Ritual of Repentance

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

We are riveted, but why? Nearly every post-scandal news conference is like every other. There's a script to these things, as we all know, and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer followed it to the letter yesterday in seeming to acknowledge his involvement with a prostitute and apologizing for it.

He and his wife got up onstage, they stood close, he took responsibility, he took no questions. We've seen all this before, but across America, people watched for the panic, the angst, the teary eyes and, most of all, for that moment of clarity when Silda Wall Spitzer might rear back and slug her husband in the jaw.

That, of course, didn't happen. It never does. The post-scandal news conference, by its formulaic nature, attempts to project order and control in the messiest of public moments. If you hit all the right lines, you can at least contain the damage.

We test the crisis-management script.

First, we watch the news conference. There's Spitzer, with his wife by his side. He says, "I want to briefly address a private matter." Then he expresses remorse (albeit vaguely) and promises to "dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family."

Then, we call Mark Geragos, the high-profile criminal defense attorney, who -- as it happens -- has not actually seen the news conference. He proceeds to describe the news conference that he has not seen.

"You've got to have the dutiful wife and you have to have the 'it's a private matter,' " Geragos says. "And remorse for the past and plans for the future."

Whoa.

"If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all," Geragos says.

How strange that so many of us watch when we already know what will happen. And as we watch, random thoughts emerge: Did Silda Spitzer know when she got dressed this morning what she was dressing for? And did he change his tie from blue to a bold red, knowing that this image of him would be indelible? How do you dress for a scandal?

And what about that last line?

"I will report back to you in short order," Spitzer said at the end of the news conference, like he was closing a business deal and just needed to check some numbers, like he was completely in control of the situation.


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