The Impossibility of Explaining …

July 27, 2016

. . .anything to a man with power.” ~ Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana.

We deal with a lot of smart people. Corporate executives, lawyers, doctors, business owners of all stripes. Highly competent people, all perfectly capable of rationally speaking on a wide variety of subjects, to wide audiences.

Our clients are the kind of people who can explain things, they do it for their businesses every day. And yet, if we are involved early enough in the process – when they are first informed of an investigation into something they are accused of doing, or knowing about – we can’t stress enough the importance of not talking to anyone, especially someone in a position of authority, on your own.

“But, I didn’t do anything and I can help them sort this mess out,” and a few dozen riffs on that theme are the usual response. Perfectly understandable, and we recognize that you’re smart, competent, and in the real world perfectly capable of doing so.


But, simply, you can’t. Being investigated, questioned, suspected, is not the real world. It has little bearing on reality for the simple reason it’s its own singular, insulated world.

Ever read about people on death row or imprisoned for years who are released when new evidence, usually DNA, comes to light and the prosecutors and arresting officers still swear they got the right person?

It happens all the time and it happens for a simple, very human reason: people (including witnesses) create narratives, invest time and effort in reinforcing them, and are, unsurprisingly, loathe to let go.

Not sure this is true? Take a quick look around social media. People post the same old meme’s and urban myths every day despite a hundred comments showing that they are simply not true. It takes a lot to change one’s views.

In the first (unfortunately not the only) season of True Detective, Woody Harrelson’s character, Martin Hart, warns Mathew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, “When you attach an assumption to a piece of evidence you start to bend the narrative to support it.”

And that’s the rub – you can do a lot of talking, you can answer questions, you can volunteer information that you think may help – what you can’t do is change a narrative.

Since we’re in an election cycle and politicians and their staff and their handlers are everywhere, there’s potentially a vast number of examples to point to right out of this morning’s headlines. But, in this particular cycle that would be counterproductive, so let’s take an example from another election cycle. 1864.

George B. McClellan ran against Lincoln that year. McClellan was the former commander of the Army of the Potomac. Twice fired by Lincoln, he was renowned as an excellent organizer and leader who was painfully slow to react, never mind engage, the Confederate Army. He had ‘the slows’ as Lincoln pointed out more than once.

McClellan had a ready answer for that charge, one that he used over and over – he was always outnumbered. Always. If he had 75,000 men, Robert E. Lee had 100,000. When he had 120,00, Lee had 200,000 men. No matter the actual truth.

Nothing anyone could tell him would change his mind. Intelligence that refuted his numbers was discarded in favor of the sketchiest reports of Lee’s vast hordes.

By the time McClellan was the Democratic presidential nominee two years after his last firing, some of the truth of what McClellan had been up against came out – he always, always, outnumbered Lee. Sometimes 2-1. Always significantly.

McClellan refused to acknowledge it. He held steady during the presidential campaign, which he lost in a landslide (interestingly, 70 % of the Army of the Potomac, the army he formed and named, voted for Lincoln).

He maintained this unshakeable belief after the war as Confederate officers began to publish their memoirs. He became chief engineer of the New York City Department of Docks in 1870, then president of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. Generals on both sides were publishing memoirs at a prodigious  rate, he maintained the ‘outnumbered’ myth without falter despite tomes to the opposite.

Even the publication of the U.S. Government’s 127 volume: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies during McClellan’s term as Governor of New Jersey could not persuade McClellan otherwise. He was outnumbered, despite what Confederate rosters, commissary, orders, telegraphs, quartermaster reports said.

He went to his grave believing it, his apologists – and there were many- still believed it, his post-mortem memoirs maintained it beyond the grave.

McClellan was not a stupid man. He was used to being in a position of authority – he had been in one or another from the day he graduated West Point in 1846. He created his own narratives and he saw them out – regardless. It doesn’t make him a good or bad person, it makes him human.

It also makes him the perfect object lesson for not being interviewed – even casually – without having a lawyer present.


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