money between shell corporations in a way that made his bank(s) feel so uncomfortable that they called in law enforcement. I might feel more sympathy for Spitzer if the press had been staking out his hotel rooms every night hoping for a slip-up.

    Isn’t it ironic that his downfall was that he behaved like a white collar criminal? If he had paid the prostitution ring directly, he wouldn’t have been discovered until the police made a raid and got the business books. By “playing it safe” and disguising his identity with complex financial transactions, he attracted attention to both himself and the prostitution ring.

  • Dave

    Julia writes:

    I can’t recall the technical name for it, but there is a psychological syndrome that involves just such a thing.

    Reaction formation.

    Spitzer has resigned.

  • Laura

    I heard of a very good book around this time last year about public apologies, and I can’t remember the author’s name, but part of the title was My Bad. Just thought I’d throw that out there in case people wanted to check it out.

  • http://www.lowly.blogspot.com/ Undergroundpewster

    #8 Dave is correct that reaction formation is a good description of the Gov’s behavior, but #5 Julia may also be recalling “Sublimation” where the classic example is the sadistic child who grows up to be a surgeon.

  • bob

    As I recall in confession there is pretty much a ritual about repentance. Maybe not a full blown *liturgy* in public before cameras, but what does one want anyway? Is there supposed to be a “creative” way to say “I sinned”? It’s predictable because there aren’t many imaginative ways to say what happened. The only way I can think of confessing to stealing is to say “I stole”. Put your favorite sin in that space. Then don’t do it again. Cameras click, it gets re-run a thousand times…on to Miss Spears….

  • Julia

    #8 Dave is correct that reaction formation is a good description of the Gov’s behavior, but #5 Julia may also be recalling “Sublimation” where the classic example is the sadistic child who grows up to be a surgeon.

    Probably a bit of both?

  • Dave

    Sublimation is the substitution of a more acceptable (to society or one’s self) action for an unacceptable action, both driven by the same impulses. Spitzer didn’t substitute anything; he procured prostitutes and he prosecuted prostitutes. The hostility of a man toward prostitutes because he is tempted by them is the example given to me when reaction formation was first explained to me.


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