Wolfowitz's Socks and More Amazing Tales

Last weekend, Paul Wolfowitz, the current head of the World Bank, removed his shoes before entering a mosque in western Turkey, and revealed his two big toes sticking out of a dark pair of socks. Guest Eric Dezenhall, CEO of a crisis management firm, talks about other stories of embarrassing gaffes made in public.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Over the weekend, Paul Wolfowitz - the current head of the World Bank and former assistant secretary of defense - paid a visit to Turkey. And before entering a mosque in the western part of the country, he removed his shoes, as it's customary to do. Unfortunately, the socks he wore that day had worn through. His toes were showing. And as Mr. Wolfowitz slipped back into his shoes, the usual gaggle of press photographers captured images with his two big toes sticking out of a dark pair of socks.

As you can imagine, the photos popped up in news outlets from Turkey to Sydney to Chicago. Of course, public embarrassment is not specific to government officials. Have you ever been caught in public with your pants down, so to speak? How did you respond? Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, or you can e-mail your embarrassing public moments to us at talk@npr.org.

To help us through this, we brought in a damage-control expert. Eric Dezenhall, a CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management firm here in Washington, D.C. He's joined us here in Studio 3A. Nice to see you.

Mr. ERIC DEZENHALL (CEO, Dezenhall Resources; Author, "Spinning Dixie"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And if Paul Wolfowitz came to you and said Eric, I've got this terrible PR problem, what do I do?

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well this, of course, is a crisis of profound gravity.

CONAN: Absolutely.

Mr. DEZENHALL: And we don't want to take this lightly. I think the first thing I would tell him is one of the greatest myths is the myth of the image makeover. People like to talk about image makeovers and believe that redemption can be achieved through spin. I don't think so. So what I think he has to do to some degree is go with it. Don't deny it. Embrace it.

CONAN: Well, here's an e-mail we got from Raynette(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.

I wanted to remind listeners of Adlai Stevenson being photographed with a hole in his shoe. Mr. Stevenson was campaigning for the presidency in 1952 when Mr. Gallagher, my uncle, caught his photograph. The photograph did not help Mr. Stevenson win the presidency, but it did earn my uncle a 1953 Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Stevenson signed the photograph for my uncle with: To William Gallagher from a candidate who was really not holier than thou. That's a famous picture of Adlai.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, you know, for everybody who does a gaffe like that, they have to remember that the chances of redeeming themselves from it are rather slim. I mean, there's the famous episode of Nixon trying to be more Kennedy-esque and walking on the beach with his winged-tip shoes. So just because you make a gaffe, it doesn't necessarily mean there is a public-relations counter to it. And to some degree, some of the biggest problems have happened when someone tries to be something they're not.

I mean, Al Gore was so overly messaged during the last campaign that he wasn't himself.

CONAN: That was the campaign before last, but they all blur together.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Oh, I'm sorry, yes.

CONAN: That's okay. But these are, you know - we tend to think of public figures, obviously, because we see all of them. They're so well chronicled, the first President Bush having stomach problems and throwing up while at a state dinner with the Japanese.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Yeah, it all comes down to a 5-year-old's humor at the end of the day, and I think that we all…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're right.

Mr. DEZENHALL: …we all relate to that. I mean, to this day, you know, you see picture of LBJ showing his scar. I mean, we like to see that these people are human. We like to be reminded that they're not superior to us, that they do the same things that we do.

CONAN: Let's - this is another e-mail, this one from Jennifer.

A group of us went to the local jazz club. After returning from the bathroom, a friend pointed out something white at the bottom of my pant leg. I thought I had toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I tugged on it, pulled it out and held it high to see it in the dim light and realized it was a pair of boxer shorts - mine. They must have been stuck there from the laundry.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, I don't know that there's great public-relations advice for that. A similar incident was several weeks ago when Britney Spears climbed out of a car without underwear, and my advice - when I was asked about it - is that she wear underwear.

CONAN: That's usually - I think her mother probably would've said the same thing. Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. Eric Dezenhall is our guest.

We're talking about public embarrassments. Have you ever suffered any? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And this is Audrey. Audrey's with us from Warsaw, Indiana.

AUDREY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. What's your - what are you going to confess to us today, Audrey?

AUDREY: Oh, gee. We had just moved to Indiana from New York State, and my husband took the day off. And we went and ran a whole bunch of errands, including taking the cat to the vets. And I asked them if they were hiring, and they said yes. So I sat and I talked to them, and they told me that I had a job. And when we got back home, my husband looked at me and said: Do you know that your shirt's on inside out?

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUDREY: So that's kind of the catch phrase now. He looks at me every now and then. He goes, do you have a job interview? Your shirt's on inside out.

CONAN: But you got the job, anyway.

AUDREY: Yes, I did.

CONAN: And do you wear your shirt inside out to work every day?

AUDREY: No. I ended up having to wear scrubs, thank goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEZENHALL: I think it's relatively easy to redeem yourself from something like that. I think what's harder is with - if a gaffe is perceived to have revealed your soul. I think Wolfowitz' gaffe may reveal more about him and his priorities. And when something seems to be symbolic, it's harder to get out of.

CONAN: I can't resist it. It revealed his toes, not his sole.

Mr. DEZENHALL: That is technically correct.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Audrey, and I'll try your trick next time I have a job interview.

