Politicians should heed Vinegar Joe and own up to bungles

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April was a cruel month for a couple of politicians whose underlings were involved in photographic endeavours.

Late in the month a kerfuffle arose over a snapshot in Alberta’s recent high-profile ad campaign to promote the province. Seven years earlier two blond kids in white Aran sweaters, practically an icon of the north of Ireland and Britain, had been photographed scampering along a Northumbrian beach. I presume someone in the Alberta ad campaign pulled the picture from a collection of stock photography. Anyway, it was sent out to the world stamped “Alberta” in prominent letters along with appropriately mystic wordage. Whoops!

Someone recognized the Brit beach faster than if the ad campaigners had tried to save money by photographing a couple of kids in front of one of those excellent and unmistakably Albertan wildlife dioramas over at the Royal Alberta Museum. But outing the beach’s location led to one of the silliest spin doctor episodes in recent Alberta government history, all about how the wording on the advertisement didn’t mean to imply the scene was Alberta but was just emphasizing our international outlook. This didn’t go over with the folks in pick-up trucks, and soon official apologies were issued. Unfortunately Premier Stelmach then weighed in with groggy prose about children, air quality, water quality and the big globe. Spin takes you so far, but once it’s been scuppered, get off board!

A few days later in April, New Yorkers looked up to see a very big jet flying very low over the city, trailed by a United States Air Force fighter. Folks there are touchy about sightings like that since a couple of hijacked planes took out the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Some people got panicky and began leaving buildings for the streets. Whoops! The big plane was just the U.S. presidential 747 — though without the president aboard — on a photo opportunity flight. The City of New York had been advised of the flight but was asked not to tell anyone. Faced with outrage, President Obama didn’t put out imaginative spin — he said it was a mistake. He also in due course “accepted the resignation” of the high-level bureaucrat who signed off on this mismanaged venture.

The standard for leaders dealing frankly with embarrassing messes was set in the Second World War by the caustic American general “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell. In 1942, Allied forces reeled before a massive Japanese land offensive. Stillwell led a column of Americans back through Burma into British-held India, where British troops had also reached safety. The khaki clad spinners put out claptrap about how it was all kind of a triumph in reverse. Not Vinegar Joe: “I claim we took a hell of a beating,” the testy Yank snapped, “and it is humiliating as hell.”

Obama passed the Stilwell test by not trying to justify a botch. Stelmach didn’t, but it was good practice for mopping up his soon to follow next public relations puddle, security personnel keeping menacing opposition members away during Health Minister Ron Liepert’s feel-good medicine show.

On that one, Stelmach, like Obama on the 747 fly past, used politer language than Vinegar Joe might have, but did not dodge the fact that he was dealing with a bungle.

St. Albert resident David Haas occasionally comments on provincial affairs.

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