Ehrlich and robocalls: Plausible deniability

The concept insulates Ehrlich from gutter political tactics

November 14, 2010|By Dan Rodricks, The Baltimore Sun

In the matter of the allegedly vote-suppressing robocall that went out on Election Day, the defeated Maryland gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich has plausible deniability, or PD. His campaign might have hired political consultant Julius Henson, but Mr. Ehrlich can deny — if he ever speaks publicly of this matter — any knowledge of Mr. Henson's allegedly illegal effort to keep black citizens from voting for Democrat Martin O'Malley.

While the term has been in use only since the 1970s, the concept of plausible deniability dates back to at least 1170, when King Henry II moaned, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" What happened to Thomas Becket? Strict PD.

The idea is to insulate a leader — political, corporate or gangster — from direct knowledge of skullduggery or some sinister, secret plot. The boss might have winked at his henchmen, but he and his henchmen made sure the boss was out of the room when they brought devil to details.

Plausible deniability is associated with John F. Kennedy when the Central Intelligence Agency planned the assassination of foreign leaders, including Cuba's Fidel Castro. And we heard of plausible deniability when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the boys in the basement were selling arms to Iran — despite a government arms embargo — to help finance counter-revolutionary forces against the Sandinista junta in Nicaragua. One of the boys in the basement was Vice Admiral John Poindexter. He was President Reagan's national security advisor at the time of the Iran-Contra scheming. Admiral Poindexter later told Congress: "I made a deliberate decision not to ask the president so that I could insulate him from the decision and provide some future deniability for the president if it ever leaked out."

George H.W. Bush was vice-president at the time. He denied that he had anything to do with Iran-Contra and won the 1988 presidential election.

His son, George W. Bush — what can we say about this guy? He must have been distracted when daddy, a former director of the CIA, told him about plausible deniability, or maybe W. missed PD class during his White House orientation. Otherwise, I don't think he'd be admitting to having authorized water boarding in his new memoir.

Plausible deniability is not a one-man act. Several players are needed.

At Baltimore's Everyman Theater, Arthur Miller's 1947 play, "All My Sons," has opened for a month-long run. The main character, Joe Keller, is the owner of a factory who denies any role in a decision that led to the deaths of American airmen in World War II. For a while, his story — that he was at home with the flu when his business partner made the fateful decision — holds up. Joe Keller has charm and a flare for what the actor who plays him at Everyman, Carl Schurr, calls "stylish lies." But those powers can't sustain the deception. Joe Keller needed henchmen to insulate him from the wrongdoing. Instead, he was like many self-made men of his generation — the owner of a business who kept his feet on the factory floor. He was too close to the action. Today, he'd be called a micromanager, and it's impossible for a micromanager to have PD.

There's plenty of plausible deniability available to candidates in the smackdown politics of our times.

The Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case advanced the opportunities for PD for political candidates. Millions of corporate dollars now go into political advertisements produced independently of candidates, and perhaps even without their direct knowledge. No matter how negative or dirty the ad, the candidate who benefits from the ad remains free of blame or complicity.

Douglas F. Gansler, the attorney general of Maryland, says there is "absolutely no reason to believe" that Bob Ehrlich or his staff knew about the allegedly voter-suppressing robocalls that went to more than 112,000 Democratic voters on Election Day. That's a pretty emphatic statement — even though Julius Henson's companies received nearly $100,000 from the Ehrlich campaign, and even though Mr. Gansler says the calls were made on Mr. Ehrlich's behalf.

What are we to make of this? That Mr. Henson, who's been known to practice politics from the gutter, was just a loose cannon, acting on his own, trying to justify his fees? Or did Mr. Ehrlich hire him, wink and leave the room? In either case, Mr. Ehrlich has plausible deniability; somebody could go to jail — or at least pay a huge fine — but it won't be him.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM.

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