Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Covering Your Backtracks: Rules for Flip-Flippers

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Covering Your Backtracks: Rules for Flip-Flippers

Article excerpt

Much is being made of President Bill Clinton's hurried backtracking from his confession that his 1993 tax hike for the wealthy was not a good idea. Evenhanded commentators have joined the Clinton disavowal of his confession with the announcement by Sen. Bob Dole, his principal opponent, that the Dole campaign's rejection of a check from gay Republicans was a mistake.

But that's not all the backtracking we've seen recently. Last week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin publicly dumped his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, and a day later changed his mind, explaining what he meant was that the ministry needed a good deputy to answer the phones while Kozyrev traipsed around the world.

And earlier this fall, when Speaker Newt Gingrich blithely popped off to the effect that Taiwan should be independent (recalling Charles de Gaulle's prediction that Quebec would separate itself from Canada, which may at last be coming true), the hooting and hollering from Beijing caused Newt to turn sheepish and say he was only fooling.

We are witnessing a spate of embarrassed backtracking, flip-flopping and what-I-meant-wasing not seen since McClellan's "retrograde movement" from Richmond. As a result, damage control is getting a bad name.

There's a right way and a wrong way to retreat from an untenable position. Here are my Rules for Sober Second Thought:

(1) Never use the subjunctive to equivocate in disavowal. Avoid statements that begin "To the extent that my remarks offended" or "If anybody thought I meant"; assume instead that everybody took offense, and to the fullest extent. Better to say "Look, I goofed," apologize once and move on.

(2) Avoid the fatigue excuse. There's a guy in every White House with a pail and shovel whose job it is to follow the circus parade and clean up after the elephant. Last week, he was explaining that the tax gaffe came when the president was tired, but that didn't fit in the bucket because Clinton had tried the no-tax-raiser-I line on two occasions.

(3) Don't blame staff, even when it is clearly the fault of some idiot down the line. As Dole discovered, this is sure to be ridiculed as "The staff made me do it," a variation of "the dog ate my homework. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.