Is the Cover-Up Worse than the Crime?

John Harris has an analysis piece on the front page of today’s Washington Post arguing that, contrary to the post-Watergate wisdom, politicians may now be better off covering up their misdeeds rather than coming clean.

In Recent Scandals, a Rethinking Of Capital’s Conventional Wisdom

In the decades after Watergate, Washington figures in legal or political hot water heard some familiar words of wisdom: The coverup is almost always worse than the crime. Never hunker down. Above all, never lie.

Lately, though, the evidence is mounting that this tried-and-true advice may no longer be true. Recent evidence suggests that hunkering down can sometimes work just fine, in a political and news media environment that has changed significantly in recent years. Examples include legal controversies involving prominent Democrats as well as the Bush White House. Even people who got caught in falsehoods have resolved their cases with no apparent penalty for the deception.

The case of Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, who served as national security adviser in the Clinton White House, is the latest instance in which some old truisms of scandal management were safely abandoned. He and his spokesmen initially said that he took copies of classified documents about terrorism from the National Archives by accident and then misplaced them in what Berger described as an “honest mistake.” Earlier this month, Berger struck a plea bargain with Justice Department prosecutors in which he admitted that he took the copies on purpose and then destroyed some of them at his office with scissors. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, accepting a $10,000 fine and a three-year suspension of his national security clearance — terms that his friends and defense team said were a good deal for Berger.

At the moment, it is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) who is most urgently facing the classic Washington choice about how to respond to an ethics uproar. One option commonly taken by political figures is to try to “get in front of the story” by voluntarily disclosing as much information as possible, and by projecting an aura of nondefensive cooperation with legal and media inquiries. At the other end of the spectrum is a strategy of denouncing questions as illegitimate or politically motivated, disclosing little information, and hoping the storm will pass. DeLay, who is facing questions about his connections to lobbyists, has taken a middle course. His aides have responded to questions from reporters examining public records. At the same time, he has gone on the offensive. Last month, he told the Family Research Council, a prominent group of social conservatives, that criticism of his ethics was being promoted by liberal “do-gooder groups” and the “national media” as part of “a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in.”

Bill Allison of the Center for Public Integrity said DeLay’s strategy may be reflecting a polarized Washington environment in which “everything has become a partisan issue, including ethics and including right and wrong.”

This is the key. During the Watergate period, Republicans were more sympathetic to President Nixon while Democrats were more unforgiving. That’s the nature of opposition politics. The difference, though, is that the ethic of the day was that, once the facts pointing to wrongdoing became undeniable, it was expected that politicians act honorably. A groundswell of honest Republicans eventually made it clear that they would vote for impeachment if forced to do so. At that point, Nixon himself did the honorable thing and resigned rather than put his supporters in that position.

For a variety of factors (gerrymandered districts which elected more polarized Members, bitterness over the Bork hearings and the Gingrich-led ousting of several prominent Democrats, and so forth) that expectation changed by the early 1990s. During the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton, Republicans were over-the-top in demanding his ouster for relatively minor or even non-existent transgressions. When the Lewinski scandal hit, even the most moderate Democrats stuck by him despite criminal malfeasance. There are simply few on either side of the aisle willing to put principle over party on these issues.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.