The Washington Post

Eliot Spitzer and the anatomy of an apology ad

Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer wants you to know he erred. But much more than that, he wants you to know that he has been the scourge of Wall Street.

In what's become a template for apology ads, Spitzer's first commercial in his campaign for New York City comptroller briefly mentions the elephant in the room, but devotes the lion's share of the ad's time to his chief selling point. Disgraced politicians Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner more or less used the same approach.

“Look, I failed — big time,” Spitzer says. “I hurt a lot of people. When you dig yourself a hole, you either lie in it the rest of your life, or you do something positive.”

And from there, Spitzer hones in his record as attorney general and governor, which earned him the reputation of a Wall Street cop with no fear of taking on big banks.

Spitzer even goes on to suggest that mud slung in his direction is coming from allies of Wall Street.

“If you hear any negative noise — and you will — keep in mind where it’s coming from,” he says.

Does it all sound familiar? It is. New York mayoral candidate Weiner and Sanford -- who is now a congressman -- each took a similar approach: Address your shortcomings up front in the most general way possible, appeal for a second chance, and quickly steer the discussion toward your best electoral asset.

It worked for Sanford. Appealing to a "god of second chances," the former South Carolina governor launched a special election ad this year that touted his fiscal conservative chops, which aside from his extramarital affair, characterized his tenure as governor and congressman before that.

And then there's Weiner's introductory video. Without specifically mentioning the lewd online messages that led to his demise in Congress, Weiner says he made "some big mistakes and "let a lot of people down," but also learned tough lessons. The bulk of the ad focused on Weiner's commitment to improving the lives of middle class New Yorkers.

The trend is a reflection of a couple of things. One, coming back from scandal requires acknowledging that scandal in the first place. You can't pretend it didn't happen. But the way candidates do it as just as important. No details, no dwelling. Short and sweet.

Second, scandal-plagued candidates have to remind voters why they were liked in the first place. For Spitzer, it was taking on Wall Street. Asking for a second chance is not enough without giving voters a reason to grant a second chance.

The question moving forward for Weiner and Spitzer is whether voters 1) Buy the apology and 2) Buy the reasons they are supplying as justification for a return to office. If voters aren't sufficiently convinced on either front, it will spell trouble for their chances.


Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.



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Juliet Eilperin · July 23, 2013

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