June 8th, 2011
10:19 AM ET
My Take: Why Anthony Weiner's public confession failed
Editor's Note: Susan Wise Bauer is a historian and writer whose books include The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Confession in America.
By Susan Wise Bauer, Special to CNN
It’s a familiar scene by now: The politician is caught with his pants down, even if his boxers are still up. He feints, spins, lies and ducks. And then, finally, he breaks down in tears, apologizing to us, to his wife, to his constituency and, occasionally, to his God.
The sequence is monotonously predictable, but we’re still riveted.
And with good reason. A politician’s confession uncovers a vital truth about his relationship with us, the voters who put him into office.
On a scale of one to ten, Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sexting doesn’t exactly top out on the sexual depravity meter. But it still reveals a willingness to use his power — the power that the voters handed over to him, to use for the public good — for his own selfish ends.
He trawled the internet as “RepWeiner,” not as “Tony.” The photos he reportedly sent to Meagan Broussard were filled with reminders of his status, most notably snapshots of the Clintons in the background.
Read: Weiner's wife a top Hillary Clinton aide
As the American public, we have the right to be upset by this, even if the behavior itself is more adolescent than depraved. When we place a politician in office, we give him authority over us. If he uses that authority for his own gain, rather than for our good, we should object.
The question is: can he hear our objections? And how will he react?
Enter the confession of sin.
Public confession is an act of humility. It is an act which lays down all power, giving it back to the people who handed it over in the first place. It is an act which admits that the politician is no better than us. In that act, Anthony Weiner failed.
Consider the words he used at the Monday press conference at which he admitted to carrying on inappropriate online relationships with several women: I have made terrible mistakes. I panicked. Hugely regrettable mistake. Inappropriate conversations. Terrible judgment.
Consider the words he did not speak: I sinned.
To understand why those unspoken words are so powerful, we have to go back to the evangelical tradition that underlies them. In the United States, public confession was first practiced in revival meetings, where 18th and 19th century preachers encouraged believers to confess to their sin in the presence of their Christian brothers and sisters.
Opinion: Weiner's lies, not tweets, did him in
This confession, meant to refresh their faith and bring them (in the words of 18th century Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards) “new, remarkable comfort,” was an admission of equality. All believers were fallen. All were forgiven by grace alone.
American evangelicalism — which moved, in the 20th century, from the sanctuary to the airwaves — has always been an intensely democratic movement. The complete equality of all mankind in the sight of God is one of its most compelling doctrines; and that egalitarianism is a doctrine which transfers seamlessly into American public life.
“All men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, and evangelicalism gives this pronouncement an authoritative theological underpinning.
When a politician is caught abusing his power, the evangelical language of sin provides him with a perfect opportunity to say, “I do not consider myself above you. I acknowledge your power over me. We stand together.”
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“I made a mistake” is not the language of sin. Neither is “inappropriate.” Or “regrettable.”
Weiner, of course, is not evangelical. His Jewish tradition certainly does not lay the same weight on public confession. But the evangelical ethos of public confession as proof of humility has infiltrated secular America, and calls for open confession are no longer limited to the evangelical subculture.
Compare Weiner’s words with two other politicians who survived scandal. In 2007, U.S. Senator David Vitter was accused of using the services of a Washington escort service.
He instantly confessed wrongdoing, even though he did not say he had sex with a prostitute, before the scandal hit the headlines.
“This,” he said, “was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible.” (“I’m stunned that someone would be apologizing for this already,” the lawyer for the alleged “D.C. Madam” remarked.)
Both the speed and the words worked for Vitter. He won his re-election bid last year and still holds his Senate seat.
Weiner, by contrast, delayed his admission of fault for too long.
Still, some initial lying and avoidance can be overcome by the language of confession. After all, it took Bill Clinton nearly nine months to move from “I did not have sex with that woman” to “I have sinned.”
But once he arrived at the point of religious confession, he did it up right, with language like I have repented. I have done wrong. I ask that God give me a clean heart. I ask for your prayers.
