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.

Of Meth and Men

1595550526 01 LZZZZZZZWhen I saw the transcripts of the Rev. Ted Haggard’s phone message, my first thought was that it sounded more like a call to his dealer. That would have still been a big story but more of a local affair. You know, “Pastor of Megachurch Bought Meth from Sketchy Guy.”

Without the allegations by gay prostitute Michael Jones that he had turned tricks for Haggard about once a month over a three-year period, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have got very far. Or at least I think that’s fair to say. (If you disagree, feel free to make the case in comments.)

In other words, this story traveled as far as it did because of our attitudes about hypocrisy and especially hypocrisy about sex. Type “Haggard” into Google News. You’ll get no fewer than 2,000 results, including dozens of foreign news outlets.

Regardless of the result of Jones’ second polygraph test, the story has now been downgraded. Given his personal history, Jones never had much credibility, and he was pretty frank that he was doing this to damage Haggard and hurt the efforts to ban gay marriage and save the Republicans from certain doom.

Journalists aren’t going to want to get burned again and risk the attendant charges of bias for taking sides in the midterms.

Now an independent board of overseers (note to reporters: they’re not from Haggard’s megachurch) will decide if buying Meth and massages from a gay prostitute and lying about it are cause to fire him. My guess: the board will at least decide that Haggard can’t be head pastor anymore, and they’ll probably fire his ass.

As for the larger implications for this story, well, it’s probably worth looking at what the National Association of Evangelicals will be like without Haggard as its president.

In its earlier form, the scandal could have helped to depress the evangelical vote or get out what Terry Mattingly has written about in the past — the growing “anti-evangelical vote.” But the way the news cycle has sped up has made that less likely. A political consultant friend told me that he would have released a bombshell like this on Friday rather than Wednesday.

And hey, working journalists, the next time you have a story that’s all about hypocrisy, it might not be bad to get a quote from the guy who wrote the book on the subject.

That’s all folks (for now)

With this post I take my leave of GetReligion. Terry Mattingly should be along either later today or early tomorrow to announce further changes. I’m skedaddling to devote time to a book-in-progress about hypocrisy, which should land in finer retail outlets next year. Don’t know if I’ll be back to these cyber pages, but I wouldn’t rule it out. It has been fun.

Before I go, let me say a few things about my co-bloggers.

I bumped into Doug LeBlanc when he was the book review editor for Christianity Today and found him to be a remarkably understanding editor. He let me write about things that caught my interest, insisted on changes when I went off the rails, didn’t meddle needlessly, and helped to negotiate my work through what can become an editorial buzz saw. So when he sent an e-mail asking if I’d like to work with him on this site he was associated with called GetReligion, I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t have to.

At GetReligion, Doug has saved me from numerous embarrassing mistakes and some truly traumatic typos. He has also been a great friend, and I’ll miss some of our bull session-like and “Hey can you please fix this?”-oriented phone calls. No doubt he’ll now have exponentially more free time.

And what does one say about Terry Mattingly? The guy is so tireless he’s almost a force of nature. The passion he brings to teaching and analyzing journalism makes Howie Kurtz look like a lazy part-timer. “On deadline” should be the epitaph they carve on his tombstone. He’s also sweet and quirky and funny and he evinces a remarkable ability to crash any computer program known to man.

Terry cared enough to give a down-on-his-luck freelancer a regular gig and a lot of rope. For that I will always be grateful.

Re: The ECT Moment

Santorum like you mean it

This week, The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Senator Rick Santorum as part of his new book tour. And the excerpt is just lame.

I mean, I’m glad to know the Rt. Hon. Sen. is “absolutely not” bothered that he is a polarizing figure, that he has “never really worried” about winning his next race, and that he has only ever “worried about doing the right thing.” It’s also nice to know that he is keeping his options open in re: a presidential bid, that the voters should prefer him to Bob Casey Jr. in the next senatorial go-round because “I am effective down here” [While always doing the right thing, of course -- ed.] and that he thinks the release of Judge Roberts’ writings should be limited to those things the White House sees fit to divulge.

But . . . that’s it? I have to assume the conversation with Santorum was more interesting than this brief excerpt. Why doesn’t the Monitor at least carry a fuller transcript on its website?

For longer interviews with both Santorum and his opponent-apparent Casey, take a look at the website of Ignatius Press (here and here).

The Catholic card

The nomination of Judge John Roberts is driving some Democrats to distraction because he is probably ultimately un-Borkable. As my colleague Gene Healy wrote, Roberts’ selling points include “[g]reat grades, stellar resume, nice posture, nice smile, [and] no doubt a firm handshake. But where he stands on anything is anyone’s guess. What we’ve got here is a guy who, apparently, was genetically engineered and grown in a vat for the sole purpose of getting past the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

So people are looking for proxies to try to infer Roberts’ opinions, and one of those proxies is religion. Roberts is a practicing Catholic, and plenty of attention is being focused on his parish of choice: Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland. Beliefnet sent my friend and former colleague George Neumayr to the church in search of some clues into Roberts’ true beliefs. Neumayr came away with certain impressions of the church and “its most famous parishioner.” Little Flower, Neumayr writes, is a parish “that heterodox Catholics would regard as an outpost of traditional Catholicism.”

