Former Clinton Official on Political Damage Control

The Republican Party is in damage-control mode over the Mark Foley scandal. Lanny Davis, White House special counsel to President Clinton, talks with Steve Inskeep about what the Republicans can do to help themselves.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When you're dealing with a political sex scandal, it doesn't hurt to hear a voice of experience, so we've brought one in this morning. The scandal involves former Congressman Mark Foley and his e-mails to underage pages. The voice of experience is Lanny Davis, who was special counsel to Bill Clinton during some of the former president's scandal and a defender of the president in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Mr. Davis, thanks for coming in this morning.

Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Former Special Counsel to President Clinton): Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So if you were a Republican and you just wanted this scandal to be over, what would you do?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, the subtitle of the book I wrote about my White House experience was: Tell it all, Tell it early, Tell it yourself. And the Republican leadership managed to violate every one of those fundamental rules of crisis management, and that's why they are where they are today.

INSKEEP: What do you mean they violated those rules?

Mr. DAVIS: The first piece of bad news, knowing about Mr. Foley's e-mails, which, giving them the benefit of the doubt, they didn't know about how explicit they were. The rule is tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself. They should have immediately gone to Mr. Foley, immediately gone to the House Ethics Committee, immediately told both the Democrat and the Republican on the House Page Committee; put this story out, ask Mr. Foley either to resign or get help, and do it all last May.

They would have been in front of the story. Mr. Hastert would have seemed to be responsible and bi-partisan and this story would have no legs. Because what's feeding it right now is that Mr. Hastert didn't do any of those things but did the opposite.

INSKEEP: And let's be frank. You're arguing that people should get all the information out of there - out not because of moral reasons but because it's practical, because it gets it out of the way and you have control of the story perhaps for a moment.

Mr. DAVIS: Exactly. I do not speak as a partisan Democrat. In fact, I would urge my fellow Democrats to resist the temptation - I know it's tough - and not exploit this situation. I'm speaking here as if Mr. Hastert had asked my advice as a professional crisis manager.

INSKEEP: The speaker, Dennis Hastert? Yeah.

Mr. DAVIS: Speaker Hastert. I would have given him that advice. And it's amazing how many people in this situation forget the basic lessons of what I've just said.

INSKEEP: Well, what if you're in a situation that Dennis Hastert says he's in now? He says he didn't know everything last May. Now he does and he acted as soon as he did, he says.

Mr. DAVIS: All right.

INSKEEP: And he's a situation that he's in. What would you do from this moment on?

Mr. DAVIS: There's a before the fact advice. I just gave that; it's too late. Now after the fact, what do you do? Exactly the opposite of what Mr. Hastert is doing.

Instead of going on Rush Limbaugh and trying to change the subject, or trying to defend and be in a crouch and a defensive position, you step up to the line. You say, I made a misjudgment, we should have done it differently; we're going to investigate this, and I am sorry.

If he had done any of those statements, this story would have no legs. The only thing feeding this story is first deny, then change the subject and then attack. Which is what, I have to say, it's not just Mr. Hastert. Most politicians in this situation, Democrat or Republican, do exactly the wrong thing, from Richard Nixon all the way through all of the scandals. They somehow forget history and they go into a crouch, deny, let the story dribble out, give it legs over time, instead of cutting it off, taking responsibility and moving on.

INSKEEP: Your president refused to resign under pressure. Is there a lesson there for Dennis Hastert, who is also refusing to resign?

Mr. DAVIS: I was strongly opposed to President Clinton resigning, because I did not believe what happened with President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky was an impeachable offense. Most of the American public found his conduct unacceptable - he himself said his conduct was unacceptable - but they made a distinction between an impeachable offense of a president and...

INSKEEP: Well, wait a minute. What I'm asking is what will determine if Dennis Hastert will survive this?

Mr. DAVIS: Oh. I don't think Mr. Hastert should resign and I don't think he ought to be pressured into resigning. He made a misjudgment about handling a crisis. That happens all the time on both sides of the aisle. Misjudgments are not grounds for resignation. He did nothing morally wrong. He did nothing illegal. He simply made a misjudgment.

All Mr. Hastert needs to do now is acknowledge that he made a mistake and fully investigate this and make it into a bipartisan issue - and it goes away.

INSKEEP: Mr. Davis, thanks very much.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Lanny Davis's new book is Scandal: How Gotcha Politics is Destroying America.

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