For a journalist, there’s nothing quite like a really big disaster – the sinking of the Titanic, the explosion of the Hindenburg, the Meg Whitman campaign for governor. You can spend weeks or months or years sifting through the wreckage and pinning the blame. It’s a joyous exercise for reporters.

Let’s take the most recent of those historic calamities, Meg 2010. Now, this was a campaign with problems, including having too much money for its own good. Its strategic mistakes were numerous. The heavily staffed campaign offers many rich targets for balme.

But there is one specific criticism that should be re-examined before it becomes conventional wisdom: that Whitman could have escaped damage from the revelation that her housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, was an undocumented immigrant by putting the story out herself, shortly after she learned of the situation in June 2009. Handled this way, goes the media wisdom, it might have been a one-day story.
Nonsense. This would have been big news – and a serious problem for the Whitman campaign — whenever it was released.

Let’s imagine that Whitman had imbibed this media wisdom and had announced the news about the housekeeper on some August day in 2009. Let’s say that, in a speech on immigration, she would have mentioned that she had to fire herhousekeeper, whom she would not name, when she learned she was undocumented. Would the reaction really have been so different?

Whitman would have been besieged on the right by critics asking why she wouldn’t identify the immigrant – and why she hadn’t tried to have the woman deported. On the left, there would have been questions about whether she could have helped the woman – and whether her decision to let her go was political. And there would have been attempts by journalists and lawyers (including maybe Gloria Allred) to locate the woman, who presumably would have told her story about Whitman’s mistreatment of her.

These were all the same questions and problems that kept the housekeeper story alive for a couple of weeks in the fall. The questions would have been open wounds until they were answered, whether in 2009 or in the fall of 2010. And, given the inclination of Whitman’s primary opponent Steve Poizner to exploit immigration as an issue, this might have been an issue throughout the primary.

When you play the decision back like this, it becomes understandable why the campaign and Whitman decided to keep the housekeeper news under wraps. They were making a bet – a bet they lost – that this wouldn’t come out at all. But they knew that if it did come out, there would be damage.

Yes, Whitman might have been marginally better-off if she had developed a full-scale plan for releasing the information and had her story straight. Maybe.
But Whitman could have kept herself out of trouble here in two ways:

1. By treating her housekeeper better and helping her out with severance and a lawyer, instead of abruptly firing her.

2. By apologizing to the woman and to the public for having mishandled the situation the moment the housekeeper came forward, and promising to do whatever was necessary financially to make it right.

Instead, Whitman and her campaign got into a war of words with the woman’s attorney, Gloria Allred, and accused the housekeeper of stealing her mail.