Moments before Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address, Hillary Clinton posted a long apologia on her Facebook page on her decision not to fire Burns Strider, her faith adviser on her 2008 presidential campaign, who was accused of sexually harassing the woman he shared his office with. Strider was hired by a Clinton-supporting group for the 2016 campaign but fired after another harassment allegation against him.
"Thoughtful of Hillary to post this at a time when we can all give it our full attention," New York editor Margaret Hartmann snarked on Twitter, expressing a sentiment shared by many other political journalists. The timing of the post seemed like an attempt to bury the story, which the New York Times first reported last week.
Whether Clinton was actually trying to put out her Facebook note at a time it would be widely ignored, its content deserves attention—and so does what it's missing. What's notably absent from Clinton's 1,500-word explanation of her decision to keep Strider on her campaign after he allegedly, according to the Times, "rubbed [a coworker's] shoulders inappropriately, kissed her on the forehead, and sent her a string of suggestive emails"? The words "I'm sorry," "I apologize," "I was wrong," "I made a mistake," "I did an oopsie-doopsie," or "my bad, fam."
Clinton did admit, "If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t," but followed that up with a long explanation of why she did what she did, the sort of defensive, meticulously argued statement familiar to anyone who's followed her career. But harassment on political campaigns is a widespread issue that extends far beyond Clinton world.
As Axios reported this week, political campaigns often don't have human resources departments, and when they do, "campaign staffers are unaware of what's available to them and how to report an issue if something happens." Furthermore, "Staffers who've worked on a political campaign will tell you about 15- to 20-hour days, frequent outings with alcohol, and high-pressure situations while working seven days a week in tight quarters with 20-somethings."
It's safe to say Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign wasn't an aberration and that these sorts of incidents also happened elsewhere. That means other politicians—including current officeholders—will have to make these sorts of statements. They should use Clinton's apologia as a guide on how not to address reports of their staffers' alleged sexual harassment:
1. Timing is everything. Don't post your statement at the exact moment one of the country's most important annual political events (or cultural events, for that matter) is about to begin. It looks (and is) cowardly.
2. Actually apologize. If you're going to make a public statement about sexual harassment allegations that isn't an explicit denial, apologize, it's really not that hard. For example: "I'm sorry; I made a mistake I deeply regret." Look how easy that was!
3. Keep your excuses to a minimum. This is where Clinton really went off the rails. "I didn’t think firing him was the best solution to the problem," she wrote. "He needed to be punished, change his behavior, and understand why his actions were wrong." Of course, as she notes, "Several years after working for me he was terminated from another job for inappropriate behavior." Another reason why a simply apology is best.
4. Don't even try to make the "it happened in a pre-Weinstein world" argument. Clinton, overeager to defend herself, also mentioned, "Over the past year, a seismic shift has occurred in the way we approach and respond to sexual harassment, both as a society and as individuals." That is true! But what's the purpose of saying that in your statement? We already know. Again, steer clear of making excuses for yourself.
5. Don't chastise the outlet that credibly published the report about your campaign. In her apologia, Clinton took a jab at the New York Times, writing:
Indeed, while we are revisiting whether my decision from a decade ago was harsh enough, many employers would be well served to take actions at least as severe when confronted with problems now—including the very media outlet that broke this story. They recently opted to suspend and reinstate one of their journalists who exhibited similarly inappropriate behavior, rather than terminate him. A decade from now, that decision may not look as tough as it feels today.
She is referencing the Times's decision not to terminate reporter Glenn Thrush's employment after he was suspended amid allegations of sexual misconduct. This aside seems petty and vindictive, which are not sentiments you want to express in the type of statement Clinton was making. What happened with the Times's investigation into Thrush is not comparable to what happened on the Clinton's '08 campaign, nor is it relevant. Although the allegations against Thrush surfaced while he was a Times employee, the actual events transpired before he worked for the company; in Clinton's case, she was immediately made aware of the allegations against Strider but chose not to terminate his employment.
6. Keep it concise. There is no minimum word count for an apology, and keeping it succinct is key. Clinton's statement should have been 250 words, maximum. The more you write, the easier it is to find yourself in hot water, which is not what you want when trying to assuage a scandal.
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