How To Weather A Scandal
Admit you're human. Stay productive. Pray a lot. And never let anyone tell you when it's time to quit.
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I KNEW THAT I HAD a personal problem—I was having a meaningful relationship with a woman who was not my wife—and I knew that I had to deal with it, which is why I chose not to run again for mayor of San Antonio. I couldn’t go through a campaign while I was dealing with intense personal matters. I had to take care of them, and that meant being away from my unrelenting schedule. I loved being mayor. I would have loved continuing to be mayor. The best thing I did was get to be mayor of my hometown. But I needed the time and the privacy to deal with something so complex.
When I decided not to run, I was, in essence, asking to be left alone to deal with a private matter. But my decision had exactly the opposite effect. This private matter had impacted my decision not to run, so the press saw it as fair game to cover as a public matter. In October 1988 the San Antonio Express-News ran a front-page story about the marital difficulties that Mary Alice and I were having and about my relationship with Linda Medlar, though I didn’t know it was coming. The morning it ran, a reporter from the other paper in town at the time, the San Antonio Light, knocked on my door while I was shaving. Would I comment on the story in the Express-News? I didn’t know what he was talking about. He had to hand me my own paper from my own back porch so I could read it.
After talking to Mary Alice and some family members and Linda as well, I realized I had to be forthright publicly. My wife wanted to meet the press with me and say that we were going to patch things up, the way other political wives have done. I wasn’t sure that was going to happen. I didn’t want to put her in that position. So I went outside and said, “Yes, it’s true.” I said, “I’m made of flesh and blood, not wires and plastic and metal. This is a real human experience that is happening to me. I need time to sort it out.”
The second crisis engendered by all of this came in 1992, after President Clinton asked me to be his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A few years earlier, I had decided I could not continue my relationship with Linda, and she and I had had an extensive conversation about it. She told me she needed financial help because a woman in this kind of situation is treated differently than a man; a man can go forward and make money, but when she went back to Lubbock, she was denied jobs. In one case, she was offered a job at a school until one of the mothers complained, and then the offer was withdrawn. She asked me for help financially, and I helped her for several years. When I went into the Cabinet, my salary could be only that which the government allows—no book advances, no speaking fees. I indicated to her that I had done all I was going to be able to do. When she decided that this was not acceptable and went to one of the newsmagazine shows, the Justice Department began to investigate me. They said I had not been truthful with them about how much I had helped Linda over the years. To deal with the legal issues, I left the Cabinet at the end of President Clinton’s first term.
As mortifying as all this was, my first thought was that I was only in my forties and still had a lot of years of work to do and service to do. The challenge was to find a way of proceeding that allowed me to make a contribution. Withdrawing from life was not a realistic option. I had to live my life as best I could on all fronts, as productively as I could, despite how difficult it was to face people, despite what they would say behind my back. I couldn’t let those things govern me. If I couldn’t help people in a public way, I had to help in a private way. And, I’m glad to say, the work I’m doing today—building housing for working families in cities across the Southwest—is a continuation of the work I did as mayor and at HUD, and it touches people’s lives. In some ways it’s a more certain contribution.
Second, I learned from lots of people, particularly Bill Clinton, that you’re not down until they shoot you in the street, tear your body into pieces, burn them, and scatter the ashes. I saw Bill Clinton take defeat after defeat and keep coming; I used to call him the Terminator. That’s a tough challenge for someone like me, someone with a sense of propriety and thin skin. But I’ve learned through all this that I really have skin like a rhinoceros, and I’ve been able to keep going. No one decides I quit until I decide I quit.
Third, I put a lot of it in God’s hands. I remember one day at HUD, in the middle of the investigation, I stopped and looked out the window and had my own prayerful conversation with the Lord. “Lord,” I said, “you’re the one who allowed me to get the training I did. You’re the one who allowed me to have skills that people say they admire. You’re the one who allowed me to understand the political system—how to get homeless people into shelters, how to build public housing. If you want to take me away from all this, I understand. But if it is your work you want me to do, then you will have to help me get through this. Why endow me with certain talents I use for your purposes if you want me to give up?”
When you consider the amount of power arrayed against me, you have to believe God was saying, “Continue to do your work. You can’t have the glory, but you are going to do the work.” I guess I fervently believe, of all the prayers I know, that the governing factor in my life is “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Whatever his will is, I’ve adjusted to it and tried to do my part. Obviously, his will has been to take my ego down a notch, to make me recognize that other people are going to have the spotlight moments, to teach me that maybe I had too much too early.
A final point: If you don’t deal with issues of spirituality and balance and personal relationships and family time—real time, not multitasking—then bad things can happen. When they do, they’re tragic and destructive. My wife and children didn’t deserve the pain I caused. I’m blessed that Mary Alice is a very centered and good person, and she saw all of us through this in a forgiving and loving way.
So clearly, one of the lessons I’ve learned is, don’t let yourself get into such a situation in the first place. We’re all human. We’re all flawed and weak. We have to keep the focus of our lives on what’s right, true, and good.
Henry Cisneros, the CEO of San Antoniobased American CityVista, was the mayor of San Antonio from 1981 to 1989 and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1993 to 1997.