AUDREY: Pardon?

CONAN: I'll try your trick next time I have a job interview.

AUDREY: Oh, I wouldn't do that.

CONAN: All right.

AUDREY: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much. We're speaking with Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management firm here in Washington, D.C. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255 - e-mail talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get John on the line. John's calling from Iowa.

JOHN (Caller): Hey Neal, you're reaching all kinds of new lows to get me to call in, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We'll do anything.

JOHN: I'm a preacher, a small church, all my life. In the middle of my sermon, everybody starting laughing. I looked around, couldn't find out why. Here comes this note that was passed all the way from the back to the front, and finally my wife chuckled and brought the note up to me. The note said: John's tie is caught in his zipper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: And then I looked down and then immediately turned around. Everybody's laughing, and that was it. And to this day, I don't know who sent the note. But it's no big deal. You just laugh and go on.

CONAN: That's probably - you know, denial will get you nothing but trouble. Isn't that right, Eric Dezenhall?

JOHN: Yeah.

Mr. DEZENHALL: I think that's right. I mean, it reminds me of the "Seinfeld" episode where Jerry's - a woman he's seeing thinks she catches him picking his nose, and he spends the rest of the episode trying to deny it, which only digs him in deeper.

CONAN: So to speak.

Mr. DEZENHALL: That's right. And he finally has to give the speech from "The Elephant Man" to try to redeem himself, and it didn't work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, it could've been the puffy shirt. That would've been even worse. But I have to say, John, the tie caught in the zipper - isn't that why we have pulpits you can hide behind?

JOHN: Oh, some people use them. I'm out in front. I like to show it all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, you might want to rethink that.

JOHN: No problem. Just remember, I'll never use tie and fly in the same sentence again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go to Ed. Ed's with us from Michigan.

ED (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Well, thank you.

ED: I manage real estate, and being not terribly over-age yet, I have come to rely on computers, and I'm a little bit dyslexic. And one morning, I was typing a note telling our residents that we were going to be re-carpeting hallways, etc., and we apologize for any inconvenience while the work was doing. Unfortunately, I'd left my glasses at home. I trusted spell check, and instead of inconvenience, ended up with incontinence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You spelled it right, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ED: Well, spell check, you know, gives you a chance to just click and say okay. And without my glasses, incontinence and inconvenience look terribly the same.

CONAN: Well, there are some important differences, but nevertheless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ED: Have a great day. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And I wonder, Eric Dezenhall. These are wonderful stories, but do you recall one of a public figure who couldn't recover from it, maybe the -anybody?

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, I think the more serious gaffes - I mean, I think something this minor I think is easy to recover from because it's not associated with a moral weakness. I think, though, that off-the-cuff remarks -I mean, George Allen has seen how these things live on.

CONAN: The now-former senator from Virginia.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Correct. And, you know, I look at something - a comic figure like Michael Richards of "Seinfeld," when he made his remark a few weeks ago that was picked up by a cell phone. In the Internet age, it's harder and harder to get out of these situations because your original sin lives on.

CONAN: And it's not only on. Somebody was there with a cell phone that recorded it, and it's going to show up on YouTube.

Mr. DEZENHALL: That's right. There's no way to knock it out.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Ann in Eugene, Oregon.

I was in a job interview in Seattle. The office manager excused herself during the interview to take a phone call. As she left the room, she basically said: You might want to clean that off your shoe. I had stepped in dog doo. It wasn't under my shoe; a blob of it was on the top of the toe of my high heels. I was so nervous, I hadn't seen it or smelled it. I got the job.

Here's another e-mail, this one from Shoshanna(ph) in Wilson, North Carolina. When I was in college, I wore thigh-high hose until the day that the elastic decided to let go when I was walking in front of the dining hall. My hose fell below my skirt as I frantically tried to keep them from falling all the way to the ground. My friends were laughing, the woman's dean of students was looking at me very strangely, and I was very red in the face. My cure: never, ever wear thigh-high hose ever again.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Good advice, and I think a lot of forgiveness comes down to whether or not the public can relate to your gaffe. If we think it can happen to us, we forgive. If we think it's beyond the pale, we can't.

CONAN: Let's go with one final call. This is Sharon - Sharon with us from Tracy, California.

SHARON (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

SHARON: I was an inexperienced airplane flier, so I decided I had to finally use the facilities, and when I came out of the restroom back to my seat, I felt like I was being followed. And everyone was just laughing. And I felt back and realized that the seat cover was hanging out the back of my pants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The paper seat cover?

SHARON: The paper seat cover. I had no idea. So I just threw up my hands, went oh well, I'll never see these people again, went back to the restroom, disposed of it and came back to my seat. And my husband said: What did you do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHARON: I just figure I gave people laughs for quite a while.

CONAN: Eric Dezenhall, laugh and the world laughs with you.

Mr. DEZENHALL: That's right. At least you didn't attempt to transfer blame. It's sort of like when people trip. They always look down at the ground as if it was the ground's fault. You didn't do that.

SHARON: No.

CONAN: Sharon, happy flying.

SHARON: Thank you. Same to you.

CONAN: And Eric Dezenhall, thanks so much for being with us today, we appreciate your willingness to kid along with us.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Eric Dezenhall is CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management firm in Washington. He's also the author of a new novel, "Spinning Dixie," and he joined us here today in Studio 3A. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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