Whatever the circumstances were last week, it was David Vitter's decision to go to church. It's an old rule of media management: Own up to a crisis fast. But the tried-and-true technique doesn't always apply to self-inflicted crises, consultants argue, especially when they involve an ultra-conservative U.S. senator and prostitutes in two different states.
Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt says his magazine contacted Vitter, a Metairie Republican, last Monday to let him know the other shoe was about to drop. Later that evening, Vitter contacted key Louisiana publications and news bureaus and issued a written statement admitting that his telephone number could be found on the old phone records of the now-infamous "D.C. Madam," Deborah Jeane Palfrey.
It was a quick strike meant to get ahead of the story, Bill Walsh, a Beltway reporter for The Times-Picayune, told National Public Radio. "He had hoped it would be the end of the matter," Walsh recalls, "and it was not."
The move was classic Vitter, who has shown a strong streak of independence -- and media savvy -- during his meteoric public life. As a member of the state Legislature, he would hold press conferences on the Capitol steps on key legislation without alerting other lawmakers. As a congressman, he would enter others' districts absent even a courtesy call. As a Republican U.S. senator, he recently opposed President Bush on an immigration proposal. And, of course, he is constantly at odds with senior Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat.
Calls made to Vitter's press secretary Joel DiGrado were not returned by press time. Therefore, questions regarding the process used to prepare the statement as well as other burning questions -- Might the senator be charged with a crime? Will he have to resign from the Senate? -- remain largely unanswered. In classic Vitter form, there was a terse note above his official statement: "He respectfully requests that the statement be used in full without editing or paraphrasing."
Merrie Spaeth, CEO of the Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, an award-winning business consulting firm that specializes in crisis management, says Vitter made a critical error by issuing a written press release and then going into hiding. A press conference would have been more personal, she says, perhaps ignoring the commonly held view that Vitter doesn't have the charm to win over his critics. Spaeth suggests that Vitter should have confessed to local TV in timed, individual interviews granted under rigid protocols. He also could have waited for the story to break, using that time to prepare a more in-depth defense.
In the end, considering this story immediately took on a life of its own (another madam in New Orleans came forward later in the week), Vitter's initial strategy may not have mattered much. "Traditionally, you want to get out in front of bad news, but this is the difference between a tanker run aground by accident and a self-inflicted wound," Spaeth says. "He's made family values an issue in his campaigns, and now he can't live up to that. Besides renting a time machine, there's not much more he can do."
Spaeth says the last line of Vitter's statement -- "I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way" -- in no way closes the subject. Nor does it offer any kind of personal appeal, she says. "As printed, it's to 'anybody' and says, 'I'm sorry I got caught,'" she says. "It doesn't ring true. Sometimes outright apologies are worse because they don't seem truthful."
There's also a time line issue in a few of the sentences, she adds, which likely made reporters grow even hungrier: "This was a very serious sin in my past. ... Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife ..." Spaeth says that statement only opens Vitter up to more scrutiny. "It's not clear to me here that he stopped all of this since his initial confession to his wife and family," Spaeth adds. "The strategic issue here is whether they should have come out with this and announced it a long time ago. Again, it appears as if he is coming clean only because he was caught."
Now that Vitter, long considered the state's top Republican, has been tainted by the very sin he frequently railed against, the GOP crown moves to Congressman Bobby Jindal of Metairie, who seems poised to capture the governor's office during these early months of that race. Democrats now are pointing their arrows at Vitter for the time being, but Jindal won't be let off scot-free. "They are linked at the hip, but Bobby Jindal has yet to come out and condemn the actions of David Vitter," says Julie Vezinot, spokesperson for the Louisiana Democratic Party.
Of course, the Democrats could be holding the heavy artillery back until they find out if any of their own are linked to the unfolding controversy. For now, Vezinot is pushing the question of whether Vitter is a lawbreaker. "He's also been missing votes this whole week," she adds.
Spaeth says Vitter's decision to go underground for the better part of last week only made matters worse. It also hurt southeast Louisiana's recovery efforts in that Vitter failed to fulfill his role as a representative of the voters. "He could resurrect himself, though, since he has a few years before he faces voters," Spaeth says. "But if there's more released and it looks like a pattern, I don't know. He's going to have to find a way to sell this, and he doesn't have the talent of a Bill Clinton. He has a tough road ahead. This is going to be communications way beyond media."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.