Whether it's an elected official or a religious icon, society is fascinated with public confessions of indiscretions of high-profile individuals. Some public confessions are received well while others can have disastrous consequences.
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Wednesday's press conference by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is a good case study, says Susan Wise Bauer, assistant professor of English at William & Mary. Bauer has studied high profile confessions over the past 50 years and is the author of the book, "The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America."
Sanford announced Wednesday that he was having an affair with a woman in Argentina. Questions surfaced earlier in the week when the governor was absent from his office and his exact whereabouts were unknown. He returned from Argentina and gave an emotional press conference. The following coverage led all newscasts and landed on the front of nearly all major newspapers. So, in terms of his public confession, how did Sanford do?
"He got halfway there, but the undone final stretch is probably going to finish him off," Bauer said Thursday. "First, he needs to say ‘I sinned' without waffling. He said, ‘I apologize' and ‘I let people down.' He said, ‘I hurt people' and ‘I was selfish.' Second, he needs to assure us that he has not taken advantage of the public trust."
Bauer said that society demands that elected leaders confess their sexual infidelities "because those infidelities are a symbol of the leader's willingness to break an oath."At this point, Sanford's future is unclear, she said. She said an important factor will be whether taxpayer funds were used for any trips to Argentina.
"If he can confess the infidelity and ask us for forgiveness, thus showing that he knows he's answerable to the voters, we might forgive him," Bauer said. "If he's been using public money, it's clear to us that he's already broken his oath to protect our interests. If that turns out to be the case, he's probably doomed."