You’re in danger. What you do or fail to do now could conceivably change the outcome Tuesday. So breathe deep, get serious and don’t get stubborn.
Let’s start with the facts, which in many ways are on your side. It happened a quarter century ago. You always said that when you were young and irresponsible you were young and irresponsible. Now we have fresh proof of how right you were. Only you were 30 when it happened, which isn’t so young. But it’s early enough in the arc of the story of your life to be not a revelation but a reaffirmation of what we know: You used to drink much, then you grew up and stopped.
You never lied about your wild and wooly past, and that’s good, and right too. But in your own way you’re sensitive about it. That time I saw you last spring at dinner, as we chatted you mentioned that when you were a young man you’d taught Sunday School in Midland. From everything I’d read about your life I associated your young manhood with party time, so I blurted, “You taught Sunday School? Boy, that musta been some class!”
Karl Rove and Karen Hughes were there and they laughed, and so did I. But you didn’t. You looked mildly irritated.
Well, people get irritated when relative strangers refer to their foibles. But I’ve got a hunch you’re feeling a little irritated now, and if I’m right it’s gonna do you no good, so I want you to listen.
I’m watching you right now, live, on CNN. You’re talking Social Security in Saginaw, Mich. That’s no good. I can almost feel it, thousands of miles away, sitting in my office in New York: The audience is thinking about A, and you’re talking about B. And you can talk B for the next four days, but no one’s going to stop thinking about A.
So you get on A too.
* * *
You could lose the election over this thing if it breaks badly, and if you don’t begin to view it as an opportunity.
It’s not that America will turn against you because of a drunk-driving incident 24 years ago, especially when you never hid the theme of your past.
But Al Gore is surrounded by people who see themselves as killers, and they mean to kill you. That’s what I’m told some of them call themselves, “The Killers.” So expect their continued efforts to make you dead.
A Democratic political professional told me this afternoon: “The guy who leaked the story was a Gore delegate to the Democratic convention. And they [the Gore campaign] have no involvement? I’m a priest who can fly.”
What the killers will likely do next is make this story just a bit worse, and then just a bit worse, so by Tuesday everyone who’s for you has doubts. Maybe on Sunday some man will come forward and announce that he owes it to the country to tell us he saw you drunk 10 years ago, after you said you’d stopped drinking. Or maybe some woman will come forward and say you made a drunken pass at her back in ‘90. Whatever it is, even if it’s a lie, it will be the Gore people trying to make the story worse, so you’ll lose.
So what should you do? Know what’s up, and respond. Breathe in deep, put your feet on the floor of the plane cabin, shake your head, and decide to go with what’s going on. Use it to communicate more of who you really are.
That’s apparently not your first impulse. Your first impulse has been to stay on message, undeterred by the scandal.
It’s a mistake. Turn the scandal around by talking scandal. Talk about it the way you feel about it.
* * *
You’ve already outclassed Clinton and Gore by owning up to the truth of the story, taking responsibility, admitting the facts are correct. You didn’t lie.
When it happened you actually pled guilty and paid the fine. Your family didn’t try to hide or destroy the records.
A good beginning, but more is needed.
Today or tomorrow, give a serious thoughtful speech about the scandal. Begin with a candid statement in which you again take responsibility, again refuse to dodge the facts, again admit the charges are true, again explain that you didn’t want your kids to know.
That last most everyone understand, a lot of us very personally. It’s something that all of us grownups are facing these days: how to be candid with our kids and yet not corrupt them with our candor, not damage them with an implicit message of “I smoked dope and lived to tell the tale, so can you.” Sometimes you can’t put all the cards on the table, because children aren’t old enough to see the joker was wild.
This statement should be within a speech at a rally, and the speech should be like the one—or exactly the one—you gave at that San Jose rally two days ago. It was a speech about faith and healing, about what makes people become better human beings, and it was terrific. It was about how God changes lives, and how he changed yours.
This scandal is part of that story. So use it, include it, weave it in.
Connect your own past experience with the experience of all of us who’ve done awful and stupid and harmful things. Believe me, and you know without being told: That’s most of the country.
Don’t let this story, and the ones that will follow, knock you out. Let it help you connect and be serious with all the other imperfect Americans.
* * *
One of the great and delightful clichés about you is that you’re putty in the hands of your staff—pliant, pliable, ever willing to listen, ponder and agree. But it’s not true. You’re often prickly, sometimes mulish, frequently sure you’re the one who knows the answer. What I’m speaking of is the layer of obstinacy below which is your humility and above which is your charm.
I suspect there’s another element at work here. You saw your father get ragged around by consultants and advisers. Deep down in your gut you hate the idea of consultants and advisers. Or rather, you hate the idea of handlers. You don’t want to feel you’re being handled. You don’t want to doubt your own gut.
And you don’t want to talk about the foibles of your past any more than you have. For a number of reasons including this one: You know your past was nothing compared to those of some of your contemporaries, in politics and out, who never got tagged for bad behavior and who acted up worse than you.
Well, that’s too bad. They’re not running for president. You are.
You don’t want the scandal to change the facts and tone of the campaign—but it’s already changed the facts and tone of this campaign. And now you must be nimble.
* * *
Don’t be a rock, be a river. Rocks sit and get hit by the wind and the rain. The elements wear them down. Rivers flow around obstacles. They flow true, with force, they go over rocks and around them and wear them down.
Don’t be a rock, be a river. Flow over, through and around this trouble. You can wear it down into the small thing it is—or should be.