News & Views from 465 California Street

Mea Culpa!

Clint Reilly

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa are the key words of remorse in the Act of Contrition – the Christian rite of asking God and one’s fellow human beings for forgiveness of sins.

But one class of sinners seems to have dropped the need for priest and confessional.

The voting public can expect more public mea culpas from an adulterous politician than wiped out investors will ever receive from Bernie Madoff.

The press conference of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford – complete with choreographed apology – might have been a Saturday Night Live opening skit. The tearful disclosure, the excruciatingly detailed description of how his affair evolved, and the tortured explanation of his disappearance cried out for Will Ferrell or Darrell Hammond.

Sometimes – like Sarah Palin and Tina Fey – it’s hard to tell the difference between the politician and the satirist.

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks attacked the lack of dignity that has infected much of our public life. Citing the stoic pride of our forefathers, Brooks wrote, “The old dignity code has not survived modern life.” As evidence, he cited Sanford’s press conference, noting, “Here was a guy utterly lacking in any sense of reticence, who was given to rambling self-exposure even in his moment of disgrace.”

Can we forget Silda Spitzer’s stoic glare as her husband acknowledged hiring prostitutes? Have we stopped shaking our heads at the unctuous John Edwards?

Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman,”) provoked a classic mea culpa press conference (“I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate”).

United States Senator from Nevada, John Ensign recently staged a press conference to announce that “Last year I had an affair. It was the worst thing I have done in my life.”

Closer to home, the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles have both beat their breasts and bowed their heads on TV over illicit sex.

These cathartic melodramas are just soap operas filmed for the evening news. A forest of cameras records the tears, the wife’s contorted face and the remarkably formulaic statements.

Political consultants figured out long ago that there are few sins an indulgent voter will not forgive – if asked. Hence the proliferation of hollow, staged apologies. Theatrical confessions are mere damage control.

The public apologia has become the career-rescuing antidote, not just for politicians, but for other celebrities as well.

Publicists quickly stage public confessions for athletes: Michael Phelps (smoking pot), Alex Rodriguez (shooting steroids) and Terrell Owens (being a jerk).

The same is true for Hollywood stars: Mel Gibson (alcoholism), Michael Richards (racism) and Robert Downey Jr. (drugs).

Even wayward evangelists get in on the act: Jimmy Swaggart (prostitutes), Jim Bakker (sex scandal) and Ted Haggard (meth-dealing male prostitutes)

In a world where we are all sinners, perhaps politicians think that occasional public humiliation is a small price to pay for peccadilloes. But there is a larger lesson.

It’s easy for us to flog the philandering politician. And it’s just another day at the office for his damage control experts to call a press conference feigning contrition and seeking forgiveness.

But when did we last see a politician, banker or financier stand up and apologize before glaring lights and a forest of cameras for the trillions of dollars that taxpayers have been forced to pump into our economy to prevent the collapse of global capitalism?

Lewis Lapham recently wrote a brilliant essay on the treachery and ugliness of real government crime. He questions “the exploits of the lawless Bush administration, the snapshots taken at Abu Ghraib and the pillage of the Wall Street banks.” He asks why “the FBI does not seal with yellow crime scene tape the entrances to Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange, why the reluctance of the American Intelligence Services to renounce their faith in torture, why the interest rates charged by credit card companies are on a par with those charged by the associates of Tony Soprano.”

If politicians stage public confessions, let it be for sins against us – not their spouses.

Comments (9)

  • why? because we have become a tabloid society. betrayal of a spouse is tawdry easy stuff to understand. the pay off is feel good tut tutting. financial betrayals, torture and high government lawlessness requires reading, understanding and good in depth reporting. as we sink further into murdoch journalism and the continuing pillage of our educational system we face a 24 hour tabloid news cycle and a growing uneducated populace.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | July 14th, 2009 at 9:02 am

  • The problem, Clint, it a real one. But you and I aren’t going to fix it. I made a commitment to a young lady in 1966. I woke up next to her in bed this morning. That’s not bragging – it’s simply the way it ought to be. It wasn’t a superficial commitment – ever.

    But over the past half-century we’ve fundamentally changed. We have been told we aren’t allowed to be judgmental – hence my statemnt that it’s simply the way it ought to be is out of line with modern day ethics. That implies that MY lifestyle choices are somehow better than other peoples – a PC no-no.

    And yet, there is an external reality. I’ve got a great life – family – grandkids. Most of those I know who chose more superficial paths have had bad outcomes. I’m literally embarrassed to talk about my kids and how well they are doing with some of my peers – at least when they are talking about their child having just gotten out of rehab again – and hoping that it takes this time.

    Being non-judgmental has allowed morality – public and private – to descent to the lowest common denominator, and unfortunatelyu that can be VERY low.

    We need to start being judgmental again. That doesn’t mean burning people at the stake – simply being able to tell them what they are doing is wrong and – reprehensible.

    We need to let people – elected and otherwise -know that if they can’t honor their promises to people they say they love, we have no confidence they can honor their promises to people who they are concerned about only because they neeed our votes to get elected.

    Time for a rebirth of doing the right thing. Those who say that can’t be defined are wrong. Perhaps THEY have no moral compass, but most of us do.

    Posted by: George Hanshaw | July 14th, 2009 at 11:39 am

  • A fresher take on the issue. So happy you made the point that the
    sins are against us, their public. Well done.

    Posted by: Ruth P. | July 14th, 2009 at 2:15 pm

  • Your usual interesting column.
    One factor you have overlooked regarding cheating spouses is the fact
    that all men are pigs. In the Army we said that a man would have
    sexual intercourse with a snake if someone would hold it’s head.
    Another factor in the sin is that it is a violation of the 11th
    commandment. “Thou shall not be caught.”
    Incidentally, these men are the victim of a willing woman. I don’t see
    any guilty verdict being passed on the women that in many cases
    initiate the tryst. Will you be the one without sin that will cast the
    first stone?

    Posted by: Russell | July 14th, 2009 at 2:15 pm

  • Mr. Reilly: If you really want to make an impact on politicians’
    misdeeds, may I suggest that you focus on things closer to home where we
    actually feel the pain. For example, you can amplify what was
    beautifully reported in Sunday’s paper on Elihu Harris and his crooked
    cohorts. These guys need more light shined on them, and you can do it
    in your column. As egregious as the sins you cited are, they don’t
    really affect the average citizen. But what Harris and other local
    crooks do directly affects local citizens, particularly college students
    and employees. Please use your bully pit to shame these shameless
    crooks out of office.

    Posted by: John A. | July 14th, 2009 at 2:16 pm

  • Another pithy and insightful column Mr. Reilly. Indeed, if the politicians and bankers apologized for what was really going on the jig would be up. Or perhaps the desensitized and increasingly less educated and twitter’d (i.e. fragmented) public would continue to take the abuse?! Vive la France! (for those who even look to France).

    Posted by: Bob Lever | July 16th, 2009 at 2:25 pm

  • Great story great moral
    Keep up the good work

    Posted by: Carmen | July 16th, 2009 at 5:43 pm

  • I do not know Clint Reilly and I have never met him. I do not know if he is liberal
    or conservative, Democrat or Republican. I do not know if he is Catholic or
    Protestant, agnostic or atheist, and I do not care.
    However, I do know that when I happened to read Mr. Reilly’s “public commentaries”
    in your newspaper, I find myself wondering; “Who is this troubling voice of reason
    and why is he paying to speak to us?” And then, I care. Not about the man; but,
    about what he has to say. Where has he been and why have we not been listening to
    him? Why must someone pay to perform your editorial job of speaking for the common
    man? How fortunate we are that someone is willing and able to do so, like
    Clint. MediaNews should be paying him, as his poignant observations are
    scintillating and his distillation of the issues precise. Perhaps, his independence
    affords him that freedom, to identify and call to justice, those who have done us so
    wrong, regardless of economic, political, religious or ideological affiliation or
    affliction. Perhaps, you should not disclaim his views as you do.
    Perhaps, I simply have the wrong subscription.

    Posted by: John C. | July 16th, 2009 at 5:43 pm

  • Dear Mr. Reilly, I am amazed at how stupid and spineless is
    the California Democratic Party. First they allow Grey Davis to be
    dumped and replaced at less than a 51% majority by the present Govenor
    Arnold Frankenstein. Afterwards they faun all over him as if they
    were trying to get his autograph. Then, Frankenstein’s swaggering
    posture as a candidate/hopeful for president, the credit card given to
    him by the Democratic party, & the Republican party’s inordinate
    influence over the budget process has lead to the present disaster.
    Now, just today, Frankenstein’s on TV chastising us for caring about
    the poor. Why are the Demos mute? You are not. Thanks

    Posted by: Max | July 16th, 2009 at 5:44 pm

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