I collect escape clauses. These are the hackneyed excuses used by politicians and their brilliant tacticians whenever they're nailed for being stupid, dangerous or both. We hear these phrases so often that we don't actually consider their literal meaning anymore.
Let's take the example of Mark Penn, the worldwide chief executive of Burson-Marsteller and the latest symbol of PR decadence.
Like Karl Rove and many other political strategists, Penn had become a celebrity in the political world. Reporters crowned him as a visionary for his work in targeting miniscule voting blocs for Hillary Clinton.
Then the law of hubris set in. One day Penn was perched on top of the world, whispering in the king's ear. The next minute he's in the tower awaiting execution.
Penn lost his place as grand strategist for Hillary when he was nailed for meeting with Colombian officials to help lobby for a trade deal that Clinton opposed.
In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Penn dusted off one of my favorite escape clauses.
"With the benefit of hindsight," he said of his work for Burson-Marsteller. "I would have done things differently."
What does this really mean? How could Penn have not known what was in store for him? Did he really think that Clinton could tolerate her top strategist contradicting a very visible campaign pledge?
What he really meant to say is, "if I had known I would be nailed, I wouldn't have done it."
All of this reminds me of that great garage scene in All The President's Men. Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat lets a young and naive Bob Woodward in on a secret about the power-brokers surrounding Richard Nixon.
"Look, forget the myths the media's created about the White House--the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand."