LITTLE ROCK — REMEMBER how the Nixon White House would handle every stage of Watergate as the truth slowly, painfully outed? As each new twist was revealed, the inner circle around the president would have to decide just how much of the truth to reveal (and how much to conceal), and which official to offer up as suspicions grew and public outrage swelled-until finally not just the president’s closest advisers had to be jettisoned but the president himself. Quite aside from the dubious ethics of such an approach, it’s not an effective political strategy, either. In the end it proved a ruinous one.
At each stage of that sad process, the administration would devise its own euphemisms for just how much it would disclose to an increasingly curious public.
It might start off by stonewalling, but then, as pressure from public and press mounted, move to just “a modified limited hang-out” to an ever fuller one, till inevitably the partial disclosure would have to become a full one. Like a strip tease.
The whole process became predictable, like the collapse of a house of cards. And at each stage, the higher-ups would leave another lower-down to twist slowly in the wind. It wasn’t easy to watch, though there was something satisfying about the relentless justice of it all as the ringleaders kept walking into the traps they’d so carefully set for themselves.
You’d think politicians would have learned better by now but, being politicians, they may not have. The latest sad case in point is a congressional candidate right here in Arkansas, home of true grit and at times, especially in election years, something less than the whole truth. Following this painful procedure-which consists of revealing just a little of the truth at a time-Rick Crawford, the Republican candidate in the First Congressional District, has finally given a hospital permission to saywhether he’d ever paid what he owed it. Even though he didn’t have to, since he’d declared bankruptcy back in 1994. Now the hospital has said his account has “a zero balance.”
Having said he wasn’t going to discuss this matter at all because it was his private rather than public business, Mr. Crawford has decided to go for a limited modified hang-out, since the hospital says it’s authorized only tosay that payment was received for its services rendered in 1993. It doesn’t say just when when the payment was received, recently or before he declared his candidacy for Congress, and whether Mr. Crawford discharged the debt by making a series of payments or just one . . . . More to come, no doubt, as questions still linger. It’s not easy to watch. It brings back too many memories of a sad time in the nation’s history.
By now the issue that probably most interests folks isn’t a little $3,600 account and how it was settled, but whether someone who wants to represent the First Congressional District of Arkansas can level with his constituents about his finances-in full and from the start. Instead, this candidate has let the voters in on the details of his bankruptcy only gradually and under pressure. And each revelation makes a new headline. Instead of just tearing off this bandage on an old wound in one smooth move, he’s done it the worst way-just a little tug at a time, each one painful.
That’s not good. For the public’s right to know and for Mr. Crawford’s own political chances. People would have understood if he’d just been candid from the first. Folks do go broke, and however embarrassing, it’s not a crime. Happens in the best of families. But playing games about it with the public and press, that leaves a bad taste. Every time.
If we may be so bold as to share our own chagrin when an error creeps into an editorial. It really hurts to find one, and it hurts even more when a reader finds one that we didn’t catch ourselves. The quickest and least painful way to handle that kind of embarrassment is to say we’re sorry, accept responsibility, and run a correction ASAP. No ifs, ans, buts, clarifications, or excuses. And get it over with.
People will understand; they’re all right. What they don’t understand, and may not tolerate, is a lot of defensive gobbledygook and a bunch of modified limited hang-outs in the best, or rather worst, nixonian style. With the result that a small inconsistency winds up being a major campaign issue.
Mr. Crawford, take a word of the best-intended advice from those of us who’ve made mistakes aplenty in our time: Be as candid as you can as soon as you can. Get it over with. Believe us, you’ll sleep better.