In a two-person political contest, voters only occasionally get the chance to judge candidates on their personal qualities of character. These rare chances can come when politicians are suddenly confronted by unexpected, unscripted crises of their own creation.
That’s just what has happened in the run for governor of California, where both candidates faced self-inflicted crises within days of each other, both coming in June.
The contrast in how Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman handled their respective situations was stark.
Brown’s problem came first. On one of his regular jogging jaunts through the east Oakland hills near his home, Brown encountered a fellow runner whom he did not at first recognize. The other fellow, a radio news reporter, recognized Brown instantly and asked questions about the nascent fall election campaign.
That was when Brown opined that messages purveyed by Whitman’s big-money effort (she had just spent $71 million of her own cash – more than $47 for each of the 1.49 million votes she received – to win a primary election over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner) reminded him of the tactics devised by Nazi Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister and the inventor of the Big Lie principle in politics. That’s the one which goes like this: If you repeat something plainly untrue often enough and loudly enough and prominently enough, virtually everyone will eventually come to believe it.
“You know, by the time she’s done with me, two months from now, I’ll be a child-molesting…” Brown observed, trailing off at the end of the sentence, the radio guy reported on his blog. “It’s like Goebbels… Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda… She’ll have people believing whatever she wants about me.”
The reporter carried no tape recorder while he ran, and Brown’s comment therefore was never heard over the air.
Well aware that casual Holocaust comparisons are anathema to many Jews, who don’t want the massacre of six million of their co-religionists trivialized, Brown could have denied the whole thing. It would have been his word against the reporter’s. Deniability was built into the situation.
But Brown never tried that. Instead, for a week afterward, it was almost all he wanted to talk about. He discussed it on his weekly San Francisco radio show. He apologized publicly to Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a frequent go-to guy for media seeking quotes on Jewish matters.
Just four days after Brown’s chance encounter while exercising, newspapers broke the story that Whitman, while chief executive of the eBay online auction house, once shoved an employee hard during a disagreement and her company paid a $200,000 lawsuit settlement.
Rather than immediately admitting the 2007 incident and letting the story gradually die out, Whitman at first talked all around the issue of physical contact. “In any high-pressure working environment, tensions can surface,” went her statement. “(the employee) and I had a professional disagreement, which we put behind us.” Added her campaign, “A verbal dispute in a high-pressure working environment isn’t out of the ordinary.” Nothing about physical contact. Whitman herself used almost the same words during a subsequent interview with a friendly talk-show host. Of course, $200,000 settlements for workplace verbal disputes are very much out of the ordinary, even for rich companies like eBay.
A week later, answering questions from reporters, Whitman had a different description, saying she “physically escorted” the employee out of a room. That’s not exactly the same as a strictly verbal dispute.
So Whitman took more than a week to fully own up to her act, even if she didn’t quite lie about it first.
It wasn’t the first time in her campaign that she had skirted the truth, only to change her tune when called on it. After newspapers reported she rarely voted before becoming a candidate for the state’s highest office, she at first attempted to say official voting records were incomplete.
One of her early television commercials had to be pulled when it turned out to contain an exaggeration of the time she’s lived in California.
She denied ever using an image of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in a primary election commercial when the image had been there for all to see.
And there were veracity problems with her handling of questions about her time on the board of the scandal-plagued Goldman Sachs investment bank.
Whitman’s huge investment of personal cash in the primary campaign and the commercials it bought papered over most of these problems when they first arose. But there’s no denying the stark contrast in the way these two candidates handled the latest embarrassing personal contretemps.
It will be up to the voters to decide whether the way the two rivals dealt with those problems reveals anything fundamental about either of them.