Obama's Exxon Valdez
Like Obama's Jeremiah Wright fiasco, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was the worst kind of communications crisis because it just kept the bad news flowing until it seemed like it would never end.
More and more dying birds. Miles and miles of spoiled seashores. And Joseph Hazelwood, drunk at the helm, then going through a protracted trial. The first goal of any crisis communications program is to make the story stop, but this nightmare story just kept oozing, like the 10.8 million gallons of crude escaping from the ship's hull.
Enter Barack Obama, skipper of the Hussein Valdez, with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright leaking endlessly from the damaged hull.
Obama had managed Wright as best he could, not so much because of what he (Obama) said and did, but what Wright said and did, basically not registering because he was gone from the public view. But those days have ended, and Wright's back with a vengeance, taking advantage of the media spotlight to espouse his philosophy for his purposes.
Here's what Obama offered up yesterday to counter the endless Wright sound bites of the last couple days, interviews that offered America a prolonged look at a man they didn't like attacking in the most vile terms a country they love:
“People will understand that I am not perfect and there are going to be folks in my past – like Reverend Wright – that may cause them concern. But, ultimately, my 20 years of service and the values that I’ve written about, spoken about and promoted are their values and what they are concerned about. That’s what this campaign has been about. And will continue to be about.
“Some of the comments that Reverend Wright has made offended me and I understand why they offend the American people. He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign.” (NYT)
Will this be enough? That depends in part on whether Wright shuts up or not. Oddly, Wright's recent comments may bring some people back to Obama, because the more he talks the more some people will think Obama simply had no idea how crazy he was during his pulpit years.
But for most impacted by Wright, this is just more of the same, raising the same questions about the true beliefs of the candidate. Most who rejected Obama because of Wright did so forcefully, with repulsion, and more Wright just repulses more.
So Obama has three choices:
First, he can hope it will go away, thinking he can spin his way out of it, keeping up the sort of patter he pattered yesterday. This is a common response and it always fails if the story has momentum.
Second, he can admit that he wasn't really much of a church-goer (if that's true). He can say he was pretty much a lilies and poinsettias Christian, missing far more Sundays than he attended. This will make him look like a hypocrite and cost him votes, but he will be sharing a common American hypocrisy.
Third, he can utterly repudiate Wright, going beyond today's statement, leaving "offend" and "does not speak for me" language behind to say, "I've seen Wright for what he really is and I regret the time I spent in his church, I repudiate him, I so not stand for Liberation Theology, which has served its purpose but is past its time, and I assure the American people that anyone who holds beliefs like his will not be welcome in my administration." That also would cost him a ton of votes.
Three lousy choices. My bet: He'll go with the first and hope he can avoid utter disaster and meltdown in the final primaries.