When an individual issue bursts into public crisis, show me the integrity

U.S. Sen. John Walsh, a Montana Democrat, was a political consultant’s dream.

He is an Iraq war veteran and a high-profile leader in his state, which is big on space [Sky?] but rather minimal on people. Nonetheless, they can’t be pleased with what The New York Times reported last week:

A decorated veteran of the Iraq war and former adjutant-general of his state’s National Guard, Mr. Walsh offered the Democratic Party something it frequently lacks: a seasoned military man.

On the campaign trail this year, Mr. Walsh, 53, has made his military service a main selling point. Still wearing his hair close-cropped, he notes he was targeted for killing by Iraqi militants and says his time in uniform informs his views on a range of issues.

But one of the highest-profile credentials of Mr. Walsh’s 33-year military career appears to have been improperly attained. An examination of the final paper required for Mr. Walsh’s master’s degree from the United States Army War College indicates the senator appropriated at least a quarter of his thesis on American Middle East policy from other authors’ works, with no attribution.

What was Walsh’s response? He blamed his mistake on post traumatic stress disorder. This is not to say that’s anything but a real malady for thousands of war veterans through the decades. And that’s not to say his explanation isn’t plausible.

But when a personal crisis goes public, don’t we want to see our leaders, people we elect to the Senate certainly, stand up and take responsibility? Don’t we want to see a humble John Walsh apologize to the voters and the U.S. Senate for gaining their respect and votes under apparently false pretenses? Don’t we want to see someone who wore our country’s uniform to face the cameras and say “I screwed up and I’m resigning?”

Of course we do. And that’s what he should do. End the crisis, take responsibility for bad behavior, pledge to go back and rewrite the final paper and take your punishment.

It’s even survivable, as The Washington Post noted:

What you might have expected Walsh to do was simply apologize. After all, plagiarism typically amounts these days to a venial sin in politics; Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) survived plagiarism accusations recently, while Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) weathered them in 2011.

That’s because apologizing is the right thing to do. Not because an investigation by the War College will likely conclude he did, indeed, plagiarize the paper. Not because his political opponents will beat him up. Not because his loss could tip the Senate majority to the Republicans. But because it’s the right thing to do.

On a smaller but similar scale, the superintendent of the Hamburg, NY school district admitted himself to a rehab hospital. This came after The Buffalo News challenged him and he was forced to admit to local police that he damaged his own car in a minor accident and falsely attributed the damage to critics of the school board and the district.

The school board suspended Dr. Richard Jetter — with pay — before he could resign. The crime, if proven, is a misdemeanor. But the duplicity of trying to blame the district’s critics — the superintendent also said he found a threatening note under his car’s wiper along with the supposed vandalism — is simply lying.

In effect, that’s what Walsh did.

You end a private-personal-public crisis by doing what you know is right.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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