Vice President Dick Cheney and snowboard-cross silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis have something in common besides being controversial names in the news the past fortnight. They both provided teachable moments.
First, the Olympian who pried a runner-up spot from the jaws of gold-medal victory. To recap, Jacobellis, in a Torino version of the classic hare-vs.-tortoise runoff, had Olympic gold all but assured when overtaken by an urge to showboat near the end of her final run. She fell ingloriously and was literally overtaken by a competitor who had all but conceded the gold.
Jacobellis will now be enshrined in that select pantheon of athletes whose exploits become dramatic grist for the half time, pep-talk mill. Regardless of sport. This, however, will be no “Win one for the Gipper” oration.
It will go something like this:
“OK, guys, you have a big lead, but in this game – and against this competition — anything can happen. There’s too much at stake, and this is no time to let up. You’ve got the entire off-season to let up.
“You’re probably too young to remember it, but there once was an Olympian – an American, too – who had a gold medal in a snowboarding event all wrapped up. I mean a humungous lead with the finish line well in sight, when she did something silly and stupid. She played to the roaring crowd with a hot-dog move and fell – splat — and lost the gold medal. Just like that.
“That’s what can happen when you lose your focus. That’s what can happen, frankly, when you get so caught up in what you’re about to achieve that you don’t finish achieving it.
“And another thing. We play with enthusiasm around here, and that’s not about to change. But there’s a difference between enthusiasm and showboating. I don’t think I have to define them for you. Show some class; don’t show off. We defeat opponents, but we don’t rub it in. You’ll be on the other side some day.
“But not today.”
As for the veep: Sure, accidents happen, but any public relations intern could recite the fundamentals of how to handle a situation involving a very public person in a very important position in a very, very media-obsessed society.
The customized 10 commandments of common sense for public officials:
1–When you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
2–Never become the news; you become a liability. (But, OK, stuff happens.)
3–And when it does happen, call your boss immediately. Even if you think he’s not your superior. And, yes, YOU make the call – it should be obvious why. (In this case, the boss is trying to make a policy case to the American people about energy, security and such as well as stanch political bleeding and you’ve gift-wrapped the diversion from hell for the professional chatter-heads. You also made the boss look even less boss-like.)
4–As soon as possible, go public with the facts. (In this instance, there weren’t that many, and no one knew them better than you.)
5–Then indicate additional details will be forthcoming as soon as practicable.
6–Then make sure that happens. (And don’t fudge or nuance anything – like blame. And just because Scooter Libby’s out of pocket and Mary Matalin’s out to lunch, it doesn’t mean all is lost. Common sense need not be outsourced.)
7–Think big picture. Who else looks bad if this is mishandled? (See #3 above.)
8–Never make the Washington press corps jackals’ job any easier. (This incident is really more about enlightened self interest than the public’s right to know. Even – or especially — for an imperial politician, Watergate’s rule of thumb trumps all: It’s not the crime (or the accident), it’s the cover-up (or perception of arrogance and excessive secrecy).)
Remember, once a conflict-craving, scandal-starved press supersizes an incident, the ripple effect can be incalculable. A rising tide of unnecessary, drum-beat controversy can engulf any ship of state.
9–Never let personal feelings – such as a visceral loathing for Beltway bombast – cloud good, objective judgment.