Thursday, October 05, 2006

The art of political apologia, which Nixon called "the modified limited hangout route"

Politicians generally take responsibility for errors only when trapped in a corner with no way out. And since such a confession has to be wrung out of them, what value does the mea culpa really have?

So it goes with the House Speaker Dennis Hastert - which is ironic, given the fact that his man in the White House has been trying to paint the GOP as the party of personal responsibility; as President Bush said in 2003, “The culture of America is changing from one that has said, ‘if it feels good, do it’ and ‘if you've got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a new culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life."

Until today, when he realized he was cornered, Hastert apparently didn’t get that memo.

In recent days, while being peppered with evidence that his office took no substantive action against congressman Mark Foley despite repeated warnings, and while being assailed for this inaction by other Republican leaders (who didn’t want to accept responsibility, either), Hastert had been busy trying to blame somebody else.

It’s all a Democratic plot, he said. It‘s all a liberal media plot, he said. It’s a liberal conspiracy, he said. And sometimes it’s all three: “"When the (Republican) base finds out who's feeding this monster, they're not going to be happy. The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros,” a reference to the rich liberal philanthropist who has been on the GOP’s bogeyman roster since 2004.

Well, the GOP House leader’s bid to perpetuate the blame-somebody-else culture was foiled today in the wake of reports that the key scandal tipster was actually a former House Republican staffer. And it was becoming increasingly difficult, as well as politically embarrassing, for Hastert to fend off responsibility when the people “feeding this monster” were actually his brethren in the GOP hierarchy. I doubt that Majority Whip Roy Blunt first consulted with George Soros before remarking yesterday that Hastert had been slow to act in the Foley matter (“you have to be curious, you have to ask all the questions you can think of”); and I doubt that Senator John McCain first touched base with “Democratic operatives” before essentially saying yesterday that Hastert cannot be trusted to fully probe the Foley affair (“I think it needs to be addressed by people who are credible”).

Blunt, by the way, put out a new statement this afternoon, insisting that he and Hastert are tight. He said, “There is not, and has not been, any daylight between the Speaker and me” – which is curious, since 24 hours earlier, he had demonstrated precisely the opposite. But such contradictions typically abound during political crises, when the urge is to circle the wagons.

Besides, Hastert was dissed today, in awkward fashion, by one of the Republicans who serves on the House Ethics Committee. Congressman Doc Hastings at first told reporters that Hastert, as House leader, has done “an excellent job.” Then he felt the need to amend himself: “Before I, before we quit here, I just simply want to say the remarks that I made regarding Speaker Hastert is not related to the matter at hand here.”

Meanwhile, Hastert was getting cornered by the adverse public reaction. An Associated Press-IPSOS poll, conducted in the wake of the Foley revelations, shows that half of all likely November voters now view corruption and scandal disclosures as very or extremely important voting factors – and, by a 2-1 margin, they see the Democrats as the party more capable of conducting a cleanup. And, according to a new Time poll, two-third of Americans with knowledge of the Foley scandal believe that the GOP leaders covered it up.

Thus trapped with no exit strategy, Hastert shifted into contrition mode this afternoon, at a press event in his native Illinois: “The bottom line is, I am taking responsibility for it, because ultimately the buck stops here. I'm sorry that this happened.” Whether these remarks are enough to save his speaker job, or trigger a pro-GOP public opinion resurgence, is another matter, of course. If you read between the lines, he’s not saying that he did anything wrong. He’s just saying he has to shoulder the hit because his high standing requires it – and he’s only saying this under duress anyway. Indeed, conservative commentator Larry Kudlow at National Review Online is not impressed: “(Hastert) didn’t take responsibility for the timeline that clearly points to either his knowing about the Foley problem, or his staff knowing, which is all the same thing in my view.”

But just to demonstrate that Hastert is merely one example of the coerced contrition phenomenon, consider one of his foot soldiers, Pennsylvania congressman Donald Sherwood. He got some bad publicity a few years ago when word broke that the veteran campaigner for family values had allegedly tried to choke his longtime extramarital mistress – who then sued him and ultimately settled out of court (the details were sealed). He tried toughing it out, which seemed like a good idea, given the fact that he had long been unassailable in his district.

But now that he’s trailing his challenger by nine points in the polls with just a month left in the campaign (and with only 60 percent of Republicans saying they will vote for him), he wants everybody to know how sorry he feels, and he’s ponying up the money to say it. A new TV ad that went on the air yesterday: “I made a mistake that nearly cost me the love of my wife, Carol, and our daughters. As a family, we’ve worked through this because of my deep regret, our love, and the fact that the allegation of abuse was never true. While I’m truly sorry for disappointing you, I never wavered from my commitment to reduce taxes, create jobs and bring home our fair share. Should you forgive me, you can count on me to keep on fighting hard for you and your family.”

To appreciate the grudging nature of erring politicians, here’s some historical perspective: Richard Nixon said he took responsibility for Watergate (after his aides started getting indicted), but he quit his job without taking the blame. Senator Bob Packwood (remember him?) finally said he was sorry about all the women he had sexually harassed, ``if I did the things that they said I did.'' Lest we forget Chappaquiddick, Senator Edward Kennedy went into contrition mode in a TV address, yet seemed to put the blame on his vehicle: ``The car that I was driving went off a narrow bridge.'' And, of course, there was Bill Clinton, who ‘fessed about Monica Lewinsky in an August 1998 TV address (``a personal failure . . . for which I am solely and completely responsible'') only because she had just cut a deal with the special prosecutor and his avenues of escape had closed.

Undoubtedly, the current defenders of the Hastert regime – mindful of the impending congressional elections – will cite such cases (the Democratic cases, anyway) in an effort to diffuse the Foley issue and contend that sleaze is a bipartisan phenomenon. But only the Hastert GOP establishment is on the ballot next month, and this scandal looms (in the words of columnist George Will) as “a maraschino cherry atop the Democrats' delectable sundae of Republican miseries.”

Former Democratic Louisiana congressman Edwin Edwards once framed the terms of political failure thusly: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” And in our techie era, instant messaging can be as politically risky as an actual boudoir.