To wit:

Little Flower displays the marks of a parish in conformity with official Catholic teaching: a large picture of Pope Benedict XVI at the moment of his papal election greets visitors as they enter the church; there is a Vatican flag on the altar; the bulletin board in the foyer announces the beginning of the canonization process for Pope John Paul II; pro-life literature is prominently available; the parish newsletter encourages congregants “to send your best wishes and prayer intentions to Pope Benedict XVI . . . by e-mail to benedictxvi@vatican.va.”

If the Democrats really want to get nasty, they’ll drag Roberts’ priest into the proceedings. The Roberts clan was apparently so taken with Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi that it followed him to Little Flower when he moved from St. Patrick’s in D.C. I hope the Dems flinch from dragging Vaghi’s proclamations into the mix, but if they decide to do so, here’s a preview:

Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi, upholds the Vatican’s teaching on artificial birth control, an issue American priests have tended to relativize, dismiss or ignore since Vatican II.

On the Church of the Little Flower’s website, which links to the Vatican and promotes traditional piety and devotions such as “Forty Hours of Eucharistic Adoration,” Monsignor Vaghi has posted a meditation on chastity. Quoting the archbishop of Bologna, he said that every “sexual act performed outside marriage” is “gravely illicit,” but “even within marriage there can be an exercise of sexuality that does not respect its moral value: when the conjugal act does not truly respect the dignity of the person of one’s spouse, as well as when it is deprived, through a positive intervention of the spouses, of its natural capacity to give origin to new life.”

In another meditation, Monsignor Vaghi staunchly defended the Church’s teaching on abortion. “After all, since Roe v. Wade in l973, the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion, there have been over 44 million abortions, young children dying before they had the opportunity to enjoy life outside the womb as we enjoy life,” he wrote. “Our church is always, and will always, be on the side of life, life from conception until natural death. And it is precisely because Jesus took on life, took on flesh and ennobled it by becoming man and like us in everything but sin that we value human life so much, that we were born in His image and reborn in Christ Jesus.”

The rage of The Economist

I had to read this dispatch by a Rome correspondent for The Economist a few times to see if I had missed anything: some hint of parody or that refined British sense of irony perhaps. Alas, the report was just as humorless, shrill, and petulantly PC as I had thought.

The subject is author Oriana Fallaci, famed Italian journalist and author of a few books that challenge the prevailing notions of Islam (“religion of peace”; “a few extremists don’t speak for the vast body of believers”; etc.). Fallaci is subject to prosecution under an Italian law against insults to religion, and she has been embroiled in similar disputes in France and elsewhere. So now pay careful attention to how the writer chooses to frame the story:

There is nothing al-Qaeda would like more than for Europeans to turn on Muslims in their midst, uniting fundamentalist militants with those who are neither fundamentalist nor militant. In that sense, Osama bin Laden won yet another victory this week with the publication of another hate-filled, anti-Islamic diatribe by an Italian writer who has become noted for such diatribes: Oriana Fallaci. Over the past three years, the 76-year-old Ms Fallaci has carved out a role as the voice of what might be a new European racism — were race, not religion, her primary cause.

Lest readers think I’m yanking it out of context, that’s how the piece begins. And it ends with a shot across the bow to anyone who would have the audacity to reframe this as a free-speech issue:

Some support for her is purely libertarian, based on the right to express opinions even if they are offensive, incendiary and blasphemous. But a lot also reflects sympathy with her views. Paradoxically, such sympathy is often expressed by the same people who were most impressed by Britain’s measured reaction to the London bombings. And yet that reaction reflected in large degree a belief in the virtue of the same multiculturalism that Ms Fallaci and her friends so despise.

Bad day to read a Cormac McCarthy novel

In his latest column for The Times of London, Matthew Parris tries to pick a rock out of his shoe. He chastises his fellow journalists for reporting stories based on the limited facts available and then dropping those stories when they don’t pan out:

The habit is more disliked by listeners and readers than I think editors appreciate. Perhaps the first item on each day’s news agenda should be “matters arising from yesterday’s news.” News editors would then do us the courtesy of explaining where some of those stories went.

In particular, he zeroes in on reports arising from the London bombings and calls into question the thesis that the original effort benefited greatly from foreign influence. But then he turns around and admits,

Some of the scares that grip our headlines and imaginations do later turn out to have been every bit the threat we thought they were. I have not the least idea what may be the size, shape and competence of al-Qaeda and would not dream of suggesting (and do not believe) that they are uninvolved.

Nevertheless, he believes that “When all the pressures are to talk up a lethal characterization of the forces at work, we need to be supercool in the way we look at these reports.” Parris fingers four interested parties in talking up the “foreign links” aspect of the story: the press (easier story); the government (easier target); the intelligence services (mostly vanity and ass-covering); and al Qaeda (duh). He concludes:

From a certain point of view, the journalist, the politician, the police chief and the terrorist can be seen as locked in a macabre waltz of the mind, no less distorting for being unconscious. We should not to join that dance.

Oh, but let’s. The facts on the ground are still being sorted out, and British police are in hot pursuit of those responsible for the second, failed bombings. And now, terrorists in Egypt have decided to jump in with both feet.

Journalists are trying to move as fast as the story and I think most readers and viewers understand that a) some of the leads won’t pan out and b) untangling all of this on the fly would be tedious. Journalism is only the first draft of history, subject to massive revision.