A clean breast of things or death by 1000 cuts?

The government has reformulated the George Washington legend. It goes like this:

There was no cherry tree and no axe and I wasn’t there. Move on. Alright, there was a cherry tree and an axe. Move on. OK, I was there but not strictly as an axe-person. Move on. Anyway killing a cherry tree isn’t a crime. Move on. Well, if someone thinks there is a crime, go to the police. Move on.

Someone has gone to the police? The police are investigating? Heads will roll.

At her weekly press conference last Monday Helen Clark insisted her interest in the Phillip Field affair was as Prime Minister and that she had discharged that role by standing him down as a minister and getting a QC to do an inquiry.

The question of Field’s standing as a Labour MP was for the party’s organisation wing, she said, though actually (a) she is leader of the parliamentary Labour party (which she did eventually acknowledge), (b) she is leader of the Labour party at large and (c) she has in the past taken a keen interest in who is and who is not selected as candidates.

This sort of incremental retreat can make bad worse. Toughing it out works when the main opposition party has low credibility. But it is a risky tactic when poll ratings are close.

The risk is not in each individual item. Despite offering technical, implausible or qualified explanations or apologies, Clark rode out the painting signatures storm in a teacup, her Al-Gore-wouldn’t-have-invaded-Iraq slight to the Bush Administration in 2003, her injudicious off-the-record comments about Police Commissioner Peter Doone and her dangerous dash across Canterbury to a football match.

That is in part because generally she has been quick and firm in suspending or sacking ministers under a cloud, including decent David Parker’s unnecessary time on the bench early this year. Field is out of the ministry.

It is also because individually these are not issues of vital relevance to voters. They become a serious voting matter only when they accumulate or are allowed to fester.

That is what has happened with Clark’s tangential responses on Field’s activities as an MP and on her and her MPs’ use of up to $800,000 of parliamentary funding for electioneering.

If she had done the George Washington thing, that is, forthrightly crunched Field into a resignation and forthrightly promised a refund, they would not have turned into agonising and damaging retreats that have probably contributed to slipping poll ratings for her and her party.

The bedrock political point about Field was never criminality, though of course a prosecution would tarnish this polity’s corruption-free reputation, now potentially threatened by the import of Pacific and Maori cultural practices. The bedrock political point is, as Don Brash correctly states, whether Field engaged in conduct unbecoming of an MP.

The Ingram report left that point wide open — open enough for Lockwood Smith to mount a very damaging case.

The bedrock political point about the electioneering spending of funds earmarked for parliamentary purposes is not that parties understood it to be permitted under the rules. The point is that everyday New Zealanders would think it is conduct unbecoming of political parties. The Herald poll last week suggests they do.

The Auditor-General’s report appears to have left that point wide open — open enough for Gerry Brownlee and others to mount a damaging case against Clark, whose office issued her $446,000 pledge card (against the organisation wing’s wishes).

One way out for Labour would be for the parliamentary party to underspend its parliamentary funds allotment by $800,000 this fiscal year. Whether that would satisfy the Auditor-General would be small political beer if the public reckoned it settled the matter.

As they stand pilloried in the political stocks on these issues, Clark and Co might usefully study the relative utility of different types of candidates’ apologies, which the New York Times reports are legion this midterm United States election season.

At one end of the scale are the not-quite apologies of the “mistakes were made” or “if I offended someone” kind — Clark’s version after her Al Gore Iraq comment.

Midpoint on the scale are incremental retreats starting with denial or “if I offended” and ending with a full apology. Senator George Allen of Virginia trod this route after calling an Indian “Macaca”.

At the other end are those who heed a principle the Times says was stated by the 1949-53 Vice-president Alben Barkley: “If you have to eat crow, eat it while it’s hot.” Some American apologists are digging 20 years into their past.

Of course there are non-apologists, like Senator Conrad Burns of Montana: “I can self-destruct in one sentence. Sometimes in one word.” Bob Clarkson comes to mind.

Clark has not self-destructed and is highly unlikely to do so in a sentence, let alone a word. But she might ruminate on the Barkley principle and on a Chinese fate: death by a thousand cuts.