Imagine this scene: It’s May 14, 1940 and Winston Churchill has just walked off the floor of the House of Commons and is surrounded by a gaggle of jousting British journalists.
“Mr. Prime Minister, the opposition has been extremely critical of your speech yesterday in which you said: ‘We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.’ Did you really mean to make such a pessimistic assessment and is your policy merely ‘victory…victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be?’ Do you really stand by those words, Mr. Prime Minister?”
In an alternative reality – maybe – we can imagine the great British Lion disavowing his famoous words and saying, as presidential candidate Ron Paul did recently about some writings that appeared in newsletters under his name, “I never read [or said] that stuff.”
The Paul excuse, lame and unbelievable at the same time, has been used to cover racist and anti-Semitic rants that the Texas Congressman now says were never his views and must have been the shoddy work of someone else that just happened to have access to his newsletters and could publish under his name without his approval.
As the old line goes, “I was born at night, but not last night.”
Churchill, even had he wanted to, couldn’t disavow his words because he wrote them himself, but in the Internet age a candidate like Paul or Newt Gingrich can merely try to duck a past statement with, “Hey, that must have been written by some staffer and obviously it doesn’t represent my views.” Don’t buy it.
Gingrich latest explaining is his praise for Mitt Romney’s health care plans. Back in 2006, Newt said in one of his newsletters, “We agree entirely with Governor Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100% insurance coverage for all Americans. Individuals without coverage often do not receive quality medical attention on par with those who do have insurance. We also believe strongly that personal responsibility is vital to creating a 21st Century Intelligent Health System. Individuals who can afford to purchase health insurance and simply choose not to place an unnecessary burden on a system that is on the verge of collapse; these free-riders undermine the entire health system by placing the onus of responsibility on taxpayers.”
Gingrich’s spokesman said, drum roll please, “the Newt Notes essay wasn’t written by Mr. Gingrich himself.”
Here is a practical lesson in Politics 101. In every political office and campaign I’ve ever worked in, been close to or observed from afar, the candidate – or on a rare occasion an extremely trusted staffer – signs off on everything that is written down and committed to a speech draft. There is no margin of error on such statements, particularly since they now find an instant home on the Internet and can easily come back to haunt. That’s how it works.
Of course most politicians don’t write their own press releases and speeches, although they once did, but rather they have their people handle that time consuming labor. Still no candidate worth his or her salt would trust an unnamed, unsupervised staffer to issue statements in his or her name without first granting a sign-off. That simple fact of political and campaign life makes the Paul and Gingrich “I didn’t write it” defense indefensible.
The Republican primary season has been a rolling exercise in disavowing past stands. Nothing wrong in my book with a principled evolution of political positions. No less a politician than Abraham Lincoln went from a position of tolerating slavery in the interest of preserving the Union, and figuring that the practice would eventually wither and die, to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Like Churchill, Lincoln didn’t try to disavow previous statements since he had written them and he had the integrity to explain the evolution.
It’s OK to change positions in politics, but not OK to disavow statements made in publications that you actually control. It’s not really a question of authorship. It is a question of character.
“I never read that stuff” just doesn’t fly. It doesn’t even flap its wings.
An honest answer when confronted with a past statement that is, in the immortal words of Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, “no longer operative,” would be along the lines uttered by the legendary Earl Long, the one-time Governor of Louisiana. Confronted by an aide with the fact that a campaign promise made to his supporters would not be fulfilled, Uncle Earl honestly told the aide to tell those supporters the truth.
“Tell ’em I lied,” he said.