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Sterling, Rubio and the Art of Making Things Worse

Donald Sterling speaking—never a good idea
Donald Sterling speaking—never a good idea Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

The only thing that gets you into bigger trouble than saying the wrong thing is to keep saying it again and again. The owner of the L.A. Clippers and the junior senator from Florida need to learn the wisdom of just shutting up

Would somebody please get Donald Sterling away from the microphone—and while you’re at it, take Marco Rubio with you? The current (and, please, soon to be former) owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and the junior Senator from Florida have been taking a lot of heat lately for comments that were inartful at best and head-poundingly stupid at worst. In the case of Sterling, it was the no-go topic of race that landed him in trouble; in the case of Rubio it was anti-science nonsense on global warming. And when both men tried to rehab their reps, they broke the first rule any public figure should know: if you can’t make things better, shut up.

Sterling has offered nothing short of a cautionary clinic in how to do absolutely everything wrong when there’s a mess to clean up. After a recording was released of him telling his ex-girlfriend not to bring African Americans to Clippers games or to post pictures of herself with them on Instagram—despite the fact that the picture that set him off was of her and the globally loved Magic Johnson—he appeared with Anderson Cooper to explain himself and addressed the question of Johnson straightaway.

What kind of a guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV?” he asked. “Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. When he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him.”

He added this about Johnson’s work in the African American community: “[W]hat does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything. Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people, and some of the African-Americans—maybe I’ll get in trouble again—they don’t want to help anybody.”

So, not exactly damage control. Today, things got even worse, as yet another tape of Sterling surfaced in which he criticized President Obama for criticizing him: “I think that was such bad judgment on his part to make a flippant comment from Malaysia. He’s a good guy, and I like him, I just think everybody wants to get into the act, is that it?” Learning curve? Not so much.

Rubio is nowhere nearly so unhinged, but he did himself no favors either. After appearing on ABC News last weekend denying that “human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate,” and arguing that scientists have taken “a handful of decades of research and say that this is now evidence of a longer-term trend that’s directly and almost solely attributable to human activities,” he was predictably and deservedly blowtorched as both a political opportunist and a scientific know-nothing. So he traveled to the National Press Club to explain himself and made a hash of that too.

When he was asked by a moderator, “what information, reports, studies or otherwise are you relying on to inform and reach your conclusion that human activity is not to blame for climate change?” he came up empty, conjuring unwelcome memories of Sarah Palin, who drew a similar blank in 2008 when asked what newspapers she reads. “Well, again,” Rubio said, “headlines notwithstanding, I’ve never disputed that the climate is changing, and I’ve pointed out that climate to some extent is always changing, it’s never static.”

Much worse, he once again played the game of making up things climate scientists never, ever say, and then happily refuting them. “If we ban all coal in the U.S.,” he said, “if we ban all carbon emissions in the United States, will it change the dramatic changes in climate and these dramatic weather impacts that we’re now reading about? And anyone who says that we will is not being truthful.” Good thing no one is saying that then—except, of course, Rubio.

What gets into these guys’ heads is not clear. As with all powerful people—and, in particular, all powerful men—narcissism is surely a part of it. Live your life as a cosseted rich man like Sterling, or rise to a position of extreme prestige and power as a young man, like Rubio, and you begin to believe the rules don’t apply to you—because they often don’t. It’s similar to the tendency of professional athletes—who were often waved through high school and college regardless of poor grades and were then rewarded with eight-figure contracts at the age of 22—to get into so much trouble off the field. Why should DUI or domestic abuse laws apply to them any more than academic ones?

Sometimes it might be cultural obtuseness that’s to blame too. Sterling, 80, grew up in an era in which racial comments that are jaw-dropping today were the stuff of common conversation. Or it may be inexperience. Rubio is only 42, he’s been in the Senate for just over three years and he’s been talked about as a presidential contender for most of that time. The mistakes he’s making in that kind of pressure cooker are not the ones savvier, older campaigners like Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush would make.

Whatever the cause, the advice is almost always a variation on the “measure twice, cut once” dictum carpenters live by. Think about what you’re going to say, then think about it again, then maybe—maybe—speak. Trying to unsay something is always harder than never having said it in the first place.

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