I Am Not a Witch: Christine O’Donnell’s Ad

Christine O’Donnell, Delaware’s Republican Senatorial hopeful, released one of the strangest political ads in recent years earlier today – and in doing so, she made a classic Nixonian/Clintonian media mistake.

First, the background. A couple of weeks ago, HBO Host Bill Maher released a clip of Ms. O’Donnell, who had appeared on his former program Politically Incorrect in 1999. During that program, Ms. O’Donnell said:

“I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do. One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar and I didn’t know it. I mean, there was a little blood there and stuff like that….We went to a movie and then had a little picnic on a satanic altar.”

Ms. O’Donnell has been widely mocked since then, which likely compelled her to release this ad:

Does her denial sound familiar? It should:

  • “I am not a crook.” – Richard Nixon
  • “I am not gay.” – Sen. Larry Craig
  • “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” – Bill Clinton
  • “I don’t know who that baby is.” – John Edwards

Spokespersons should almost never use the language of denial and should turn their statements into positive ones instead.

Imagine, for example, that Richard Nixon had applied that technique, saying, “I have always complied with the laws of the United States.” The line would likely not have become iconic – and more importantly, he wouldn’t have placed the words “I” and “crook” within three words of one another.

The public has witnessed far too many spokespersons issuing flat denials which turn out later to be untrue. Does that mean Christine O’Donnell is a witch? Of course not. But she did herself no favors by adopting the syntax of notoriously false denials.