What should a public figure do when caught in a mistake or telling a lie?
Any experienced political advisor will urge, “Stop lying, tell the truth, and get the whole story out in one fell swoop.”
Further lying or delay in telling the whole story makes it worse. Day after day, the news media’s reports reemphasize and compound the negatives, destroying the troubled public figure’s chances for rehabilitation in the public’s mind.
Lance Armstrong and John Edwards compounded their disasters by delaying acknowledgement of errors and continuing to lie to the public.
Duke University history professor William Chafe, author of “Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal,” agrees. “The cover-up is worse than the crime and it is going to come back and get you. When you’ve done something wrong, ‘fess up.”
For every rule there are exceptions. Professor Chafe describes how Bill Clinton saved his presidency by maintaining and adjusting his untruthful story about his relationship with Monica Lewinski, waiting several months before admitting the truth.
“He buys six months” Chafe told me recently, “and that six months saves his presidency.”
During those months the country got used to the idea of having a president who had an affair with an intern and lied about it. Several things helped Clinton. The country’s economy under his leadership was doing well. Ken Starr, the special prosecutor, and the Republican impeachment team came across to the public as political and unnecessarily oppressive. Most importantly, Hillary Clinton stuck by her husband, even though he had cheated on and lied to her.
How can Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary loyalty to her husband be explained? Chafe’s book takes on the task. Chafe “became convinced that the only way anyone could understand either one of them – and the politics of the 80s and 90s – was by examining the chemistry of their relationship. Their intimate life animated and ultimately determined the roles they played politically.”
Chafe examines the Clintons’ lives from their troubled childhoods through the struggles of a marriage rocked by Bill Clinton’s serial womanizing. He describes how each time Bill got in trouble, Hillary rescued him. When the publicity about his affair with Gennifer Flowers blew up during the 1992 primary campaign, Hillary was rehearsed and ready to join him on national television (60 Minutes) to persuade Americans that, although there had been trouble in the past, their marriage was strong and durable.
Why would she do this? Chafe explains, “By doing so, she not only rescued Bill’s candidacy, but ensured that her own power in both the personal and political relationship would increase.”
It was Hilary Clinton’s final and most important rescue that made possible the success of Bill Clinton’s six months of deception. Chafe explains, “After the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, Bill Clinton thought for a brief period he would be forced to resign in disgrace, just as Richard Nixon did in 1974. But for the last time, Hillary came to his rescue, standing by him even after he admitted his guilt and faced impeachment. Only this time, by saving her husband – and their co-presidency – she also liberated herself to become her own person in politics.”
Saving her husband’s presidency, Chafe argues, gave her the freedom to chart her own political course. While the Senate was voting on the impeachment charges brought against her husband, she was meeting with political advisors to plan her campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from New York.
The Clintons’ experience was a rare exception. I agree with Bill Chafe about the general rule: when you get in trouble, stop lying, tell all, all at once.
Note: My conversation with William Chafe about “Bill and Hillary” aired on radio station WCHL and is available for listing at http://chapelboro.com/pages/14088842.php
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs at noon Sundays and at 5 p.m. Thursdays on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch
This week’s (Jan. 27, 31) guest is Sheila Turnage, author of “Three Times Lucky.”
A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.