What to Do When Scandals Hit

So you’ve found yourself embroiled in a scandal, huh? That must be pretty terrifying. I’m tempted to ask if you’ve done something wrong but if you’re anxious enough to be looking for advice on the internet, the chances are this is a pretty bad. Admitting that you’ve done something wrong is the first step. If you’re there, that’s half the battle.

In a perfect world we’d rewind to before this ever happened, when you were just some up and comer who was running for city council or state assembly. I’d tell you to make a list of your real, true friends. No big donors. No one who trades your name like a baseball card. No one who is more invested in you, the mighty and powerful than in the real you. My instinct is to tell you that that person is someone from your childhood, someone who knew you when you were still wearing bad suits and actually eating the chicken dinners they serve at political functions. A true friend as described by Robert Penn Warren in All the Kings Men:

The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will every have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more, speaks a name–Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave–which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night. The Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you any more.

If you’re lucky, you’ve come up with a name. If you’re truly blessed, maybe there are two. Write those name downs on a piece of paper. Put it in an envelope. Write a note to your future self on the envelope “Open in case of emergency.” (I’d also encourage you to craft a pocket-sized collage with photos of wives with downcast eyes standing next to their idiot husbands to reach for every time being wanted and admired triggers the oxytocin rush that deludes you into thinking that you’ll never be caught.)

Unfortunately we can’t rewind and so instead you look around and realize you’re surrounded by broken toys. There is plenty of interest in protecting power, but a person? It’s secondary. The people you can go to want to help, but they don’t see Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, or Dave. Instead, they see you, The Honorable. Even well-intentioned people conflate the title with the person and do everything they can to help the latter retain the former. John Edwards relied on Fred Baron. John Ensign relied on Tom Coburn. In both cases, the cover-ups the friends engaged in ended up being more damaging than the original transgression.

The right friend will tell you to own up to what you’ve done, and in doing so quickly divide the private from the public. So you did wrong by your wife. We, the public, will give her the privacy to go all Waiting to Exhale and set your stuff on fire if you assure us that our tax money wasn’t used in any part of this and that no laws were broken. And if that’s true, it will be over. Don’t give yourself room to lie (any more than you already have). Don’t rely on half-truths. And please, please don’t over share.

A real friend will help you tell the truth, stand beside you while you tell it and help you pick up the broken pieces of your life when things fall apart. Who is that person for you? Pick up the phone and give them a call. And when this is all over, write their name down on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and save it for the next rainy day.

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