Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Whether supporters of the president, such as I, like it or not, it is Washington scandal time again in America. (Who leaked the identify of Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s CIA agent wife?) So, it is worth reviewing the hard-learned lessons of scandal management. In every instance but perhaps one, the management of the scandal has increased the magnitude and political damage of the initial transgression. From Watergate, to Iran-Contra, to the various agonies of my old boss, Newt Gingrich, to the Clinton classics (and the many lesser scandals in between), only Bill Clinton’s scandal management may have benefited the subject of the scandal. Hard and debilitating as Mr. Clinton’s scandals have been on his reputation, I strongly suspect that had all the truth come out, Mr. Clinton likely would be paying, currently, an even higher price in a confined space.

But it is worth noting that the Bush White House team is utterly unqualified by both experience and disposition to be as effective as Mr. Clinton and his scandal managers were. After all, Mr. Bush has never had a significant scandal, and most, if not all of his team have never worked for someone who has. But Mr. Clinton had been warding off scandal from his late youth (think about the phony ROTC application). By the time he reached the White House, both he and his team had decades of experience deflecting the truth from public scrutiny. They had the experience, cunning and ruthless amorality necessary for such high stakes ventures.The Bush team lacks at least the first and third factors, and perhaps the second as well. And even for Mr. Clinton, it was a close run thing (e.g. A precipitous admission of the Lewinsky matter in the week of Jan. 21, 1998, might have consumed his presidency then and there — as many experienced Washington-hands were publicly predicting that week). Mr. Clinton had the added advantage of having his scandal management team already on staff when the scandals started breaking (e.g. travel office, misuse of the president’s helicopter, FBI Filegate, etc.). Mr. Bush would have to hire old GOP scandal-management veterans and bring them to battle station in full public scrutiny — thus already exacerbating the problem. That would be his first mistake.

But his primary mistake in managing the scandal is that it would inevitably damage his well-deserved reputation as an honest and upright man. Mr. Clinton, by contrast, had made it to the presidency despite his reputation as a sharp operator. Thus, he had little if any political capital to lose on that account. But Mr. Bush would be politically bankrupted if he lost (or seriously lessoned) his reputation for honesty and forthrightness.

As suggested in the lead editorial of the Washington Times this morning, Mr. Bush should lead with his strength by personally and immediately getting to the bottom of the matter. He should not wait for a Justice Department investigation. Such investigations almost invariably last at least six to 10 months before they reach a conclusion and make public announcements. That brings the public release of the bad news (whatever it turns out to be) in the middle of the presidential election season. The first rule of scandal management is to find out the bad news and get it out as far from an election as possible. According to my calendar, that would be now.

The second rule is to not underestimate how heinous the media and the public will come to regard small, seemingly insignificant, perfectly justifiable facts. Trivial actions or non-actions by good and decent friends and co-workers will take on the proportions of mortal sins. It will seem ludicrously disproportionate to the conduct in question. But it will happen that way. It always does. Read the memoirs. Talk to the old hands.

The search dogs will find not only the fox for which they are hunting, but other assorted game, which will be publicly presented before the dogs have gone to kennel for the night. In other words, the investigative process will stumble on other embarrassing facts and leak it to the press. Count on it.

Political opponents will play ju-jitsu with policy issues. In the instant case of the (presumably) leaked CIA agent’s identity, the Democrats will keep up a constant hypocritical but effective defense of national security against a White House that (they will loudly assert) has jeopardized our security by revealing the secret agent lady. The same Democrats who have spent careers underfunding intelligence and our military will pose as their champions. It will be stomach-turning to watch it.

The fundamental lesson from past scandals is: Don’t manage it, end it. Don’t passively wait for wrongdoing to be found out. Find the malefactors, and publicly kick their posteriors out of the compound. It can only get worse, not better.

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