Rick Perry and Joe Paterno both screwed up in very public ways. Can rhetoric help them recover their footing? You betcha. Here’s how.
Let’s start with Rick. I don’t particularly like his politics but I can certainly sympathize with his moment of brain freeze. Many a skilled communicator has run into the occasional communications barrier. It’s happened to me and I’m sure that it’s happened to you. Though we hold our presidential candidates to higher standards, we also want them to be normal people — more or less like us. In other words, someone we could have a beer with. So how does Rick recover? With self-deprecating humor. It’ll do him no good to get on his high horse and sound defensive (which is a mistake Herman Cain is making). He’ll do much better if he pokes fun at himself, acknowledges his mistake and moves on. He might even pretend to forget something in his next debate and then laugh, say “Just kidding”, and complete his thought. That would acknowledge his mistake while making light of it at the same time — exactly what he needs to do.
Joe, on the other hand, is in a much deeper bind and can’t turn to humor. He has to deal with the perception (true or not) that he could have stopped evil but did nothing instead. It will do him no good to argue the finer legal points. People aren’t going to give him credit for being right in a narrow legal sense. We want a leader to do the right thing, in the broadest, deepest sense. To reclaim his good name, Joe will have to use his persuasive skills to give a painful, and deeply felt apology. I could see him saying, “I’ve always believed that coaching is about teaching good values to young men and women. It’s about being a role model when life presents you with agonizing choices. And today, I’m going to teach one of the most painful lessons of my life — I didn’t do the right thing.” I think Joe still has a lot to teach us — but he needs to lead the way.