As a professional crisis manager, I believe there are certain immutable
rules that simply cannot be broken. The most basic is a lesson learned
during my White House service during the Clinton administration: “Tell
it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.”
This rule is violated over and over again: by former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), by former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), by the most famous, worst crisis manager of all, Richard Nixon.
Obviously, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) violated this rule last week. He chose to lie and dissemble, for some reason believing that he could get away with it.
This strategy simply cannot work, especially in the age of the Internet. A 200-year-old example charts a better course: being proactive and pre-emptive in getting all the bad news out yourself.
Alexander Hamilton was not only one of the most important Founding Fathers, he was embroiled in one of the first American political sex scandals. In 1796, Hamilton was caught up in an affair involving a married woman and the payment of hush money. The facts were devastating, but the swirling speculation was worse. When the story was about to leak, Hamilton published a lengthy confession himself in the newspaper he had founded, the New York Post.
While much has been written about the need to follow this basic rule, less attention is paid to the difficult process of recovering after a politician fails the initial test as massively as Weiner did. So here is a three-step process that I would recommend to the embattled congressman going forward. His lies have made his life far more difficult, but there may yet be light at the end of the tunnel.
One, Weiner must find the time to tell the rest of the truth. For example, there are more stories trickling out about emails advising a woman he corresponded with to lie about their interactions. Weiner might need a second (and hopefully final) “document dump” releasing all the remaining emails and perhaps other facts that fill in the rest of the story. He needs to do this very soon, since these remaining details are going to continue to dribble out, keeping the story alive each day for God knows how much longer.
Second, after a bit of time passes, he must offer a more comprehensive apology. When he does, Weiner should do more than he did on Monday — not just explain what happened, but why. He needs to provide context, perhaps the narrative of his impulses before his marriage that he was unable to control after. Maybe that will help people understand the big question: What on earth was going through his mind?
Yes, there’s a danger in revealing “too much information,” with so many sordid details. But his supporters and critics alike will forgive him the more they understand him, or at least will have more reason to empathize with him.
Third, through it all, Weiner must demonstrate through actions and not just words that his top priority is his family, not politics. If he has hope of establishing a lasting career in public life going forward, he must truly feel, and thus authentically convey to others, that this is so.
Does that mean he ought to resign soon? No. When you are in the ICU, you don’t make major life decisions. When you are still hemorrhaging political blood, you don’t quit. Bill ClintonBill ClintonClinton thanks protesters ahead of women’s march Trump takes office in tough place, but approval ratings do change The new Washington elite schmoozes over lunch MORE didn’t; nor did Sen. David VitterDavid VitterLobbying World Bottom Line Republicans add three to Banking Committee MORE (R-La.), who was linked to a prostitute.
Time will help Weiner see the right decision. The only thing that he should convey now is the opposite of politics — delivering the truth to his constituents, and taking care of his wife, if she will let him.
Davis is principal in the law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in legal crisis management. He served as special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98 and is the author of Truth to Tell: Tell It All, Tell It Early, Tell It Yourself. He writes a regular column for The Hill.