Saturday, June 27, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Off the cuff, Ensign guarded but genial (6-26-2009)
- Fox News had Hampton’s letter earlier than it said (6-24-2009)
- For Ensign, a new lot in Congress (6-24-2009)
- Ensign apologizes during lunch with GOP senators (6-23-2009)
- Back in Washington, Ensign received warmly (6-23-2009)
- Ensign back in D.C.; group plans ethics complaint (6-22-2009)
- In state GOP, Ensign finds few defenders (6-21-2009)
- War of words between Ensign and Hampton escalates (6-20-2009)
Beyond the Sun
- MSNBC: A Decade of Sex Scandals (6-24-2009)
- The New York Times: How Do Politicians Survive Sex Scandals? (6-24-2009)
- The New York Times: Mysteries Remain After Governor Admits Affair (6-24-2009)
- CNN: John Edwards talks affair, future (6-17-2009)
Republicans Mark Sanford, Larry Craig and John Ensign, and Democrats Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards and Jim McGreevey all have something in common. Yes, there’s that, but something else, too: None handled his crisis communications perfectly, political consultants, public relations executives and media experts say.
Under the old, largely discredited playbook, politicians caught in unseemly dalliances at first denied them, which set them up for bigger scandals when later they were forced to tell a different story (see: Bill Clinton). Then they dragged their wives along to their announcements, forcing the aggrieved party to suffer even more shame and indignity.
Here’s the new playbook: Get to it quickly, read a brief statement of acknowledgment and regret, and leave the wife at home.
Of the six politicians listed above, just one tried to use the oldest method — denying the allegation. That was Craig, the senator from Idaho accused of making a pass at a male undercover police officer inside an airport restroom.
But Craig’s real transgression, according to Syracuse University media and pop culture professor Robert Thompson, was his confusing public response. First he pleaded guilty to lewd conduct, but then he said he shouldn’t have. And after saying he’d resign from the Senate, he backtracked and said he would not.
“His actions show that not only is he a hypocrite, not only an adulterer, he’s a flip-flopper,” Thompson said.
According to Thompson, Americans “don’t like liars,” and since the days of George Washington have rewarded truth-tellers.
So first, assuming you’re guilty, make sure to ’fess up, Thompson urged. That’s a no-brainer. But other questions remain:
Do you admit your indiscretion tearfully and at embarrassing length? Or is it better to take the stoic approach? What do you do afterward? Stay in the spotlight or get the heck out?
And just what should be the public role of the wronged wife, if any?
Often, public relations advisers take the wrong approach, said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management expert who runs a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
“The objective is not to make them look good, it’s to make them look less bad,” Dezenhall said.
That’s most often achieved, he said, by the story receding into yesterday’s news. The best way to do that is to acutely limit how much is said publicly immediately after an announcement.
Sanford, he of the fake hiking trip and real Argentine woman, didn’t abide by that rule.
Sanford, in one of the most awkward public appearances in recent memory, detailed his affair during a rambling, emotional news conference, detailing his tragedy of the heart, and then stood to answer questions from the media throng.
By contrast, Ensign spoke briefly when disclosing his affair and quickly exited without answering questions.
Dezenhall said many nuances regarding how a crisis is handled depend on where the wrongdoing falls on the continuum — from limited, discreet instances of marital infidelity to occasions where the official breached the public trust in other ways.
Enter Ensign, whose affair involved a woman who worked for him and who is the wife of a man who worked for Ensign. This fact has saddled him with a request for a Senate ethics investigation by a citizen watchdog group.
Dan Hart, a Las Vegas Democratic consultant, said Ensign’s approach — quick statement, take no questions — was flawed because he needs to answer reasonable questions, or they might reappear at inopportune times, such as during a reelection campaign.
Not so fast, said Steve Wark, a Republican consultant. He noted that any lawyer would advise Ensign to say nothing because of the potential legal jeopardy he faces.
But Wark added that saying little creates a vacuum other people will fill. The coming months are likely to see official investigations — with inevitable leaks — and official reports, the prospect of “other women, real or imagined,” a potential lawsuit, maybe a book deal.
It runs right into Ensign’s reelection campaign, should he decide to go ahead with it. “It’s a miserable, huge can of worms,” Wark said.
Ensign’s advisers made a calculated gamble: They tried to create sympathy for him by putting it out that he had been the victim of extortion. This may have inoculated him somewhat, especially on Day One, though it also gave the story some legs. The accusation prompted the Sun to call the FBI and Metro Police, and neither was investigating any reports of extortion. That didn’t help Ensign’s credibility, Hart said.
Wark summed up Ensign’s situation: “It sucks to be John Ensign.”
Ensign’s team seems to have taken the right approach with his wife, Darlene. She didn’t appear at his side and instead released a statement of support.
Handling the political wife — and it is, almost always, the political husband who strays — is tricky, experts said.
Many older-generation politicians and their advisers have deemed it smart to have the official’s wife stand next to her husband as he publicly addresses the issue, to show voters that she still supports him, whether she does or not.
In the cases of Craig, Spitzer and McGreevey, the wives stood next their husbands as they made their announcements. Dawn Gibbons also stood next to then-Congressman Jim Gibbons at a news conference during his 2006 run for governor, after a Las Vegas cocktail waitress accused him of assaulting her.
It may be of some note — and a peek at how the new scandal-response playbook is being written — that in the two most recent instances — Ensign and Sanford — the wives weren’t at the podiums.
Experts speculate that a generational shift may be at work. Younger voters may be more likely to be offended by the spectacle of a grimacing wife “supporting” her husband, and politicians seem to be taking note.
Thompson said that despite what some see as a gaffe in having Silda Wall Spitzer at his side during his announcement, the former governor has otherwise been a model of post-bad boy behavior.
He admitted to his multiple indiscretions with prostitutes soon after news of them broke. He quickly vanished from the limelight, giving voters a break from him and giving late-night comedians less of a target.
Now, Spitzer has reemerged as a media analyst on the economy.
“He’s not ready for elective office yet,” Thompson said. “But I don’t believe his career has been ruined.”
Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.