Political Sign of Apocalypse: The Non-Denial Denial

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The revelation that Herman Cain is “reassessing” whether to remain in the Republican presidential race may not surprise anyone who parsed his initial response to the new allegations he faces.  While Cain said Tuesday that he denies “unequivocally” an Atlanta woman’s claim that she and Cain engaged in a 13-year affair, the statement came a day after his lawyer, renowned trial attorney Lin Wood, told the Fox affiliate airing the report: “This appears to be an accusation of private, alleged consensual conduct between adults – a subject matter which is not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public.” Missing from the word cloud of Wood’s denial was a crucial element: the denial itself.

The non-denial denial is a recurring feature of political scandals, a way for the embattled to parry allegations while hedging against getting caught in a lie. The phrase itself is often attributed to the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who invoked “non-denial denial” to deride the evasions of Nixon-era White House officials during Watergate. It later popped up in Woodward and Bernstein’s telling of the scandal, All the President’s Men, as well as the film adaptation of the same name.

More recently, the non-denial denial has been a staple of sexual scandals, deployed to knock down a rumored tryst without resorting to outright lies. “Follow me around,” Gary Hart told the New York Times in 1987, when the Senator and presidential hopeful was dogged by rumors of an extramarital affair. “It will be boring.” (Reporters were already tailing Hart and had glimpsed a young woman leaving his D.C. townhouse.) Eleven years later, during a deposition for the  harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, President Bill Clinton famously declared, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” – a feat of hairsplitting that hinged on the argument that oral sex did not fall under the category of “relations.”

Stylistically, non-denials can take any number of forms, all of which are designed to deflect attention from the original charge. Confronted with allegations that he sent a photo of his penis to a Twitter follower, Anthony Weiner at first opted for indignation, calling a congressional reporter who pressed the issue a “jackass.” Sensing the kerfuffle wasn’t going to fade, Weiner then cycled through several familiar non-denial denials. He tried hedging by blaming his memory (“I can’t say with certitude”), humor (“this is not an international conspiracy”) and shaming the press for its interest in prurience (“we’ve kind of jumped the shark here.”) Facing accusations that he conducted an affair, John Edwards tried the flattery defense, explaining that his wife was so attractive, he’d be crazy to cheat.

Under siege, scandalized politicians sometimes try to avoid explaining their crimes by copping to a lesser one – as Senator Larry Craig did, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct after allegedly attempting to solicit a man for sex in an airport bathroom. Others admit an unspecified “sin” while avoiding specifics, like Senator David Vitter did when his name surfaced in an escort-service rolodex. Another angle is to change the story by fingering a culprit or claiming conspiracy, usually the media.

Cain’s situation is different in that while his lawyer danced around the issue, the candidate himself simply said the affair never happened. But the news that he raised the possibility of ending his campaign follows the rule: It never takes very long for things to fall apart after the famously fraught non-denial denial is issued.