When is the emotional apology the right move to put scandal behind and to stop a spreading crisis?
I'm thinking of this, of course, because of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford with his tearful apologies this week to his wife and family, his staff and supporters, and to all the people of his state.
Sanford, of course, had much explaining to do after his mysterious disappearance left aides and family in the dark, only to turn out that he'd taken a trip to Argentina to meet up with a woman with whom he had been having an illicit affair. In the less-than-proud tradition of disgraced politicians undone by their hormones, Sanford stood before the cameras and apologized. To his credit, he did not try to justify his actions and he seemed remarkably candid in his remarks.
But did he have to go on for so long? Did we really need so many details? Wouldn't he have been better off following this simple "Force for Good" advice for coming clean about a mistake: "Be honest. Keep it brief. Get off stage. Move on."
Others were quick to question whether his apology was the correct move in terms of crisis management.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, loudly argued against the wisdom of the Sanford apology (and in terms that would have gotten a male op-ed writer in serious trouble):
"Perhaps someday one of these VIPs in trouble will figure out that on these occasions it's not a great thing to go public looking like a pathetic dolt -- the kind of man who would induce instant headache and skin crawling in any woman imagining him as a lover."
Rabinowitz would have had Sanford make a straight-forward admission of the affair, without apology, capped with this closer:
"So let's understand this. I plan to straighten my tie, button my jacket .. and go forward to do what I have to do. Life's complicated, ladies and gentlemen, but there's work to be done. I'll have nothing further on this, count on it."
The long, drawn-out, tearful apology didn't score well with Cokie Roberts or Sam Donaldson on ABC's Good Morning America.
"It will sink him," Roberts said about the apology, not the affair.
Donaldson disparaged Sanford for taking questions from media and answering in agonizing detail. "He's a cooked goose," Donaldson said, adding that he gives higher marks to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who made a brief statement and a quick exit in admitting an extramarital affair earlier this month.
Of course, every situation is unique and it's always easy for the "experts" to criticize.
One thing is clear. If Sanford wants to keep his job, he needs to keep his head down and work through the issues and privately work with his wife on saving their marriage. No more apologizing; no more details; no further comment even as journalists work to advance the story. ("Who is the mysterious woman in Argentina? How did they meet? etc.)
It's still might not be enough to overcome his erratic behavior -- the sudden disapearance, the phony story about hiking -- that had to make voters wonder about his suitabiity to govern.
Fortunately, the public has a short attention span. The sudden death of Michel Jackson has blown all other news off the radar screen. Sanford should make use of the respite and keep quiet.
- Jon Harmon