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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