Two weeks ago, Human Nature outlined ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) 10-step image rehab program for public figures implicated in gross misbehavior. The key is to blame alcohol. Aside from Foley, the two figures who illustrated this approach were Rep. Bob Ney (R-taking bribes) and actor Mel Gibson (I-anti-Semitic ravings).
Last week, Gibson went on Good Morning America to cleanse his sins, while Ney appeared in court to plead guilty and suck up to his sentencing judge. Foley, having been caught later than his fellow bottle-blamers, is still in rehab. But now someone else has come forward to borrow Foley’s PR techniques: the priest who purportedly molested him four decades ago.
Rule 1 of rehab, as you may recall, is to take “full responsibility” so you can make excuses without explicitly doing so. As Ney’s attorneys put it in a statement after his hearing, “Congressman Ney’s alcohol dependency has affected his judgment in this matter, but he is not offering excuses.”
Rules 4, 5, and 7 are to call yourself an alcoholic (since it sounds better than pervert, bigot, or felon), duck into rehab, and medicalize your sins. Accordingly, Ney told the judge that he’d already been in alcohol treatment for 30 days. To shorten Ney’s sentence, his lawyer added that Ney hoped to continue treatment in prison.
Rule 2 is to plead that alcoholism overpowered you; Rule 8 is to maintain, at the same time, that your pursuit of treatment is an act of courage and free will. Ney’s statement conveys this double-think nicely: “The treatment and counseling I have started have been very helpful, but I know that I am not done yet and that I have more work to do to deal with my alcohol dependency.”
Rule 9 is to compartmentalize the problem, denying that your misconduct exceeded certain boundaries. “I never acted to enrich myself or to get things I shouldn’t,” said Ney. Rule 10 is to add other excuses as needed. “I allowed myself [to] get too comfortable with the way things have been done in Washington, D.C., for too long,” the congressman lamented. “Jack Abramoff used my name to advance his own secret schemes of fraud and theft in way I could never have imagined.”
While Ney was in court, ABC aired two “exclusive” (i.e., image rehab) interviews with Gibson. The actor told Diane Sawyer that alcohol was “no excuse” for his tirade against Jews (Rule 1). However, he added, it was like a “physical allergy … You are indefensible against it if your nature is one of alcoholism” (Rule 2).
Unlike Ney, Gibson remembered Rule 3: Depict the drunken you as a stranger. “That came out of my mouth. And I’m not that. That’s not who I am,” said the actor. “It’s unpredictable what’s gonna come flying out” when you drink, he argued. “Alcohol loosens your tongue and makes you act, say and behave in a way that is not you.” Gibson expressed shock that anyone would think he might act on his outburst: “It was just the stupid ramblings of a drunkard.”
While Ney blamed Washington for warping him, Gibson blamed Hollywood (Rule 10). Hostile reactions to his movie, The Passion of the Christ, had made him feel “unjustly treated,” he explained. “There are different forces exercised on you.”
Foley’s version of Rule 10 was to announce that a clergyman had molested him as an adolescent. Now the clergyman is turning the tables. Foley is passing the buck “because he got caught,” says the retired priest, Anthony Mercieca. But the buck won’t stop with Mercieca. He’s blaming his “fondling” of Foley, in turn, on liquor and medication: “I was taking pills—tranquilizers. I used to take them all the time. They affected my mind a little bit.”
Pills add a twist to the alcohol defense. Not only can you blame your behavior on chemicals; you can blame the chemicals on doctors and a preexisting illness. Take the case of Rush Limbaugh, who was caught three years ago finagling prescriptions for painkillers. “I am not making any excuses,” the commentator told his listeners. “I take full responsibility for my problem” (Rule 1). But that didn’t prevent the excuses: “I first started taking prescription painkillers some years ago when my doctor prescribed them to treat post-surgical pain.” Nor did the excuses prevent a tale of heroic striving: “Over the past several years I have tried to break my dependence” (Rule 8).
“I am checking myself into a treatment center for the next 30 days,” Limbaugh declared (Rules 5 and 7), to “break the hold this highly addictive medication has on me” (Rule 2). “I deeply appreciate all your support,” he concluded. “I ask now for your prayers” (Rule 6).
Five months ago, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-UI) crashed his car into a barricade at 2:45 in the morning and came out of the vehicle looking disoriented. Kennedy couldn’t invoke the alcohol defense, since his dad is Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Chappaquiddick). Instead, he blamed a “prescribed amount of Phenergan and Ambien.” His language was clinically passive. “The recurrence of an addiction problem can be triggered by things that happen in everyday life, such as taking a common treatment for a stomach flu,” the congressman explained. “That’s not an excuse for what happened Wednesday evening, but it’s a reality of fighting a chronic condition for which I’m taking full responsibility” (Rule 1).
Kennedy claimed to be in the grip of the “chronic disease” of “addiction and depression” (Rule 2). He congratulated himself for “fighting” his affliction (Rule 8) and used it, like alcoholism, to connect with the public: “I struggle every day with this disease, as do millions of Americans” (Rule 4). He said that he had no memory of the crash and that hearing about it, as a virtual bystander, “concerns me greatly” (Rule 3). “I’m traveling to Minnesota to seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic to ensure I can continue on my road to recovery,” he announced (Rules 5 and 7). “I need help …Thank you for you prayers and your support” (Rule 6).
Mercieca, who’s 72, hasn’t figured out all the new rules. His recognition of misconduct is insufficiently abject, which gets in the way of passing blame to the bottle. But he’s getting there. Like Limbaugh and Kennedy, he’s got a double-layered defense: pills brought on by illness. Moving from Brazil to the United States plunged him into depression; depression led to pills; pills and booze led to an incident that Mercieca, like Kennedy, can’t remember. It wasn’t really he who did it. “I was a little out of myself,” he says.
Mercieca even adds a priestly touch: “I have to confess, I was going through a nervous breakdown.” Confess? For the thousands of penitents who confided their sins to Mercieca, confession meant admitting what they’d done. For him, it means admitting what a disease made him do. But let’s give him credit. He admits he taught Foley “some wrong things” 40 years ago. Now, from his pupil and victim, he’s learning a few more.