Clinton drew on his evangelical background for that language, but it played to secular America with just as much power. It is humbling language, language which admits deep brokenness and fault, language which placed Clinton in the position of receiving forgiveness from others, rather than in a position of power.
Weiner did wrong. And then he lied. But what he never said was “I am a sinner.” And for that reason, his confession failed.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Susan Wise Bauer.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
Nonsense. He lied and embellished the lie with more lies plus false accusations against the people who caught him in the lies. That, coupled with a well-deserved reputation for arrogant and obnoxious behavior, did him in. The "sin" bit is just nonsense.
Best Weiner Joke Contest: Winner gets a free grill with a year's supply of "weiners":
To date: not ranked yet:
"I guess this is what happens when Bill Clinton presides at your wedding." -Sara Benincasa
"Remember when the only people who saw a politician's pe-nis were ho-okers and interns?" -Jason Mustian
"Maybe Weiner and his wife have an open ge-nital-tweeting marriage." -Mileskahn
"It was just a photo of his "junior senator".-Bucky Ball
Sending photos is not a sin.
Nope sending pics isnt a sin but lying and falsely accussing someone of hacking your account and telling lies about you and wasting government funds having people look into those false accusations is enough to question a person's fitness for office. As usual the coverup ends up being far worse the the incident being covered up. Just ask the Ohio State football program and Jim Tressel about that.
What an idiotic premise for an article, that his apology failed because he didn't pander to the people with an imaginary friend.
I agree – her piece is a bit of a stretch – mainly because hypocrisy is far more prevalent than righteousness. I would say that Weiner has simply presented himself as an easy target for those who oppose his politics.
Weiner is a pig and a liar. He had no idea who he was Tweeting with "it could have been your 12 year old daughter" would you have like that!! Remember, this piece of dirt is makiing and voting on laws that effect your life..... He can't even control his own llife. He lied about his lying....how can you believe anythig he does or says. He is like a rat trapped in the corner and will say or do anything to save himself!!! He must go!!!
I'm sure you said the exact same thing about John Ensign, right?
No? Didn't think so.
The confession failed??? How so? He confessed rather successfully. The failing is on the part of anybody who cares about this tabloid nonsense. He never should have been asked about his Twittering so long as it was legal... which it was. The hypocrisy of the busy-bodies who have little else to do but gawk at celebrities is outstanding.
Hey Puddy, do you think there would be an apology if he had not been caught. He would be still contacting these women without the knowledge of his wife. Why didn't he ask his wife if it was ok to talk to and text and show his weener chest. Give me one good logical defense to not tell his wife.
@sambo: I'm not getting any sense out of your post. Are we back in the age of throwing people in the stocks to be publicly shamed and punished for pseudo-infidelity in their private lives with their spouses? Come on, what does this public obssessive scandalizing have to do with his private relationship with his wife?
This is certainly hard for Mr. Weiner, who has come clean in the face of stiff criticism. Still, he shouldn't be allowed to get off easy. I hope he's thinking long and hard about the consequences of his actions.
Amen to that!
ps...the way he treated Dana Bash from CNN during that interview was disgusting....and then to find out he was LYING the whole time.....???!!! His career should be over. People are so forgiving when they are sincere and apologetic. Not so much in this case.
These are political animals. They play to the media and scoff at the laws. They joke among themselves in private. They laugh at how stupid people are that voted for them to get an office. This is serious because they control so much of our lives. We need a house cleaning and real America leadership needs to come forward.
I won't judge a person who was having a personal moment that I was never intended to see or know about. Until the women involved are given the same public scrutiny...I don't see the point of needing any additional information. I am amused at the government response to this. I saw the pictures and I simply don't get what all of the fuss is about.
With respect, the reason why his confession failed was because he lied repeatedly and only confessed when the overwhelming weight of the evidence compelled him to do so.
