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

In 2001, advocates for greater openness in government predicted that Vice President Cheney was fighting a losing a battle to keep secret the workings of an energy task force he led. To the contrary, last year the U.S. Supreme Court backed him.

The most famous example of a politician who hunkered down and survived to tell about it is former president Bill Clinton. He has said he believes that if he had told the truth about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in the first days after the scandal erupted in January 1998, the uproar would have forced him from office. By the time he acknowledged the affair seven months later, polls suggested that a majority of the public had long since concluded that Clinton was probably lying but that the matter was a private transgression.

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"I think the overwhelming likelihood is that I would have been forced from office, because I think the Democrats would have -- some Democrats might have abandoned me," Clinton told PBS's Jim Lehrer last year. "I'm not sure that would have happened," he added, but "I thought at the time it was a realistic possibility."

Berger associates authorized to speak on his behalf emphasized that his deceptions when his case became public last July were not a matter of strategy but a human response to embarrassment. Justice Department officials said that there was no evidence that he took the terrorism material from the archives to keep evidence from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that because all of Berger's documents were copies, the documentary record remains intact.

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, famous for its lashings of Clinton officials, praised the Justice Department for exercising "commendable restraint" in Berger's case.

Some saw it differently. Eleanor Levy of Northern Virginia was one of several readers to call a reporter with complaints about Berger's sentence. She said what Berger did seemed just as or more serious than Martha Stewart's false statements about suspected insider trading, for which she went to prison. "He took papers, cut them up and then lied about it," she said. "Why does he get off easy?"

The long-term impact on Berger, and how much the plea bargain might impair his chances of returning to a government job if a Democrat becomes president in the next election, is unclear. One apparent reason the Justice Department did not throw the book at him is because he did not repeat his misleading public explanations about the incident in his private negotiations with prosecutors.

Even so, Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and scandal-management expert, said that had Berger come clean with the public and prosecutors earlier, the controversy would have dissipated sooner and at less emotional and financial cost to Berger. Davis made his reputation as an advocate of openness while helping the Clinton White House handle the 1997 campaign-funding controversies -- a matter that produced political embarrassment but in the end no prosecutions of White House aides. He wrote a scandal-management book, "Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself."

Robert Bennett, a Washington lawyer who has made a career defending such people, said Davis vastly oversimplifies. It is "a good general rule" that institutions, such as the Catholic Church in its sex abuse scandals, compound their troubles by covering up, he said. But he said it is equally true that sometimes people are better off clamming up. "It's not necessarily the case that you try to get it all out, get it out quickly and move on," he said. "What is it that you are laying out? What are you going to get from the government for laying it out?"

John D. Podesta, head of the liberal Center for American Progress and a White House and congressional staff veteran since the 1970s, said "one-party control" by Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue "changes the dynamic substantially" in political scandals.

"You just don't have anyone in power in Congress who will issue a subpoena," forcing truthful testimony, he said, chiding legislators to restore a sense "that there's things that they just won't tolerate, whether it's done by Republicans or Democrats."

Given the majority leader's problems, Podesta said, in some not exactly friendly advice, "if I was advising DeLay, I don't know that 'getting it all out' is a particularly useful strategy for him."

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