If politicians learned anything from Watergate, it’s that the best way to manage a scandal is to be forthcoming, and that the coverup is often worse than the crime. But in today’s polarized Washington, crisis management is changing. Witness the case of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is waging an aggressive counter-attack against a range of ethics charges. Brooke talks strategy with Washington Post staff writer John Harris.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In between the death of the pope and the naming of his successor, the nation's front pages this week were focused closer to home - on the scandal surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. And TV wasn't far behind. [TV CLIP]
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (TAPE): …problems closer to home. Tom DeLay had a tough week. Story in the New York Times revealing that he had paid 500,000 dollars over the last several years to his wife and daughter…
BOB SCHIEFFER (TAPE): Tom DeLay, who's been under fire on ethical questions relating to whether lobbyists improperly paid for some of his travel and other possible campaign law violations, got some criticism today…
TIM RUSSERT (TAPE): …third DeLay trip under scrutiny - 1997 Russia visit - reportedly backed by business interest - and then…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of the capitol's more faint-hearted leaders might not have survived such a steady barrage of public criticism, but faint-hearted is one thing Tom "The Hammer" DeLay is not. This week, we learned that the Congressman's staff has teamed up with veteran GOP strategists to wage an all-out counter-offensive. It remains to be seen whether DeLay's aggressive approach will work, but Washington Post staff writer John Harris says there's no mistaking its intent.
JOHN HARRIS: The initial strategy, as near as I can tell, was to take all the questions that had been raised about his activities and denounce them as illegitimate - driven not by facts, but by people who are trying to drive him out of office for ideological purposes. And you know, really what it recalled is in the opening days of the famous Monica Lewinsky scandal, when Hillary Clinton went on the Today Show, I believe it was, and said that what was happening to them was the result of the famous phrase: "a vast right wing conspiracy."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So, how effective do you think DeLay's initial aggressive approach has been?
JOHN HARRIS: I think it no doubt has been effective in getting fellow conservatives to see the world as he does. In other words, that these questions are being raised by partisan Democrats and by liberal media. But, if he recognizes or is made by other Republicans to recognize that these questions have enough legitimacy that they're not going away, then he has to provide some kind of substantive defense. He can't merely dismiss them out of hand as fabrications. My view is that much of this strategy, if it is strategy, flows very directly from authentic, genuine feelings that he has. He does feel that he's being persecuted. He does question the motives of the people asking questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So much of his reaction derives from sincere feeling about the case, but on the other hand, he has convened a war room of sorts, and I read in the Washington Post that every morning at 7:30 there's a conference call to Republican strategists and other leaders to review the media and to decide on the message of the day. Is that unusual?
JOHN HARRIS: No, it is not. It is standard operating procedure for any Washington figure who finds himself in the middle of one of these firestorms. Perhaps when these questions first arose, there was an instinct by DeLay and his team to dismiss them. They really didn't take them seriously. Now they fully understand that his career is on the line - that this could very well end up forcing him from Congress, unless the story is managed appropriately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote, in a fascinating story this week, that there were two kinds of damage control - one was trying to get in front of the story, not covering it up, voluntarily disclosing as much as possible; and the second strategy is to dig in, dismiss questions, attack the messenger, don't disclose anything. We always used to think that it was the cover up that was going to bring you down, but you write in your piece that that may no longer be true.
JOHN HARRIS: I think there's good reason to question whether that's still true. In the years since Watergate, it was conventional wisdom that the worst thing a public figure who is in the middle of controversy can do is to go into a defensive mode. In fact, Washington has become so partisan that the rules of scandal management have changed. Almost every topic, including questions about ethics, is highly partisan. Bill Clinton himself was the classic example. He believes, and he may well be right, that if in the opening days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal he had taken the open approach and said, yes, it's true. I admit it; I apologize, public opinion never would have been prepared to accept the reality of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. By initially speaking falsely about that relationship, essentially hunkering down for the next six, seven months, by the time he was forced to acknowledge the details, the public had long since come to terms with what the reality of the relationship probably was in a way that worked to Clinton's advantage. They had long since chosen up sides. Often, hunkering down works just fine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you made the point in Tuesday's paper that DeLay's strategy seems to be representative of this overall shift. Do the experts that you've spoken to think it's working?
JOHN HARRIS: It's really uncertain whether this is going to work for DeLay. Most Republicans are on his side. Tom DeLay remains a darling of the conservative movement. He's more responsible than any other person for building the financial and political apparatus on which the Republican majority in the House of Representatives rests. So, by making this a partisan issue, that in one level is effective strategy. It won't work, the consensus is, if more facts continue to come out - day in, day out - new revelations - new questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I'm reminded of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who stepped down a little more than two years ago, after making what were interpreted to be pro-segregation comments - there didn't seem to be time either to clam up, hunker down or disclose.
JOHN HARRIS: I think Trent Lott would have been happy to try any of those strategies, and over the course of a couple of weeks of that controversy, he tried all three of those things. What he found was, [LAUGHS] and sometimes Washington figures do find this when they get in trouble, they are without friends. Trent Lott looked around him, and there were no Republicans to speak of coming to his defense, and remember at the time, the Bush White House was far from supportive. It became very clear with both their public and background remarks that they'd prefer that he leave, and that's in fact what ended up happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, no strategy works if you haven't got friends.
JOHN HARRIS: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] John, thank you very much.
JOHN HARRIS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Harris is a staff reporter for the Washington Post and author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, which hits bookstores in June. [MUSIC]