Palin, Sanford and the Art of Spontaneous Combustion

08/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week, self-immolation gold medalist, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, edged out former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer by thirteen months on the Olympic stopwatch.

Now quivering at the flameout victory dais is Alaska Governor Sarah Palin whose oddly-reasoned resignation will likely suck up some of Sanford's oxygen. How exactly can a governor stomp away from a small state capitol to escape political "blood-sport" mendacity to even contemplate a run for the presidency, which, if my civics is correct is, like, way bigger?

The one word that surfaces in virtually all scandal media analysis is "mishandled," as in "How could Palin and Sanford have mishandled their crises so badly?"

The question misses the point, and what's called for is clearer perspective in the form of a proper lens through which to view crisis management.

First, a crisis is, by its very nature, mishandled. Crises are not conspiracies, they are improvisational failures, at the root of which is banal humanity, not premeditated cunning. There is not a manual for how a family-values Republican governor of a major state -- one thought to be a presidential contender, no less -- can vaporize to get some covert action in Argentina using public transportation, and keep everything on the QT. Ditto Spitzer and Palin, who was jaw-droppingly unready for primetime upon her elevation to the national ticket.

The crisis-besieged, as a rule, are five steps behind the rest of us in realizing what's happening to them, much in the same way that it often takes a friend (or a mirror) to appreciate that we've got the remnants of a spinach explosion on our teeth.

The crisis-besieged are feeling their way through a dark forest in a foggy evening. The rest of us are wearing night-vision goggles in the form of saturation coverage in the print, broadcast and online media. "We" can see everything, even if it's wrong.

Then, from John Edwards to Larry Craig, we hear the inevitable barbs about bad advice, as if the most powerful people in the country, who have the broadest array of resources in the civilized world, willfully select imbeciles to advise them -- and then choose to heed the single most moronic nugget of counsel ("Okay, then, so I think I'll fire up this acetylene blowtorch while I spray hi-test gasoline in an around the tank of my Lamborghini...")

When the crisis catalyst is hidden deep within the soul, as is the case with most scandals, the challenge is even harder because the scandalized take a while to be wired to receive transmissions. Or, as David Foster Wallace said, "A dog, if you point at something, will follow only your finger."

Most scandal figures have perfectly good advisors, but pistol-whipping clients into submission isn't part of the damage control service. Moreover, when dealing with grandiose personalities (and organizations), the advisors that tend to stay around to bill another day are often those who learn to subtly pimp for the crisis-besieged, not throw cold water on them.

We are seeing with Sanford and Palin the fallacy of Explaining Oneself as the antidote to the public relations ailment. Truth is, there is no correlation between the quantity of one's rhetoric and the successful resolution of a PR mess. As Jon Stewart admonished Sanford, "God killed Michael Jackson to save your ass and you gave another interview?!" Governor Sanford: Journalists traffic in the "spill everything" canard because it's good for them, not for you.

Sanford will someday look back upon this period and suffer a catharsis, that moment of recognition where he'll want to pistol-whip himself. Many of us can invoke the Ghost of Passion Past and conjure up that cartoon moment when Bugs Bunny discovers his folly and visibly morphs into an ass. But most of us get to marinate in our self-loathing far from the tyranny of YouTube.

As Palin contemplates her future, if she is to find her way through the political forest, she's going to have to stop bleating about the meanness of public life and liberal media bias. She happens to be right on both accounts, but she should never say it. This chestnut came to me more than two decades ago courtesy of Ronald Reagan's legendary "image maker" Michael Deaver, who admonished a few of his very young aides on the White House tennis court that "you don't whine your way into the Oval Office."

What Americans respect more than anything is seeing how well our leaders can take the beatings we give them. While surgical concessions to attacks have been known to make sense, the Besieged would be well-served to consider just saying, "Fine. Sorry. Next."