Thursday, August 14, 2008

Good for the Soul and the Heel

Public confession makes a half-century leap from John Edwards' mea-not-so-culpa to a sudden exercise in self-revelation by Charles Van Doren, who was caught in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s.

But perhaps the most telling truth about public soul-searching comes, not from Edwards on Nightline or Van Doren in the New Yorker, but in a New York Times blog by the scholar Stanley Fish about "autobiographical writing that tells and hides all at the same time."

In a sympathetic rumination, Professor Fish points out that Van Doren, now 80, proffers the title, "All the Answers": "But there are no answers, at least to the questions most readers would want to ask: Why did you do it? What was going on in your mind? What about the moral issues? The moment of decision...seems not to have occurred, or to have occurred off-stage when no one, even the person most concerned, was watching."

It is likely that even now Van Doren doesn't know, but Fish credits him with an honest attempt at self-discovery: "He does not cast himself as a victim, or as a reformed villain or a misunderstood hero, three narratives that are quite popular in these days of compulsive self-discovery."

(A confession of my own: Several years after the scandal, as my magazine was preparing a piece on the aftermath, there was a letter from Van Doren's wife asking me to be "kind and gracious" and not publish it. But I did, and my refusal has troubled me ever since.)

When Robert Redford was working on the movie, "Quiz Show," he offered Van Doren $100,000 to be a consultant as "a guarantee of its truthfulness." Once again Van Doren was tempted to cash in, but his wife put her foot down firmly. "Don't be a fool," she told him, and he tore up the contract.

It is a long way from Van Doren to John Edwards, not only in time but character. Both may have been undone by vanity but there was and is no cunning and calculation in the man who succumbed in that earlier scandal.

Van Doren had the grace to retreat into silence (until now), but Edwards' lies and evasions have created a continuing public melodrama, and his wife, as sympathetic a figure as she has been, may be complicit in his use of confession for concealment rather than redemption. Maybe he too should wait fifty years before going public again about his inner turmoil.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He did it for the same reason J. Sidney McCain, III married Cindy: For the money.