Politico has an interesting story today about politicians’ return to public life following scandals. The article reiterates conventional wisdom about the best way to communicate a politician's bad behaviour: get the story out – all of it – honestly and quickly; and then have them disappear for a while. It's an approach that relies both on Americans' willingness to forgive, and on their confidence that the wrongdoer has come clean, having recognized his/her actions were wrong. As Politico points out, it’s a strategy employed by politicians of all stripes:
"On Tuesday, former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned less than three years ago following a scandal involving a congressional page, debuted as a radio talk show host on Florida’s WSVU-AM. Congressional Quarterly reported: “Mark Foley Leaves Door Open for a Run.”
Former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) — just a few weeks out of jail after serving seven years in federal prison for racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion — told Fox News host Greta Van Susteren that there’s a “50-50 chance” that he may run again for Congress.
Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who still faces federal corruption charges despite his pleas of innocence, told The New Yorker that he’s “not ruling myself out or writing myself off as getting back in the business of serving the public.”
All of which comes in the wake of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s return to the public eye. Spitzer, who stepped down in March 2008 following a sex scandal, is a regular commentator on MSNBC and writes for Slate. In political circles, hardly a day goes by without someone pondering Spitzer’s aspirations."
Edwards’ refusal to admit to the allegations against him drew out the negative media coverage and public attention to his failings (see my earlier blog on that topic here). And to dredge it all up yet again, as The New York Times pointed out earlier this week, a grand jury investigation is currently underway (with a decision expected relatively shortly) as to whether there was any criminal wrongdoing in Edwards’ efforts to cover up the affair.
So while these other fellows may be able to begin planning to their respective returns to public life, Edwards has a ways to go.
You can't put it behind you until it's actually over.
One of the key requirements for moving on after a scandal is that the scandal has to be over. PR professionals advise their clients to get all the embarrassing details out right away, in part, because doing so ultimately deprives the media of fresh “news” on the topic. A lack of new angles can shorten the “legs” (or ongoing newsworthiness) of a story.
Edwards made his ultimate downfall far messier than it had to be, by lying to the media and allegedly spending a great deal of time, energy and money covering up his affair. The story dragged on and on as the media dogged him and his lover, documenting mounting evidence that his denials were false. Only when he finally came out and admitted to the affair did Edwards put an end to most of the speculation – and the daily media coverage.
You might think that having admitted to the mess didn’t help Edwards' PR much – but at least we stopped talking about it for a while.
And even then...
The grand jury investigation is news, so we likely would have been talking about the story again about now, anyway. However, if the Times’ report that Edwards may publicly acknowledge that he fathered his lover’s baby is true – constituting a full reversal of all his previous statements on the matter – he’ll be back at square one in the court of public opinion.
If that's the case, he'll have to re-set the clock on redemption yet again – and you have to wonder whether he'll ever be able to salvage his credibility. Yes, he may get whatever bad news remains out with the inevitable grand jury coverage, but his publics will nevertheless be faced with the reality of yet another lie.
How many times can you go back to the American people asking forgiveness for dishonesty, and still be believed? Edwards may be just the man to find out.