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Gansler hands his opponents a sword

"I gave 'em a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish, and I guess if I had been in their position, I would have done the same thing."

This great quote from the interviews that Richard Nixon gave to David Frost in 1977 summarizes Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's significant, possibly gubernatorial candidacy-destroying, dilemma.

When you are seriously flawed, as virtually every power-seeker is, and you give ammunition to your enemies, which not all power-seekers do in abundance, they (the enemies) will use it to exaggerate your flaws and possibly defeat you and/or destroy your political career.

As by now the entire politically interested world knows, Mr. Gansler was first (unfairly, in my estimation) accused of racially attacking Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. Subsequently, he has credibly been accused of browbeating state troopers to break speeding laws, lying about not remembering receiving a traffic ticket, and most recently admitting to having attended a reception (for which he partially paid) for high school graduates, wherein he blithely ignored what photos make look like an Animal House-like party full of teenagers who were drinking and carousing. The episode made CNN, MSNBC, the Today show and Jay Leno's monologue, giving Mr. Gansler the dubious distinction of quite possibly becoming Maryland's most notorious politican since Nixon's running mate, Spiro Agnew.

As reported by The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Gansler claimed initially it was not his responsibility ("Do I have any moral authority over other people's children at beach week in another state? I say no"), and then he said he did "have a moral responsibility over other people's children."

The standard rhetorically predictable political opponent's accusation-by-diffident-distance occurred next: Mr. Brown stated, "What the attorney general encountered, that's a matter for him … The question [of whether Mr. Gansler should quit the governor's race] isn't for me; that's a question for the Maryland voters to decide."

What are the rules for politicians concerning such devastating sets of circumstances?

1. Lead by first doing what is right, not by calculation of self-interest. If that order is followed, doing what is right will serve your self-interest.

2. Don't leap to a microphone before thinking out your answer.

3. Assume that all public events and many private ones are being audio and/or video-recorded.

Politicians, particularly those who are not well known, can sometimes be destroyed even by being erroneously defined, as in the case of Mr. Gansler suffering the unfair implication that he is racist for having at one point accused Mr. Brown of running a campaign based largely on a racial appeal. But if you have committed real mistakes, blunders and irresponsible acts that genuinely reflect a personal weakness, your enemies will stick that sword in and twist it with relish, as would you in their position.

Just ask supporters of Richard M. Nixon.

Richard E. Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2013). His email is rvatz@towson.edu. A version of this article orginially appeared on the Red Maryland blog.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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