Dealing with a career-threatening scandal -- or allegations that could turn into one -- has become a Washington art form. Here are four of the most common strategies:
The Full Hang-Out: Scandal-scarred veterans agree that one of the best ways to deal with a tough story is to get out front by putting out all the facts.
"The worst of all worlds is to have the drip, drip, drip of new revelations every day," says Larry Speakes, who spent six years as President Reagan's spokesman and worked at the Nixon White House during Watergate. "It keeps the story alive. It looks like there's a thread unraveling. It looks like you stonewalled."
But even a modified limited hang-out, to borrow a phrase from Watergate, is easier said than done. Gathering the necessary information can be difficult in a crisis atmosphere. Key officials may refuse to cooperate. And mistakes are often viewed as evidence of a coverup.
"You'd better be damn sure what's in there," says defense lawyer Stanley Brand. "It can be suicidal to put it out to the world before you have an explanation. Then you're letting yourself in for the third, fourth, fifth and sixth stories."
Jody Powell, who was President Carter's press secretary, learned this the hard way during the "Billygate" scandal. The president's brother, Billy, had accepted large sums of money from Libya without registering with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. A central question was whether the president had discussed the case with his attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti.
"I thought we had checked it out and the answer was no," says Powell, who so informed the White House press corps. But one of the president's secretaries discovered some diary notes in which Carter had mentioned raising the matter with Civiletti. "I had to come marching back out and say, 'Sorry. I thought we were telling the truth, but we weren't,' " Powell says. "God help you."
The Mea Culpa: Some politicians have come to favor abject confession when embarrassing revelations surface. After all, no one ever went to jail for pleading guilty to poor judgment. In 1984, Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon acknowledged that a Greek financier he had helped with an African pipeline project had paid the senator's wife $55,000 for somewhat vague real estate and decorating services. Hatfield then went on Portland television, declared his "insensitivity to the appearance of impropriety" and donated the $55,000 to charity. (Hatfield was at it again after new allegations about his personal finances surfaced in April. "I screwed up," he told the Oregonian.)
When administration officials are under fire, it is the president who sets the tone -- sometimes with disastrous consequences. As Reagan was struggling to put the Iran-contra scandal behind him, for example, Speakes tried to persuade his boss to take the blame. He says he tried various formulations: " 'I take full responsibility.' 'It happened on my watch.' 'It was a mistake.' We'd put it in speeches, and he'd take it out." Many drafts later -- and far too late -- Reagan finally agreed to utter that memorable phrase, "Mistakes were made."
The Preemptive Strike: A more confrontational approach gaining favor among lawmakers, this strategy was immortalized by Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York when he called a news conference to denounce "60 Minutes" before the CBS program could air its allegations of influence peddling by him. But the tactic is risky, as Democratic Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia learned when he released an advance transcript of his interview with NBC's "Expose" and wound up advertising allegations about his personal life that were never broadcast.
The Stonewall: Many public figures still prefer the traditional no-comment stance. "There's a great tendency, when you're dealing with negative stories, not to play," Powell says. If he persuades an official to grant an interview and the story is still negative, Powell says, the person under attack will complain: "Why in the hell did we cooperate on that story? They killed us!"