By Barry Maher
“What are you trying to pull here?”
“Are you an idiot?”
“Whose stupid idea was this?”
From the governor of New Jersey to the president of the United States to the shoe shine guy in the hotel lobby, in today’s world we’re all likely to face some sort of accusation sometime or other during our career. If that accusation is unjust (or even if it’s very just) our first instinct is often to try to deny it.
But according to consultant Merrie Spaeth, former director of media relations at the White House, simply denying a negative can actually make the negative more memorable.
Richard Nixon, questioned about his taxes, said, “I am not a crook.” Enron CEO Steve Kean, discussing the company’s creative bookkeeping, said, “It is not my intent to mislead.” Jessica Hahn, the woman involved with televangelist Jim Baker, said, “I am not a bimbo.”
But what stuck in everyone’s minds?
You guessed it: crook, misleading and bimbo.
All of these people would have been better off if they had taken control of the situation and framed the terms of the discussion themselves. For example, rather than denying he was a crook, Nixon could have bragged about the negative and said, “You bet your life I took that large deduction on my taxes. I only wish it were bigger. Like every good American, I take every deduction I’m legally entitled to. And not a penny more. But I’ll tell you what. If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t believe in taking all their legitimate tax deductions, I don’t think that person should ever vote me again. I’ll struggle by with the votes of those who don’t believe in overpaying their taxes.“
Fortunately for the country, Nixon wasn’t that good a salesperson. Nobody ever would have bought a used car from Richard Nixon.
“Did my people screw up closing down those lanes on the bridge and creating that traffic jam? Absolutely. And they’ve been fired because of it. As they should be. But sometimes when you’ve created a government that actually knows how to get things done and achieve results, rather than just floundering around, occasionally a few bad apples will misuse that effectiveness. Which is exactly why, though we have to create a federal government that’s as effective as the government I’ve built here in New Jersey, we also have to keep it small. And accountable. And keep an eye on it every minute. And let me assure you that if I didn’t know that before this mess with the George Washington Bridge, I certainly know it now. And that’s why I’m running for president.”
Would it work? No way to tell. But it certainly beats “I am not a bully.”
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