Better Bad or Ridiculous? Lessons from the News

Former NASA employee Lisa Nowak is in the news again because evidence collected by the police from her car and during a statement have been thrown out by a judge. Among the evidence now invalidated are the famous Pampers she was alleged to be wearing but the other stuff still admitted include a steel mallet, buck knife, a fake 9mm gun and six metres of rubber tubing. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but I believe that her lawyers have cause for jubilation. The reason is that people can forgive and forget bad things, but stuff that is just ridiculous tends to stick.

Last month there were two stories that crystallized this idea in my mind. The first was the ongoing saga of senator Larry Craig and his alleged unusual behavior in an airport restroom. On the other hand there were news reports that if Hillary Rodham wins the White House race next year she will task her husband with trying to restore the good reputation of the United States. Reflecting on the two cases I was wondering which would be easier: restoring the reputation of Larry Craig or the USA.

In the end I decided that the easiest option of the two would be Bill Clinton's job. The reason is that if you do something that is really bad you can recover the situation by apologizing, doing good stuff and somehow making amends. But if you have done something that is perceived to be ridiculous then it is difficult to fix it. The story of Larry Craig's misfortunes happened to be firmly in the second category and provided much appreciated fodder for the writers of the late shows. But the image problems of the USA are serious issues that can be addressed and eventually fixed. Difficult but do-able.

So I am not surprised that Lisa Nowak's lawyers are trying to undo the ridiculous part of their clients story, because that is the part that does the lasting damage to her reputation. If there's a moral here it's do bad things if you have to, but never ever do anything that makes people laugh. Don't forget that there are dozens of professional comedy writers whose job it is to scour the news looking for something to make fun of. They are not going to miss any of the easy shots.

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