Getting this behind you

Posted: Sep 10, 2001 12:00 AM

THE predictable media reaction to Gary Condit's bobbing and weaving has been to say that he should be candid, come clean and "get all this behind you." It is the kind of advice that they have offered repeatedly over the years to people in trouble, whether Nixon in the 1970s, Clinton in the 1990s, George W. Bush last year or Gary Condit this year.

Whether that is good advice or lousy advice depends largely on what the truth is. If Nixon had come clean early on about his role in the whole set of activities known collectively as "Watergate," he would have been out of the White House early on. And if 18 minutes had not been erased from the subpoenaed audio tape that was made public, maybe the outrage would have been enough to prevent President Ford from pardoning him.

Bill Clinton survived as president, despite much speculation that he would be run out of town in the wake of his scandals, by doing the exact opposite of what the media advised him to do. The problem with a "tell all" strategy is that, when everything comes out simultaneously, people can connect the dots and see exactly what you have done. Clinton's whole strategy was based on letting isolated facts dribble out here and there, but in a way that created no coherent picture. Clinton's press secretary described this process as "telling the truth slowly."

Although most of the public and the media were never very excited about the Whitewater scandals involving the Clintons in Arkansas, an Arkansas jury came back with more than 20 guilty verdicts on felony charges against the Clintons' business partners, Jim and Susan McDougal. The difference was that the jury sat down and heard the whole story at one time and had the dots connected by the prosecutors.

By contrast, when the public heard that Hillary Clinton's billing records had disappeared in the White House for two years, it really rang no bells because there was no real context presented to them as to why these records were important. Those records were in fact crucial because they linked her to the frauds and conspiracies that had cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. But, by the time the records were finally "discovered" in the White House, all connection with what had happened before had been lost.

The great triumph of the "telling the truth slowly" strategy was of course the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment. Here the truth was not only leaked out in bits and pieces over a period of months, these leaks enabled the Clinton camp to accuse special prosecutor Kenneth Starr of being the source of the leaks. Moreover, since the leaks involved grand jury testimony that Starr was forbidden to discuss, he had no way of defending himself.

Indeed, the charges were repeated on nationwide television during the impeachment hearings, even though by that time a court investigation had exonerated Starr -- who was still forbidden to say anything. All he could do was indicate his disgust with Clinton's attorney for repeating the charge, without being able to spell out why. And by the time that this whole story finally came out, the impeachment had failed and was something that everyone was tired of hearing about. Starr's exoneration will be just a footnote in history, not proof of the utter cynicism of the Clinton administration that it would have been if revealed at the time.

During last year's presidential campaign, someone claimed that George W. Bush had taken drugs as a young man. Bush wisely refused to discuss what he had or hadn't done when he was a young man who held no public office. Again, the media chorus said that he would eventually have to answer because the issue "will not go away," and that he should simply tell all and "get this behind you."

Contrary to what all the smug talking heads in the media said, the issue did go away because Bush refused to feed the fire. Had he denied taking drugs, the media would simply have come up with more personal questions for him to answer, whether about his youthful sex life, his financial dealings or whatever. When there is blood in the water, the sharks don't go away.

Gary Condit is only the latest recipient of the media's advice to tell all. Again, it is assumed that the truth would only help him. But, after seeing what a devious and self-centered cold fish he was in his televised interview, why should anyone accept his claim that he had nothing to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance?

If Condit had taken the advice offered by the media and told all, he might well be behind bars today.