How Not To Handle A Political Crisis

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's news conference on Wednesday raised about as many questions as it answered. For some in the business of advising politicians, the main question was, why did Sanford go in front of microphones and cameras and bare his soul for nearly 20 minutes?

A communications professional could tell from Sanford's very first sentence that this news conference was not going to help him much. He kicked it off by saying, "I won't begin in any particular spot," and he didn't — rambling on about hiking and travel and then spending five or so minutes apologizing.

What he was apologizing for wasn't clear at this point, but the group of people he said he'd hurt grew rather large. He apologized to his family and his staff, as well as "anyone who lives in South Carolina who I let them down on that front."

"That front" turned out to be his affair with an Argentine woman he called a "dear, dear friend." He got around to mentioning that about 7 1/2 minutes after he'd begun talking.

"I mean, watching it with a professional perspective ... it was akin to fingernails on a chalkboard," says Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant. "You could see every principle of crisis communications being violated on a moment-by-moment basis."

Lehane knows about crisis communications. He was President Clinton's spokesman during the Monica Lewinsky affair. And he says there are certain things you just don't do in a situation like Sanford's.

"The script is pretty standard. You get up there. You apologize. Ideally you have your spouse with you, who solemnly looks sad and nods and indicates he or she is gonna stick with you and you don't take questions because there's nothing you can say that's going to make the public feel any better about the situation," he says. "In fact, answering questions usually just compounds the situation."

Sanford's news conference has been much described as "teary." He often gazed at the ceiling as he spoke, as if the answers to the questions were written there and he'd forgotten his glasses.

It was convincingly unscripted, says Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican congressional staffer.

"It indicated that it was coming from the heart. Unfortunately for him, the situation just didn't lend itself to a real repair job. He's in a deep political hole and the only thing he did was stop digging it even deeper," Pitney says.

Sanford's problems go beyond the simple fact of his love affair. There's the week preceding the news conference when he was AWOL.

First he was missing, then he was hiking, then he was at the Atlanta airport getting off a plane from Argentina. He has also battled the South Carolina Legislature, which is dominated by members of his own party. And right now, Pitney says, Republicans have enough problems without rushing to Sanford's defense.

"Republicans are reeling from political setbacks, most recently, John Ensign's revelation [of infidelity] in Nevada, and consequently they don't want to drag themselves down further by defending what is basically indefensible," he says. "So he's not going to find too many friends at that point."

It's not impossible to win friends back, however. It depends on the way Sanford does his job from now on, says Lehane.

"At the end of the day, I think the public does a really good job of separating out the public from the private. And if they believe you're doing a good job, if they believe you're making a positive difference in their lives or their families lives in terms of how you govern, they're likely to give you a lot more leeway than they would otherwise," Lehane says. "And I think those who have survived these and gone on made sure they handled things afterwards in a way that did not continue to undermine their position."

In other words, says Lehane, they kept their mouths shut about their personal lives.

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