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"Yes, That Was My Penis" and Other Ticklish PR Challenges

The Art of Lying

by DAVID MACARAY

After so many politicians and entertainers have embarrassed themselves by being caught in pathetic, utterly transparent lies, you would think people in the public eye would have learned enough from these past blunders to come up with a different strategy when asked potentially damaging questions.  Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The most recent goof was that of Anne Gust Brown, California Governor Jerry Brown’s wife.  It all began with a message left on an answering machine, in 2010, during the California gubernatorial race.  Apparently, as reported in the Sacramento Bee (June 6), an anonymous female caller had left a message on someone’s machine in which she referred to Republican candidate Meg Whitman as a “whore.”

Because the voice sounded like Mrs. Brown’s, she was asked point-blank if it were, in fact, she who had left the message.  At this juncture, Mrs. Brown could have simply copped to it and said, “Yep, that was me.  In the heat of battle I used a very poor choice of words, for which I apologize.”  Or she could have flatly lied, and risked going to Hell, and said,  “Nope, that wasn’t me.  Sorry, but that is definitely not my voice.”  Period.

But instead of either, this was the convoluted answer she gave:  “I listened to that tape, and I couldn’t hear the word in question. I couldn’t hear it at all….I don’t know who it was.  I’m not saying it couldn’t have been me.  I thought okay, it probably was me….By the eighth time listening to it, I thought it wasn’t really worth my time.”

So the word “whore,” the word everyone else had heard on the recording, was the one word Mrs. Brown insisted she couldn’t hear.  Moreover, she claimed she was unable to identify her own voice.  She said she had no idea who it was who was talking.  Then, as the questioning continued, she admitted that, yes, it could have been her.  Then she finally confessed that “it probably was me.”

Granted, one could rightly criticize the media for trying to make an issue out of something this trivial.  Really, guys, you have nothing better to write about than the use of a pejorative term on somebody’s phone machine three years ago?  But trivial or not, Mrs. Brown made a mildly embarrassing situation infinitely worse by equivocating to the point of near absurdity.  This bright and engaging woman came off sounding like a fool.

Which brings us to Anthony Weiner’s penis.  We all know the story.  Congressman Weiner sent photos of his penis to an appreciative woman Internet acquaintance.  As happens all too often (learn from this, people!), these embarrassing photos managed to find their way into the public domain, and Weiner found himself in a world of trouble.

In fairness to Weiner, let’s not pretend that all he needed to do to get out of this mess was to say what we suggested Mrs. Brown say—in other words, simply cop to it and expect to move on.  “Yes, it was my penis in those photos.  And I have no further comment.”  In no way was that terse little statement going to satisfy the media, not by a long-shot.

But Weiner put himself in the untenable position of sounding, simultaneously, both intelligent and idiotic.  In answer to whether or not that was his penis in the photo, he professed not to know, which, I would argue, wasn’t an entirely unreasonable answer.  After all, how many men, if shown flashcards of penises, could instantly identify their own?  I seriously doubt I could.

What sank Weiner were his subsequent answers.  When he admitted he couldn’t say whether the penis in the photo was his own, the follow-up question was:  Have you ever had photographs taken of your penis?  And when Weiner said he was uncertain of that as well, that’s when his shaky account began to unravel.

The lesson?  Assume that the truth will eventually see the light of day, that you’ll be caught and exposed, and plan your response accordingly.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union rep.  Dmacaray@earthlink.net