Thursday, May 8, 2008

True Confessions

By Mitchell

By now you've probably heard about Barbara Walters' admission of her 1970s affair with Senator Edward Brooke. You may even have heard more than you wanted to hear about it. And so the question that has to be asked is: who cares?

Not "who cares" in the sense that an adulterous affair with a United States Senator is something that can just be dismissed. Nor in the sense that it's old news, a story about a fading media celebrity and a politician long since disappeared from the scene.

No, in this case "who cares" has to mean: Babs, why do you consider yourself so important that you feel the need to discuss in the pages of a book the most intimate details of your private life?

Now, Walters could have kept her mouth shut entirely. After all, adultery - regardless of the prevaling moral climate - isn't something one should feel particularly proud of. And if you're not proud of it, if you even feel a little shame, why go blabbing about it to the public? Wait, I forgot - blabbing to the public is what Barbara Walters does for a living. Never mind.

Besides, what were the alternatives for Walters? If she felt she just had to share the details of an adulterous affair, she couldn't just say it was with "a U.S. Senator." That would have cast a net of suspicion on at least 100 men who'd have fit that description during the time in question, and you know there's someone out there who would have grabbed a copy of the World Almanac and gone through it trying to figure out who it was. You probably would have been able to make book on the odds in Vegas. It would have been just like the search for Deep Throat. (OK, maybe that isn't the best analogy, but you know what I mean.)

If not a U.S. Senator, then what about simply identifying him as "a prominent Washingtonian"? That would have retained for Walters the prestige of having attracted the attentions of a powerful man to her bed, while having widened the pool of suspects to the point where it might have been impossible for his identity to be discovered. There's still that possibility of mistaken identity though - Walters herself says that the affair ended to protect both of their careers from scandal, so you have to think she's aware of the pitfalls of a false ID.

Well, it seems as if Walters didn't really have any other choice then, did she? So let's assume that Walters just had to talk about it. Notwithstanding the damage it does to Brooke's reputation ("Man, I thought he'd have better taste than that"), think of the effect it might have on Brooke's family, his former wife (if she's still alive), his current wife (who knows if Brooke ever told her about it?), and all sorts of others. Brooke himself refuses comment, saying that he doesn't talk about his or other people's private lives, which goes to show that at least some people still have a touch of dignity about them.

In fact, this used to be the kind of thing that "gentlemen didn't discuss." (Whether or not that applies to women, Barbara Walters notwithstanding, is apparently debatable. Apparently that's one part of sexual equality that didn't make the jump.) There was not only a sense of shame to be considered, but propriety as well. It used to be that there were some things that simply weren't discussed in public, and naming names was one of them.

So in fact the only alternative that Barbara Walters had was to keep her mouth shut (or her pen capped, as it were). If she really felt it was necessary to mention an affair in order to explain some critical aspect of her life and how it had developed, then she could simply have said something about having made mistakes in the past, about having done things she shouldn't have done. Unless, of course, she doesn't see it as having been a mistake.

But the point here is to ask whatever happened to the idea that there are some things one doesn't discuss in public. The "true confessions" craze is everywhere, from the "kiss-and-tell" book to the "reality" TV show to the "dear diary" blogs. And again, one wonders if there is anything such as "dignity" left in today's culture? Do we have to make our lives an open book to others? Aren't there some things we can at least save for the Confessional? Whatever happened to the idea of interior privacy, of public decorum, of taking some secrets to the grave? Whatever became of keeping your mouth shut?

I don't know if I have all the answers to those questions, but I do have one: money. There's big money to be had for spilling your guts in public, though, and we all know that money talks. (At least bloggers - most of them, anyway - do their emoting for free, which makes their behavior all the more puzzling, but that's another story.)

Was it really necessary to identify Ed Brooke by name as her lover? Of course it was. You notice that the CNN story about Walters put it not in the news or political section, but in entertainment. For whatever Barbara Walters' credentials of the past, she surely can't be viewed any longer as a serious news reporter. It's all about entertainment, baby, about keeping them amused out there, titilated even. Sell the books, keep the ratings and the ad revenue up.

And so if it is all about the money, and we all know it is, then what these tell-alls really do is turn the storytellers into high-priced whores, selling their inner secrets for the almighty dollar, or fame, or - preferably - both.

If there is no shame any more, as the true confessions lifestyle would seem to indicate, then what other conclusion can we reach?

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