Washington Update: The Art of the Post-Scandal Political Press Conference
Let’s be clear: if, during a press conference meant to address a scandal, a spouse must quietly and not sarcastically advise the central figure in the brouhaha not to break into dance, it’s a sign things aren’t going well.
But that was the scene at Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s press conference last Saturday, which was intended to provide Northam with an opportunity to address a racially-charged, incredibly insensitive medical school yearbook photo.
Will Gov. Northam survive the awful performance? Fortunately – or, perhaps, more accurately, extremely unfortunately – we have a substantial set of historical data available to us that might portend Northam’s fate.
Over the last half century, many of the politicians who have heeded their crisis communications staffers’ advice and opted to address their scandals head-on in press conferences have not survived, but some have. For the sake of our collective mental health, we won’t get into the content of the scandals here – the details would send us to some very dark places. Instead, we’ll examine how public perception changed after the politicians involved in them decided to face the cameras.
Previous updates have cited the Constitution, academic studies, and any number of serious journalism publications. Today, we introduce a new source. Searching the archives of New York Post front pages is a good start for examining how scandal-related political press conferences can go drastically wrong.
On June 6, 2011, then-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) went in front of cameras to address questions about his social media…habits. It didn’t go particularly well. Andrew Breitbart, the late conservative rabble-rouser who had first broken the story, preempted Weiner’s press conference by getting behind the podium and taking questions from the assembled reporters.
A heckler from the Howard Stern radio show yelled several lewd questions at the Congressman.
The Post devoted its next four front pages to the scandal, including a headline calling on the congressman to resign. Senior Democrats also weren’t swayed by Weiner’s tearful and apologetic display. After the press conference, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was House Minority Leader at the time, called for an Ethics Committee investigation.
Weiner didn’t survive, announcing his resignation 10 days after his disastrous press conference. (He would later resurface in politics and run for Mayor of New York City. His social media…habits…once again became an issue in that race, too.)
Two years before the initial Weiner debacle, it was a Republican governor who found himself in the middle of controversy.
In mid-2009, Mark Sanford, who was serving as South Carolina’s governor at the time, disappeared for a few days. Members of his staff said he was off the grid hiking the Appalachian Trail, but it turned out the chief executive actually was in Argentina and focused on personal pursuits.
Gov. Sanford called a press conference on June 24 to explain himself and, while he didn’t try to dance, his performance was widely criticized. Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza called it the worst handling of a scandal in American history. (Time agreed.) The press conference, Cillizza said, was “a rambling 18-minute performance that include[d] reminisces about the Appalachian Trail, an apology to his wife and family and an extended riff about his time in Argentina with a woman who was not his wife.” The New York Post’s assessment was as withering as it was whimsical: “Cry for me, Argentina,” it said in reference to controversial Argentine First Lady Eva Peron.
Still, while the South Carolina General Assembly censured Sanford and the governor did relinquish is position as head of the Republican Governors Association, he remained governor for almost two more years, until January 2011. What’s more, in 2012 he was elected to Congress where he served until this past January. (Sanford lost his reelection bid last November.)
Former President Bill Clinton, of course, is another politician who survived a disastrous press event. In remarks that were meant to address education policy, on Jan. 26, 1998, former President Bill Clinton uttered the infamous words “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky … I never told anybody to lie, not a single time — never.”
The president surely regrets those words, but he survived impeachment a year later and, according to Gallup polling, left office in January 2001 with an approval rating of 65 percent – the highest rating for a departing Commander in Chief going back to Harry Truman.
Nearly a decade later, Republican Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was not as fortunate. On Aug. 29, 2007 the conservative senator went before cameras to address questions about misconduct in a men’s airport restroom.
While the New York Post spared Craig from its front pages (only because heiress Leona Helmsley had just left more than $12 million to her dog), GOP leaders were not happy with the performance, in which the senator declared “I am not gay. I never have been gay.” (This declaration contrasts with then-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s comments in his resignation press conference in 2004 where he declared, after his extramarital affair was revealed, “I am a gay American.”)
As the UK’s Independent explains, “Within hours of [Craig’s] attempts to brazen things out, the heavens opened. One of the first to criticize him was the Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who called Mr. Craig's conduct ‘disgusting,’ as well as ‘disappointing and disgraceful.’”
Craig resigned less than a week after his press conference.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, who had served nearly a decade in Congress, resigned after going before news cameras to address allegations of sexual harassment. Those claims arose in early July 2013, and on July 26, the mayor told the press he would seek treatment for his problem maintaining appropriate workplace behavior. After leaving treatment early, and asking the city to pay his legal bills, Filner left his job as mayor on Aug. 30.
Scandal-related press conferences are more frequent today, but they certainly are not new. In the summer of 1969 Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) addressed Chappaquiddick in remarks on camera (though he did not take questions). The senator admitted he was driving the car, noted he’d pled guilty to the police, detailed the activities leading up to the crash, explained why his wife was not with him, and praised the young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who died in the accident. Kennedy said he tried to save Kopechne and accused those who had alleged that he and Kopechne were having an affair of trying to destroy Kopechne’s (not his) good reputation. Finally, Kennedy said he should have immediately reported the incident and asked for the advice and prayers of his constituents.
Kennedy, of course, served for decades after the scandal in the Senate. One wonders in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media whether Senator Kennedy would have been able to retain his seat in the Senate had Chappaquiddick happened much later in his career.
In August 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was under scrutiny for charges stemming from campaign contributions he received while serving as Maryland’s governor. He held a press conference on Aug. 3 denying the allegations, but resigned two months later after pleading “no contest.”
Not all controversies surround wrongdoing and, in hindsight, some even seem deeply unfair. In 1972 George McGovern’s running mate Tom Eagleton called a press conference to address questions about his mental health. According to an account by The Associated Press, “What followed was surely one of the stranger press conferences in presidential political history. … A nervous, perspiring Eagleton said haltingly that he had been treated years earlier for exhaustion and depression. Someone asked what the treatment entailed, and his answer included the words shock therapy.” Eagleton also sat down with reporters after the press conference in which he “reluctantly but graciously” answered questions.
It wasn’t enough. Eagleton was off the ticket a month later.
It’s impossible to predict what will happen next with Gov. Northam – particularly as the second and third-ranking Democratic officials in Virginia are now embroiled in their own political scandals – but his performance before the press corps lend us the latest in a long line of examples of politicians delivering their mea culpas before the cameras.
Steve Boms is the founder and President of Allon Advocacy, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy consulting firm. Steve has spent his career focused on complex financial services public policy issues, having worked in the United States Congress on the committee with jurisdiction over banking. He has led advocacy efforts and public policy teams globally for equity options exchanges, large U.S.-based financial institutions, and leading fintech firms. In addition to working directly with Allon's clients, he is a frequent conference panelist and his perspective is solicited by reporters on the technology, financial services, and regulatory beats.
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