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How to `get away with it'

Villaraigosa could take some pages from Schwarzenegger's book in handling indiscretion.

July 15, 2007|Joe Mathews | JOE MATHEWS, a Times reporter, is the author of "The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy."

IN MAY 2001, advisors to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was considering a run for governor, convened a secret focus group of a dozen independent-minded voters in a windowless room in Encino. Three members of the group volunteered that, the previous week, they had seen a National Enquirer story about a Schwarzenegger mistress.

When the focus group facilitator asked if that news compromised Schwarzenegger as a potential political leader, a young man in the group named Max answered firmly: "Not if he can get away with it."

The rest of the focus group nodded in agreement.

This is the central damage-control lesson of the Schwarzenegger era of California politics. It's not the sleazy behavior that counts; it's how you react to the revelation that matters.

"Getting away with it" is a fine political art. When, in the final days of the 2003 recall election, this newspaper reported on allegations of Schwarzenegger's past misconduct toward women -- often grabbing various body parts, in public and in private -- Schwarzenegger was masterful in his escape. As a result, he is governor today.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has failed to master this art. He's still struggling with the disclosure of his affair with a Spanish-language TV anchor. Some commentators even suggest that his political future may be in jeopardy.

Here are the Arnold rules -- five tips for how to respond to news that you've had an affair, made unwanted advances or simply behaved like an adolescent.

* Prepare your response well in advance.

If you're a politician who can't control yourself around women, accept the fact that the news will probably come out. Judging from his initial refusal to say why he and his wife of 20 years were separating, Villaraigosa appears to have believed that the public would never find out about his philandering.

In contrast, Schwarzenegger, beginning with polling done in February 2001, tested how vulnerable he was to public revelations of his past conduct toward women. At the time, the actor also studied how President Bush had handled questions during the 2000 presidential campaign about his reputed use of cocaine as a young man.

Later, as Schwarzenegger prepared to run for governor in the summer of 2003, Schwarzenegger's team of advisors conducted extensive polls and focus groups that helped refine how he would respond to revelations about his use of steroids, statements he made in the 1970s about Adolf Hitler and his behavior toward women.

The polling suggested this response: Schwarzenegger should say that, as a movie star, "I haven't always been a perfect gentleman," and then pivot to attack whoever raised the charge: "These attempts to destroy people on a personal level are ruining American politics and causing good people not to run for office."

* Apologize immediately and profusely for your own wrongdoing.

Villaraigosa has taken responsibility for the failure of his marriage and his affair, but there has been no explicit public apology to his wife for the infidelity, to his supporters for deceiving them or to the voters.

Schwarzenegger apologized instantly and profusely. The morning The Times published his alleged history of touching women without their consent, he flew to San Diego. Before giving the speech to kick off a campaign bus tour, Schwarzenegger delivered a statement with a money line he came up with himself: "I have to tell you that I always say that wherever there is smoke, there is fire." He had a few caveats -- some of the charges he didn't think were true, he was on "rowdy movie sets" -- but the apology was powerful. "I have behaved badly sometimes," he said. "I have done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful, but now I recognize that I have offended people. And those people that I have offended, I want to say to them, I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize."

Campaign tracking polls taken the night of the apology showed that 90% of those surveyed had heard of the groping allegations. But the percentage of voters who viewed him favorably had dropped only a single point.

* Don't hide.

Whereas Villaraigosa canceled appearances for several days after the revelation of his affair, Schwarzenegger went on with his bus tour and campaigning even though he was trailed by hundreds of journalists. It provided an effective response to charges from other women. Schwarzenegger's team answered questions about the latest revelation by referring to the huge size of his crowds.

* Once you've admitted your sins, go on offense and suggest that the media and your enemies have behaved badly by raising the issue of your personal behavior.

Villaraigosa hasn't done this. Schwarzenegger cleverly prepared voters for charges of womanizing even before news of his past behavior became public. In announcing his candidacy on "The Tonight Show," Schwarzenegger said he expected to be attacked as a womanizer.

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