×

Why politicians like Clinton keep their health a secret

Hillary Clinton waves as she leaves her daughter's New York apartment building after resting there on Sept. 11, 2016.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
Hillary Clinton waves as she leaves her daughter's New York apartment building after resting there on Sept. 11, 2016.

With Hillary Clinton's recent health flap, the usual pundits have begun diving before cameras to traffic in one of the most seductive — and baseless — canards in the damage control canon: That if only Clinton had come clean about her health this controversy could have been averted.

Let's set aside ethics, morality and how I personally advise clients, usually public companies with stringent disclosure obligations, and examine crisis management as it works in amoral reality, not on talk shows and in B-school simulations where anyone who invokes transparency immediately gets a valentine.

Powerful people and organizations keep secrets for a reason: There is something they don't want you to know because it would hurt them, or someone or something they care about. Put differently, powerful people like Hillary Clinton are not gratuitously opaque — they obfuscate both because it is in their nature and because they have found that it has worked for them.

Clinton's life experience has taught her that her behavior will trigger withering investigations. She and her husband have not only survived at the pinnacle of American power for a quarter of a century, but prospered, not through disclosure but by being systematically unhelpful to their adversaries and mobilizing effective surrogates to defend them. Not only do the Clintons not profit from transparency, they profit by litigating every syllable of every allegation leveled against them.

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton didn't come clean. First, he lied and denied; second, he called for an end to the "politics of personal destruction;" third, his allies investigated Congressional republicans for sexual hypocrisy; fourth, his highest-profile political opponents were exposed; and fifth, once they had had been neutralized and couldn't do him any more damage, then he apologized.

"People in Washington say it’s not the initial offense that gets you in trouble. It’s the cover-up. They say you should admit what you did, get the story out, and move on. What this overlooks is the fact that most of the time the cover-up works just fine, and nobody finds out anything. I would imagine that’s the rule rather than the exception." -George Carlin

Nor did the Clintons invent the "prove it" theory of damage control. It is deployed by smart operators across party lines. During the 2000 primaries, the media and pundits were apoplectic that candidate George W. Bush wouldn't admit to having used heavy-duty drugs in his past. Bush would only concede that he had been wild during his youth, a vague characterization that was widely panned as lousy crisis management.

Had Bush admitted to hard drug use, however, it would have validated very real concerns about his fitness for office that were percolating in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Bush never did admit to drug use, however, on the eve of the election, when an unequivocal DUI arrest surfaced, he copped to it.

Donald Trump has profited mightily from secrecy and covering up his astonishing vulnerabilities with even more astonishing bluster. To this day, millions of Americans have taken him at his word that he is worth $10 billion, that he is a man of great charity, and a leading economic provider to working people. It has taken unprecedented media investigations to expose these and other braggadocio, and it's questionable that these journalistic endeavors have made a dent in Trump's momentum. His health disclosures to date have only told us that he's amazingly ultraliciously awesome. As Hillary Clinton's experience has taught her that obfuscation works, Trump's has taught him that audacious puffery works.

As for the Obama administration, we have heard for years that it is the "least transparent" in recent history. And the consequences have been what exactly? Outside of the occasional whimper, the legacy media simply cannot seem to focus on this purported outrage.

We see the "come clean" canard play out in other arenas of public life as well. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte apologized for his untoward behavior in Rio and immediately lost almost every product endorsement he had. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady has denied using deflated footballs at every turn and is doing just fine thank you.

Why then does everybody insist transparency is the best crisis management strategy? I'll offer seven reasons:

1. The media love confessions because they make great stories;

2. The public wants transparency because we believe — often correctly, but not always — that we have the right to know things;

3. Secrets drive those of us who are not privy to them crazy;

4. Pundits who preach transparency and allege malfeasance are almost always invited back to appear on talk shows because they ratchet up the conflict that draws ratings;

5. PR people are desperate to convey that they have a special trick that will vindicate their clients and that trick is full-disclosure;

6. The people who preach transparency have never actually been sucked into a crisis vortex and suffered the consequences of their counsel;

7. Transparency strikes many as being synonymous with morality and we want to see people and organizations we believe to be sneaky punished.

The comedian George Carlin said, "People in Washington say it's not the initial offense that gets you in trouble. It's the cover-up. They say you should admit what you did, get the story out, and move on. What this overlooks is the fact that most of the time the cover-up works just fine, and nobody finds out anything. I would imagine that's the rule rather than the exception."

Clinton probably believes she has nothing to gain by coming clean about her health. She and her aides have calculated that her critics won't believe her no matter what she says; they'll still claim "cover up." Her supporters will support her regardless. They'll say, "who cares?" Social media will do what it does, send the video of her wobbling to every phone, website and Facebook page while tweeters tweet.

So she'll do what has always worked for her. She'll let the energy of this event dissipate and push other story lines. If that doesn't work this time, it's only because the stakes are higher for constituencies that matter — swing state independents and college educated professionals — and they may apply a tougher standard. Maybe she'll take this into account, but I've rarely seen someone change their approach to crisis management this late in life. She's had no experience with transparency and outside of token gestures I don't think she'll start now.

Commentary by Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis-management firm in Washington, DC. He is also the author of "Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal." Follow him on Twitter @EricDezenhall.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.