Well, I have to disagree with the article's author on this one. As a spiritual, but non-religious liberal, nothing turns me off more or sounds as "fake" as the "I have sinned" apology, especially when accompanied by the flood of tears and the obligatory wife standing beside the sinner. Yech! Besides, Weiner sent pics, he did not have an affair, and I could argue that he did not, therefore, actually "sin". I think his apology failed because it came after attempts at denial, blame-shifting, and lying. Also, I think dems are harder on their own than republicans are on their own. Plus, for many, including myself, Weiner was a hero figure who fought for the little guy, and when your hero fails, you take it very hard.
It didn't help that he followed his contrite act by telling us he has no intention of resigning. Not exactly a true mea culpa.
Sorry, but that logic isn't valid. He can believe he screwed up without believing it warrants resigning.
Right on. Wiener, whined, if not outright complained for what he was forced to admit. As if he took the wrong turn when he came up at fork of the road. Can one honestly believe what he told us about his mea cuppa or that "my wife told me she loves me". Is he suggesting that she must be mentally challenged that in this storm she would waste one moment of her life to tell this idiot that she loves him?
This guy is unethical, untrustworthy and a weasel at best. The thing that's most disturbing is his callousness. He totally believes he can wipe the slate clean by his half @ss public apology that his fellow Demo's FORCED him to do! He wanted to continue his lies and projections of wrong doing. He purposefully named Beirbart as the person who hacked his Twitter. If it wasn't for Beirbart outing him & proving Weiner was lying, he would have continued on with his deceitful lies. Oh, and what about his pretentious & condescending answers he gave to the media when questioned about his little weiner photo's, the whole "if I was giving a speech to 45k people and one person threw a pie..." Really? This guy obviously believes his behavior is excusable; that he is of statue that what he does shouldn't matter to the public. I think he should be thrown out, and all you Demo's that believe he's worth saving are just as whacked as he is. Good luck with that...
Weiner lied because he thought he could get away with it. He lied because he is arrogant. He lied because he has no respect for anyone or anything but himself. Were he actually repentant, he would immediately resign because he violated the faith and trust of the people that elected him. With each passing day he remains in office he is basically giving the middle finger to those that find his behavior reprehensve.
You hit the nail directly on the head. It couldn't have been stated better. I will predict his wife will stay with him because she has her own plans for the future. I am sure Hillary is advising her on each move to make.
Just curious. Do both of you think David Vitter should resign also?
"Weiner lied because he thought he could get away with it. He lied because he is arrogant. He lied because he has no respect for anyone or anything but himself."
Thinking it's your place to judge why he did something or that you're even capable of knowing the reason is arrogant. And if you're a Christian you should know it's not Christian behavior to judge other people.
Too true. He's only sorry because he got caught. He'd still be sending out meat tweets if it weren't for that.
Sorry, but I think she was way off base in her analysis in saying non-religious people wanted to hear the word 'sin" in his request for forgiveness along with all those deceived 'believers" ... the author is merely projecting her own nonsense onto us non-believers. He failed because he lied thru his teeth for over a week ... it's that simple.
. . . but what's wrong with lying?
Ms. Bauer, I'm an avowed cynic (but then, who isn't when it comes to politicians?), but I believe your assessment of Weiner's mea culpa begins from an overly generous premise: that his was a sincere apology. Every time we're forced to endure one of these tearful podium perp walks, all I can see is the straight line from the contrition back to the moment of being caught, not from the contrition to any acknowledgment or grasp of actual wrongdoing. After all, when was the last time we saw a public figure stand before us and confess to sins that HADN'T already been brought to light? When an apology or confession is merely a political tactic, a last-ditch effort at survival, a requisite reaction to now undeniable behavior, how can even the most forgiving among us attribute any sincerity to it at all?
Ooops...I suppose by "jewish tradition does not lay the same weight on public confession"? the author meant the "current jewish tradition"? Because of course, the ancient Jewish tradition mandated public sacrifices for all types of sins, every manner of sin. It was pretty overt; maybe one could argue not 'public,' but certainly, not 'private.' This ritual sacrificial system went on for thousands of years. It is part and parcel to the "Jewish tradition."