Should They Admit They Made a Mistake?

This is a partial transcript from "Your World with Neil Cavuto," October 12, 2004, that was edited for clarity.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: Let me ask you something. Would it have made any difference at all if President Bush had said, "Yes, I made a mistake"? Would it have made any difference at all if John Kerry had said, "Yes, I've been a flip-flopper now and then"?

Well, my next guest says owning up can be a powerful political tool. Joining us now is public relations guru, David Johnson. He is the owner of Strategic Vision.

So David, you think a little comeuppance on either of these guys' part could go a long way?

DAVID JOHNSON, OWNER, STRATEGIC VISION: I really do. It would help President Bush more than it would help John Kerry, though. With George Bush, it would show a little bit of humility. And that's one of the things that we're seeing in polls, one of the things that we're seeing in focus groups why he's having such a hard time in these debates.

With John Kerry on the other hand, to admit a mistake would reinforce the impression that he is a flip-flopper.

CAVUTO: All right. But wouldn't it be wise to admit occasionally you do flip-flop? And wouldn't it be wise for the president, then, to make a concession, I don't know, on anything?

JOHNSON: It would be. I mean, that's one of the things John Kerry has to do, but he backs himself kind of into a trap now by saying that he doesn't flip-flop, that he's never changed his mind. The same with George W. Bush.

One of the things you want to do is confront and admit that yes, you did make a mistake.

Ronald Reagan was very good at that. He usually would turn it on himself with some forced humor and make a one-liner about the mistakes that he made, saying that, yes, I've made some mistakes, and you've read about them all on the front page of the newspapers.

One of the key things...

CAVUTO: But be careful there. I mean, when it came to Iran Contra(search), Ronald Reagan didn't admit the dimensions of the mistake until sometime later. So it can be a little bit like me saying as a kid, "Yes, I ran the car into the garage," but you probably noticed it months ago, right?

JOHNSON: Exactly. But I mean, Reagan did come out and finally admit it, in Iran Contra, that yes, he did make a mistake.

Whereas both of these candidates we're seeing, neither one wants to admit that they've ever made a mistake. And that's what usually gets a politician into trouble. It's what got Richard Nixon into Watergate. It'a what got Bill Clinton into the Monica Lewinsky affair, not owning up and admitting to the mistake and moving on.

And if I were advising both of these candidates, I would say yes, admit it and then move on. Neither one of these candidates have done so and have painted themselves into a corner right now.

CAVUTO: So the John F. Kennedy approach after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Even though a lot of that germinated under the prior administration, he owned up for it. It set the stage for how effectively he could deal with the Cuban missile crisis, right?

JOHNSON: Exactly. And what we saw was the American people rallied around John Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs. And his popularity actually skyrocketed after that.

CAVUTO: All right. Now, in corporate America, I always think of Jim Burke of Tylenol and how he dealt with the Tylenol tampering cases. I remember that was one of my first big business stories that I covered. I'm probably dating myself there.

But one thing that impressed me about Burke at the time, it was a mistake not of his making or the company's making. These were people who'd tainted Tylenol capsules at the time. But he made good on returning any unused packaging.

And actually when all was said and done, Tylenol had a greater share of the pain reliever market after the fact than before.

JOHNSON: Exactly. In corporate America, one of the key aspects that we teach is go and confront the mistake and move on. Take responsibility, show how you're reacting.

In politics, though, what we often find is politicians are always thinking about their place in history. And they're afraid if they make a mistake, historians will later come and judge them harshly, especially if their mistake wasn't a mistake.

CAVUTO: So the example of, let's say, President Nixon, very grudging to admit any mistake, especially in the Watergate situation, and later on Bill Clinton with the Monica Lewinsky affair, it cost them both dearly.

JOHNSON: It cost Richard Nixon the White House and his standing in history. With Bill Clinton, it's cost him a little bit with his standing in history, and it brought on impeachment.

CAVUTO: All right. David Johnson, fascinating stuff. Appreciate it.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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