When you're one of America's sweethearts, it's a bad idea to get arrested for disorderly conduct during your husband's drunk driving arrest and then play the "Do you know my name?" card. It's bad for the brand.
That's what happened when actress Reese Witherspoon found herself on the wrong side of the law in Atlanta April 19, when her husband was arrested for drunk driving. Allegedly, she disrupted his field sobriety test until an officer arrested and handcuffed her. Drunk herself, she asked him if he knew who she was and then told him he soon would find himself on TV.
She was right. He was on TV – as an object of admiration for doing his job.
The incident comes at a point in Witherspoon's career when, at age 37, she's less powerful than she used to be.
More important, it tarnishes her squeaky clean, girl-next-door image. Getting drunk and acting stupid would be tolerated by Americans because everybody makes mistakes, provided she showed the slightest remorse.
However, her sense of celebrity entitlement will be harder to forgive. People have always liked Witherspoon because they saw her as one of them – an average American who also happens to be rich and famous. Her comments to the officer reflect a different attitude.
That's the thing about being a celebrity: You can't mess with the brand.
Mel Gibson went from being a ladies' man and a religious folk hero to being an anti-Semite after he made derogatory comments about Jews while being stopped for drunk driving. (Why don't these people call a cab?) Michael Richards (Kramer on "Seinfeld") was considered one of the funniest men on TV. Then he called a comedy club heckler the "n-word" and has hardly been heard from since. The actor who plays Pee-Wee Herman once had a Saturday morning kids show. Then he got caught in a porn theater, and his career was over.
Ironically, Witherspoon's misstep would be more easily forgiven were she less likable. If Madonna or Lindsay Lohan were caught in this situation, it would be less damaging because bad girls are expected to be bad.
The same applies in politics. Americans grew so accustomed to President Clinton's affairs that they were willing to forgive and forget almost anything. But when Sen. John Edwards, the supposedly heroic husband of a cancer-stricken wife, was caught having an affair, he became an outcast in his own party.
The key for any public figure to survive a scandal is to admit it publicly, ask forgiveness, and then move on. Sometimes it can even be useful because bad publicity, handled the right way, often beats no publicity.
No one outside Arkansas had ever heard of Bill Clinton until Gennifer Flowers said they had an affair. Then he and Hillary were given a prime time slot on "60 Minutes." The campaign went from "Who is Bill Clinton?" to "Should his apparently past problem with women disqualify him from the presidency?" Americans decided the answer was no.
Witherspoon, unfortunately, has taken the opposite approach. She first released an apologetic statement that Americans know likely was written by some public relations professional. Then she cancelled her appearances at the same time her new movie was being released.
Judging by her history, her downcast mug shot and that prepared statement, Witherspoon likely is sorry about this incident. Unfortunately, we need evidence. To save her brand, she needs to reschedule those talk show interviews ASAP and apologize publicly – to her fans, to her young admirers, and to the hard working law enforcement officer whom she respects.
Saying you're sorry and asking forgiveness – that's what an average American would do. When that happens, average Americans usually forgive.