Palm Beach Post - March 21, 2008
(Peggy's comments in italics)

They don't confess unless they're in a mess
By Loretta Grantham

Fessing up to fooling around, especially if you're famous, is no longer confined to a therapist's couch.

At least, not lately.

In the past two weeks, America's heard three eye-popping admissions: Ex-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned after dalliances with prostitutes; former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey said he and his ex-wife, Dina, had threesomes (she denied it), and New York's new governor, David Paterson, spilled to the world that he and his wife, Michelle, had both had affairs during a rough patch in their marriage.

What's going on?

Do these podium confessions point to a soul-cleansing trend? A new moral high road of unabashed honesty?

Hardly, observers say. In fact, they mean anything but.

Deceit rhymes with 'cheat'

Such acknowledgments, as a rule, are about a politician saving his hide. Or, in Spitzer's case, salvaging whatever dignity he has left. And for lesser figures - such as Spitzer's prostitute, Ashley Dupre, and the former driver for McGreevey, Theodore Pedersen, who gossiped about his boss - going public can mean scoring that coveted 15 minutes of fame.

"I don't think we're going to see confessing as a pattern," says Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth" and host of, a resource on extramarital affairs. "I don't envision more people admitting to it unless they absolutely have to.

"In Paterson's case, he was asked about it by a tabloid paper, so he was very, very smart to go ahead and disclose it in his own way because he knew it was going to come out. But it won't be received by the public in any way, shape or form like the Spitzer thing."

That's because Spitzer not only had been implicated in a crime, but he also had hid his flings from his wife, Silda, until just days before going public. Who can forget her shellshocked face as she stood by his side?

The Patersons, on the other hand, came clean as a couple who tackled their trysts and moved on.

"I think we have a marriage like many Americans, maybe even like many of you," the governor told reporters. "Elected officials are really just reflections of the people we represent."

Exactly, says Stephen Marks, who for 12 years has worked behind the scenes as an opposition researcher.

In other words, he digs up dirt on candidates. (He wrote and produced negative ads against Democratic presidential contenders John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, just to name a few.)

"America is a country of adulterers," he says. "Thirty years ago, it was not. The vast majority of Americans hear these confessions and say, 'But for the grace of God ...' "

Estimates show that about 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women cheat at some point in their marriage, Vaughan says.

But those numbers are probably much lower than reality, she adds, because spouses define affairs differently, and survey answers may be skewed by how questions are phrased.

For example, did you have an affair "this year" or "in your current marriage"?

"One of the reasons it's so difficult to establish an accurate measurement is that people often filter their responses through their own denial and rationalization," she explains. "Some people may consider a one-night stand or a brief fling while out of town or 'paid sex' of any kind not to be an affair."

Online romance

Then there's the rampant issue of Internet romance. Is a naughty online chat really cheating? If you're hiding it from your spouse, experts reply, there's your answer.

"But the bottom line is this," says Marks, author of Confessions of a Political Hitman. "It's not about sex, it's about lying. This is the case with any act. It's the coverup that causes problems."

Motivated confessions

Deceit, even when it's on a personal level, makes folks wonder what else a politician might fib about, says Palm Beach Gardens psychologist Florence Kaslow.

"If they can't be honest with their wife and children about something as basic as their marriage, what would they do to the public?" she says. "If they've spent family money on their affair, what would they do with government funds?"

(Paterson, by the way, admitted Wednesday that he may have improperly billed his campaign for at least one hotel tryst with a girlfriend.)

Confessions should be motivated, Vaughan says, not by the desire to unload guilt or save a career but because the offending spouse genuinely wants to establish a closer bond.

"I call this responsible honesty," says the author, who went on Donahue with her husband in 1980 to discuss his seven-year string of infidelity. (They've now been married for 52 years.)

That groundbreaking talk-show appearance, of course, was before adultery became office chatter.

"It's not about letting it all hang out and being brutal and hurtful," Vaughan says. "That can be more devastating. It's about reestablishing a connection."

Kaslow adds that confessing to an affair can pave the way for a stronger marriage.

"It opens the possibility to building a stronger foundation," she says. "I don't mean that you should start whining, but you should be able to say, 'I'm not happy about this. We need to sit down and talk about making major changes.' "

Michelle Paterson told reporters that she and her husband had done just that.

"We dealt with it as a family," she said. "A marriage has peaks and valleys. No marriage is perfect."

Get negatives out in the open

And acknowledging imperfection, rather than trying to mask it, is crucial for public figures to survive these days. The media no longer looks the other way, and the Internet has made secrets obsolete.

"Whenever you have something negative, it's always smarter to get it out of the way before your opponent can define the issue," Marks says.

"People in Albany were talking about the affairs, and Paterson was smart to open up during the honeymoon period with the press.

"You need to completely tell the truth and say you did something wrong and learned from it. If it's sex, it'll humanize you. If it's a political issue, you'll look like a stronger leader for being honest about making a mistake.

"The worst thing to look like is a hypocrite."

Forgive and forget?

Once politicians confess, should constituents accept their apology and wipe the slate clean?

'THE HEALING the public has to do involves the fact that people were let down by a leader,' says Gary Egeberg, who wrote The Forgiveness Myth with Wayne Raiter. 'We always rush to the concept of forgiveness, but the goal should be to heal. You don't have to forgive someone before moving on yourself.'

Egeberg says that folks like to leap on the latest sex scandal involving Hollywood or elected officials because it makes it seem like only 'those people' cross the line. We snicker from afar.

Thing is, studies show that adultery is becoming more prevalent, and not just with pop stars and presidents.

'The way for people to heal is to focus on their own lives,' he advises. 'Hearing about infidelity in the media can be a start to examining your own values, not pointing at someone else. You have to return the focus to yourself where your personal power lies.'

Egeberg, a former prison chaplain, has heard plenty of confessions in his day.

'I used to tell prisoners not to even say "I'm sorry" around me again. That word has become

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