Really, there should be a template for politicians who hold press conferences to confess to sexual dalliances.
We’ve run the gamut from former President Clinton’s defiant "I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman" mantra in the Roosevelt Room of the White House and belabored parsing of "it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is" to South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford’s weird "I-spent-the-last-five-days-of-my-life-crying-in-Argentina" confession in the Columbia state capitol.
As a people bound together by cable TV shows and tabloid headlines, we’ve had so much experience watching these dreadful confessional performances that they have become a national, bipartisan ritual. We should set standards, to wit:
— Do not bring the injured spouse.
There was national relief that Sanford at least did not drag his wife along with him as he apologized to everyone he’d ever met or who ever set foot in a church for eight minutes before admitting he’d been cheating on his wife. Who can forget the national agony of watching the wife of James McGreevey, then the Democratic governor of New Jersey, standing beside him as he told his state that he was gay and detailed his affair with a male aide? To preserve some semblance of dignity, the dutiful spouse should remain dutifully out of the picture.
— Do not go into convoluted explanations.
Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig’s explanation that he has a "wide stance" for how he was charged with propositioning another man in the public bathroom of the Minneapolis airport was too much. Really. And Sanford’s explanation that he had had a very close friendship with a woman trying to save her marriage in Argentina for years before it became a romance was too tortured for comfort.
— Do not hold the press conference on government property.
The governor’s mansion, the White House, the state capitol building, the steps of the Capitol — all have been stages for unseemly, tearful confessions of unfaithfulness. Enough. Either have a press aide issue a statement or rent a hotel ballroom if you are going to take questions.
— If you’re going to resign, do it right away.
The bathos of the politician clinging frantically to a job for which he/she is no longer suited is grim. If you’ve broken the law or betrayed the trust of your constituents and staff (such as being AWOL for six days or, in the case of Florida Republican Mark Foley sending risque messages to underage male congressional pages), get it over with and resign. Dragging it out for days or even weeks should not be an option.
— Do not showcase hypocrisy.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who recently admitted to having a nine-month affair with a campaign staffer, Sanford, Craig and Foley all voted to impeach Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. All tried to hang on to their jobs after being caught. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a defender of traditional marriage while a client of a prominent D.C. prostitute, is running for reelection despite having called on Clinton to resign. In addition, Foley was chairman of a House committee on exploited children. Craig is an outspoken critic of homosexuality. Ensign is a family-values politician.
— Do not blame the media.
Craig, with his wife by his side as he insisted he was not gay although he had pleaded guilty to soliciting sex in a public bathroom, said he was the victim of a "witch hunt" by the Idaho Statesman. Although Sanford’s local paper sat for months on amorous e-mails he wrote his mistress, he implied that he had to have the press conference because he’d been caught returning from Argentina over Father’s Day weekend in the Atlanta airport by a reporter.
— Arrogance and pleading for forgiveness should not go hand in hand.
Democrat Eliot Spitzer, former New York governor, held hands with his wife during his press conference admitting that he had been caught on a federal wiretap arranging to meet a high-priced prostitute at a Washington hotel. He called the incident a "private matter" and apologized to his family and the people of New York. When a reporter asked if he would resign, he slammed the door. Later, he resigned.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)