In politics, defensive response always worse than the flub itself

WASHINGTON — It's a maxim of criminal defense law that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Criminal defense lawyers warn their clients that they are likely to get in more trouble for what they do after the underlying offense — lying, destroying evidence, tampering with witnesses — than for the crime itself.

I'd like to propose a corollary in political public relations: the defensive response is always worse than the flub itself. In other words, what can most trip up a public official is not the initial mistake but what he or she does afterward. Exhibit A is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Exhibit B is Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

Think about McDonnell's decision to issue a proclamation to declare April Confederate History Month — in contrast to his two Democratic predecessors and without the apologetic reference to slavery included by the state's last Republican governor, Jim Gilmore.

Dumb, yes. Really dumb, especially since the proclamation singles out "the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War." Even dumber — and far more politically damaging — was McDonnell's failure to instantly reverse course and his explanation about why no reference to slavery was merited: "There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

McDonnell eventually backtracked, admitting a "major omission" and amending the proclamation to denounce the "evil, vicious and inhumane practice" that led to the war. This about-face was entirely predictable. The only surprise was that it took McDonnell so long.


Contrast this with McDonnell's far more adept handling of the campaign controversy over his master's thesis, in which he said immediately that the document, with its anti-feminist, anti-gay positions, was "simply an academic exercise and clearly does not reflect my views."

Steele offers a different example of how not to handle a controversy. I have to admit a certain sympathy for the hapless chairman: He should not be in that job, but the particular offense for which he's being blamed — the RNC-reimbursed outing with donors to a bondage-themed nightclub — is hardly his fault.

Party chairmen do not pore over expense receipts submitted by junior staffers.

But Steele, as he seems to prove himself endlessly capable of doing, dug his hole much deeper when he accepted the invitation from ABC's George Stephanopoulos to say that as an African-American he had a "slimmer margin for error" than another chairman would.

"The honest answer is yes," Steele said. "It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. ... That's just the reality of it." This was not, by the way, Steele's first misstep on this topic: "I don't see stories about the internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation. Why?" Steele said in an interview with Washingtonian magazine for its February issue. "Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?"

Playing the race card is rarely a smart move. Obama knows this. When David Letterman asked him if racism had anything to do with opposition to his health care plan, Obama was smart enough to decline the invitation that Steele accepted. "It's important to realize that I was actually black before the election," he said.

Admitting error does not come easily to any of us, least of all politicians. Pointing fingers elsewhere is a natural response, including for those in politics. It's the smart politician, albeit the rare one, who understands how much damage you can do to yourself in the course of damage control.

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