jean-jaques Rousseau had the right idea: If you're going to write a confession, you pretty much have to confess to something. "I have displayed myself as I was, as vile and despicable when my behavior was such, as good, generous and noble when I was so," he wrote in the introduction to his legendary "Confessions." "I have bared my secret soul as Thou thyself hast seen it, Eternal Being!"
You'd think by now we'd have gotten the formula right. We live, after all, in what critic James Atlas calls a "culture of confession." Turn on your TV in the middle of any day, and you'll see tearful celebrities blurting out stories of their terrible childhoods and talk show guests revealing shameful secrets: Honey, I had an affair with your best friend, your mom, your dad, the baby sitter. "It's a phenomenon that transcends high and low," Atlas (who himself recently confessed that he doesn't have fun anymore) wrote last year in the New York Times Magazine. "There's no rule -- not even an ethical one -- to prevent the poet and former Princeton professor Michael Ryan, in 'Secret Life,' from revealing that he had sex with his dog." Or as we've seen this year, from keeping certain semi-famous novelists from revealing they've done the deed with dad.
But a new genre of confession seems to have emerged in recent months: the non-confession confession -- a sort of hybrid creation, adopting the form of the confessional without the substance. A case in point: David Brock's "Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man" in the July issue of Esquire. Brock, who won his notoriety with below-the-beltway American Spectator attacks on Bill Clinton and Anita Hill, makes official his break with the hard-core conservative movement, announcing dramatically that "David Brock the Road Warrior of the Right is dead."
Of course, most right-wing Road Warriors figured this out when Brock's biography of Hillary Clinton hit the stores last fall: They had expected Brock to serve up a salacious portrait of the first lady as a power-hungry witch, awash in corruption and worse, an evil Lady Macbeth who'd let her lesbian tendencies slide only long enough to have a passionate affair with the now-dead Vince Foster. Instead, he delivered an account that corroborated much of what she herself had said about Whitewater and Castle Grande.
Then to top off this strange bout of heresy, Brock refused to corroborate former spook Gary Aldrich's picture of Bill Clinton as a motel-hopping philanderer-in-chief. No wonder conservative socialites Barbara and Ted Olson pointedly suggested that it might be better for Brock to skip their big party last fall, the one attended by everyone in what Brock calls the "anti-Clinton Establishment" -- from Ginny Thomas (wife of Clarence) to "independent" counsel Kenneth Starr. "Given what's happened," Barbara Olson told him gingerly, "I don't think you'd be comfortable at the party."
Brock's article is filled with interesting dish, and with quite a few angry accusations. Brock denounces the "neo-Stalinist thought police" of the conservative movement; he suggests there's precious little room in the movement for "honest journalism." So it's no wonder that his article has apparently become what Matt Drudge, the net's leading purveyor of right-wing dish, calls (with perhaps a little honest exaggeration) "the hottest thing going in media circles." In an urgent "DRUDGE REPORT BREAK" that came jostling into my e-mail inbox last Tuesday, Drudge breathlessly revealed that "The Drudge Report has obtained a copy of the story that has been faxed so many times throughout Washington in recent hours, the print has quickly become blurred." (Curious readers may be heartened to learn that the article is also available in Esquires now on the newsstand; my own -- non-faxed, non-smudged -- copy of the magazine arrived in my mailbox the day before The Drudge Report "obtained" its copy of the seemingly red-hot piece.)
But the one thing missing from the Brock confession, oddly enough, is a confession. Brock complains that members of the conservative movement wanted him to adjust the facts to fit his ideology -- just what many critics to his left have contended (with some convincing evidence) he's been doing all along. But Brock doesn't confess to this; he suggests, instead, that his only crime is that he's just too darn honest for his own good, too doggedly "faithful to my reporting." And Brock might have acknowledged that his famous "Troopergate" story in the American Spectator was filled with wild rumors -- and that his description of an eager-beaver would-be-presidential-girlfriend named "Paula" just might have caused a certain real-world Paula more alarm than anything that's ever slipped from Bob Bennett's mouth. But no: He defends the story as a powerful and necessary exposi.
Oh, sure, Brock confesses to a few things. He confesses, for example, that he was perhaps a little too naive; that when he wrote his Hillary book he "had a lot to learn about what's really behind things in Washington, where the crucial distinction between political and journalistic or intellectual standards isn't recognized." Candide goes to Washington.
Actually, the story is designed to suggest that Brock bears a closer resemblance to another famous French person: Joan of Arc, burned at the stake for her particular heresies. Esquire makes the alleged parallel about as explicit as it's possible to, illustrating the piece with an artfully staged photo of the steely-eyed Brock (his shirt torn open to reveal his nicely-cut pecs) staring defiantly at the world. He, too, is tied to a stake -- well, actually, it's a tree, and the kindling wood at his feet seems a bit too widely spaced to burn efficiently, at least not without torching the whole forest in the process, but we get the idea.
Brock's strangely indignant "confession" reminds me of nothing so much as one well-worn joke: A man calls a rival stupid. The rival throws him to the ground and demands an apology. "I'm sorry," the man replies. "I'm sorry you're stupid."
Brock is not, of course, the first to take this route. Last year we saw the attempted resurrection of journalist Janet Cooke, who was drummed from the profession a decade and a half ago when her editors discovered that her Pulitzer-prize winning account of the life of an 8-year-old heroin addict was, well, fictional. Cooke, in a GQ article written by former lover Mike Sager, offered an apology of sorts for her actions.
But hers was a "confession" of the most self-serving kind: She admitted to nothing that wasn't already known and blamed her bad behavior on an (allegedly) abusive father. Cooke tried hard to muster up the correct combination of contrition and pathos, but her design was clear: She wanted to leverage her notoriety into a lucrative career on the highest levels of journalism. So far she and Sager have managed to garner themselves a $1.6 million movie deal, but she's not yet a columnist for GQ. "People know well that the surest route back to grace is a massive public appeal," Sager noted in the conclusion of his piece. "You transgress; you confess; you are forgiven."
That's a pretty glib way to put it -- and Sager's process has nine less steps than the traditional 12 -- but it's more or less true. The problem is: If you want forgiveness, you've got to actually own up to your crimes; you can't simply skip step number two. It's a truism every Joe Sixpack gets drummed into his head during the first meeting of Al-Anon. It's not clear how this bantam-weight insight has managed to elude young Brock -- or, for that matter, the editors of Esquire, more than a few of whom (I would imagine) have heard of AA.