Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Lessons Learned

John F. Harris in the Washington Post on the new thinking of scandal cover-up:

In the decades after Watergate, Washington figures in legal or political hot water heard some familiar words of wisdom:

The coverup is almost always worse than the crime. Never hunker down. Above all, never lie.

Lately, though, the evidence is mounting that this tried-and-true advice may no longer be true.

Recent evidence suggests that hunkering down can sometimes work just fine, in a political and news media environment that has changed significantly in recent years. Examples include legal controversies involving prominent Democrats as well as the Bush White House. Even people who got caught in falsehoods have resolved their cases with no apparent penalty for the deception.


The case of Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, who served as national security adviser in the Clinton White House, is the latest instance in which some old truisms of scandal management were safely abandoned. He and his spokesmen initially said that he took copies of classified documents about terrorism from the National Archives by accident and then misplaced them in what Berger described as an “honest mistake.”

Earlier this month, Berger struck a plea bargain with Justice Department prosecutors in which he admitted that he took the copies on purpose and then destroyed some of them at his office with scissors. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, accepting a $10,000 fine and a three-year suspension of his national security clearance — terms that his friends and defense team said were a good deal for Berger.

At the moment, it is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) who is most urgently facing the classic Washington choice about how to respond to an ethics uproar.

One option commonly taken by political figures is to try to “get in front of the story” by voluntarily disclosing as much information as possible, and by projecting an aura of nondefensive cooperation with legal and media inquiries. At the other end of the spectrum is a strategy of denouncing questions as illegitimate or politically motivated, disclosing little information, and hoping the storm will pass.

DeLay, who is facing questions about his connections to lobbyists, has taken a middle course. His aides have responded to questions from reporters examining public records. At the same time, he has gone on the offensive. Last month, he told the Family Research Council, a prominent group of social conservatives, that criticism of his ethics was being promoted by liberal “do-gooder groups” and the “national media” as part of “a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in.”


The most famous example of a politician who hunkered down and survived to tell about it is former president Bill Clinton. He has said he believes that if he had told the truth about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in the first days after the scandal erupted in January 1998, the uproar would have forced him from office. By the time he acknowledged the affair seven months later, polls suggested that a majority of the public had long since concluded that Clinton was probably lying but that the matter was a private transgression.

“I think the overwhelming likelihood is that I would have been forced from office, because I think the Democrats would have — some Democrats might have abandoned me,” Clinton told PBS’s Jim Lehrer last year. “I’m not sure that would have happened,” he added, but “I thought at the time it was a realistic possibility.”


John D. Podesta, head of the liberal Center for American Progress and a White House and congressional staff veteran since the 1970s, said “one-party control” by Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue “changes the dynamic substantially” in political scandals.

“You just don’t have anyone in power in Congress who will issue a subpoena,” forcing truthful testimony, he said, chiding legislators to restore a sense “that there’s things that they just won’t tolerate, whether it’s done by Republicans or Democrats.”

Given the majority leader’s problems, Podesta said, in some not exactly friendly advice, “if I was advising DeLay, I don’t know that ‘getting it all out’ is a particularly useful strategy for him.”

I’d be happy if Tom DeLay went the Nixon route — I love a good grande guignol.