When Political Figures Fall Short, It’s a Long, Hard Fall.

No one is perfect.   Virtually everyone has done something they do not want to see on the front page of their local newspaper.  

So, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s troubles are simply the latest reminder that high-profile people get high-profile treatment when they don’t live up to expectations.  

First, let me acknowledge my relationship with Gov. Sanford.   For almost a decade, we have served on the Awakening conference’s board together.  In January, Ms. Sanford moderated an Awakening panel on which I participated and annually our families have joined over 400 individuals for the annual Awakening gathering on the Southeast coast.

Like most others who know him, I considered him to be the straightest of arrows.

Yet, when confronting embarrassing situations, Mark Sanford’s handling of his ordeal offers a solid blueprint for how NOT to do it.    As The State newspaper characterized his press conference, for “the next 18 minutes he thought out loud.”
In other words, he mistook a microphone for a confessional.  It’s not the first time that a guilt-ridden, embarrassed political leader has poured his/her emotions into a camera and microphone.  However, it’s not a good way to manage a difficult, personal and political crisis.

First, let’s look at what he did right.   He faced the cameras alone He accepted responsibility for his actions and apologized.   He didn’t try to shift accountability or blame.   He acknowledged the pain and embarrassment he caused the State of South Carolina, its citizens, his family and his staff.  He said he would do everything possible to make amends.

That’s about it on the positive side.   Let’s use this situation as a primer for priority setting and decision-making in the initial moments of a crisis.

When dealing with emotional, personal information, you must first prepare very carefully what you are going to say and stick to the script.   Sanford arrived with no prepared remarks and hence spent 18 minutes thinking out loud – something even the most savvy, articulate individuals cannot do well when facing excruciating admissions.  

Anything over 10 minutes is too long …and five minutes or less is better. At a press conference, you are almost required to accept questions, but no more than two or three.

The statement should provide enough information to explain what happened and, if possible, why.   If you can make amends, discuss briefly how you plan to do that.  The answers to questions – like your statement - should be brief and concise, but not abrupt.  

This is not a time to let your thoughts wonder or give answers that would arouse additional speculation.  Avoid details – particularly the sordid kind – and get off stage as soon as possible.   If you feel a need to expunge guilt or discuss details in depth, find a minister or therapist – not a reporter.

Meanwhile, think about the impact your words will have on those closest to you.   Your family must be foremost in your mind.  Your actions not only embarrass you, but they pain and mortify your kin.

Don’t make your spouse suffer further by asking that individual to appear at the press conference or, for that matter, any public appearance while the controversy rages.  Do everything to create a zone of privacy for the family that reduces exposure to further injury.

Ultimately, they have to face their public, too, but time helps.   Also, don’t do or say anything else that adds to their discomfort – particularly if children are involved.   Adolescent kids can be earth’s cruelest creatures, so don’t provide more ammunition for those who would be unkind.

At the same time, resolve your situation quickly as possible.   Affairs of the heart, for instance, aren’t easy to resolve, but this isn’t a time to play mental ping-pong.  Develop a course of action that gets you out of limbo.

Next, think about the people who put their trust in you – the voters.   Can you continue to serve effectively?   If you decide to stay in office, is it for personal reasons or do you truly have the interests of the voters in mind?

If criminality, malfeasance or indictments are involved, you are probably fighting a losing battle to hang on to office.

Regardless, talk to people whose judgment you trust – not just those who depend on your position for their jobs.   Smart politicians keep people around who will tell them the truth – no matter what.   At times like this, these people are worth their weight in gold.

Not every mistake will disqualify you from office. More and more, people today seem to separate personal problems, mistakes and foibles from criminality when determining whether a political figure can stay in office – but not always.

Get a consensus from those trusted outsiders and let that inform your decisions.

Finally, time does make a difference.  Ultimately, this too shall pass – though don’t expect even those who forgive to forget.

As the Bible says, we have all sinned and fallen short.  But when high-profile people fall, the fall isn’t short.   It’s a long, hard drop. And, the impact is painful.


Rusty Paul is former Georgia GOP Chairman, state senator and long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consultant helping Republican candidates in state and local races. Email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

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