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

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page A01

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.

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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."

During Watergate, President Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign when fellow Republicans denounced his coverup as unacceptable. In the current political climate, some critics believe, Democrats and Republicans know that no matter how much the opposition brays, colleagues from a politician's own party are unlikely to join in. According to Allison, this means there is "less incentive to do anything other than hunker down."

Although the controversies are very different, recent years have offered numerous instances of people who decided to ride out the storm.

In 2003, when the White House came under investigation in the Valerie Plame case -- with senior administration officials facing political and legal scrutiny for apparently divulging the identity of the covert CIA operative -- many Washington commentators argued that President Bush and his aides needed to yield to the inevitable, by starting a public housecleaning and firing the responsible parties.

Instead, the Bush White House has taken no personnel actions and said virtually nothing in public. The controversy was largely dormant in the closing months of the 2004 election. And last month, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said he finished his investigation -- with no indictments to date -- except for questioning two reporters who have refused to testify.

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