Not long ago, as part of a piece I was writing on the rules of crisis management in the context of a high-profile legal controversy, I was lucky enough to talk on the phone to  former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese. I asked him who was responsible for the decision to send Ronald Reagan into the White House press room to admit to the Iran-Contra scandal.

"It was President Reagan," Meese said.

"Say again?" I sputtered, thinking I must have misheard. The immediate suspect in that scandal, involving secret sales of arms to Iran and the diversion of proceeds to the "contras," right-wing rebels trying to overthrow the left-wing government of Nicaragua, would inevitably be President Reagan himself.

"Yes," continued General Meese, "President Reagan's first reaction when he heard the bad news was, 'We've got to get this out. I'm walking down the hall [to the press room to] do it myself.' "

I shouldn't have been so amazed. Ronald Reagan was his own best crisis manager. He probably learned the rules from his early days in Hollywood and experience with the media.

So fast-forward almost exactly 20 years later. Someone in the Bush White House or Justice Department must have learned before the press or the rest of us that at least some of the U.S. attorneys had been fired for political, not "policy" or "performance-related" reasons. They knew this was contrary to what the Justice Department's senior officials, including the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, Paul J. McNulty, had told the Congress just weeks before.

We now know they discovered e-mails from the AG's chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, proving the political underpinnings of at least some of the firings. And they tried to get out front of the inevitable bad news story by releasing these e-mails before Democrats in Congress could.

Sounds like the technique we used in the Clinton White House. But as the Chicago Sun Times's Lynn Sweet wrote yesterday, the "the Bush White House was slow to react" because until the November takeover of the Congress by the Democrats, "they never had to. So they never had to learn the damage control lessons of the Clinton White House: do a document dump to get ahead of the congressional investigative committees. Get everything out. Avoid contradictions, of which, in this firing matter, there are plenty. Since there is not one in the Bush administration, invent a Lanny Davis, the Clinton White House counsel who handled scandal."

(In fact, while it's nice to be equated with effective crisis management, all the credit for the invention of the Clinton White House's preemptive "tell it all" strategy belongs to Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry.)

In fact, the recent "accept responsibility" press conference by AG Alberto R. Gonzales was not effective since it seemed to be only half-transparent, an oxymoron. The AG's passive tense and unfortunately familiar phrase, "mistakes were made," just didn't do it and never does. What was needed, as always, were specific answers to the two classic scandal questions dating back to Watergate, "What did you know and when did you know it?" And that didn't happen.

Of course, if the AG or the deputy AG were also aware that the previous public statements about "performance-related" firings were false, then either or both, as the top law enforcement officials in the land, would have no choice but to resign.

But I take both men at their word that they, too, had been misled by their staffs. Mismanaging crises is not an offense demanding resignation. If it were, both Republican and Democratic administrations would have difficulty keeping their top jobs filled.

The real mystery is why certain very smart people in the White House — people who know better about crisis-management rules and who must have known the truth — didn't immediately correct the  "performance-related" statements and get the bad story over with by admitting that many of the firings were, in fact, politically motivated.

Sure, Democrats would still have exploited this politically by protesting partisan firings of highly qualified professional prosecutors. I was disturbed too. But, honestly, not that much. I guess I felt somewhat "shocked, shocked" — about the same as the police captain in the movie classic, "Casablanca," when he discovered there was gambling going on in "Rick's" gambling casino.

That being said, what truly was and is disturbing were the phone calls to the New Mexico U.S. attorney by New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and local Congresswoman Heather Wilson.

The timing and context makes these calls particularly troubling. They were made in the closing days of the November '06 congressional elections. Congresswoman Wilson, a protege of Sen. Domenici, faced a close and tough reelection contest. She and Domenici admitted that during these calls they asked about the status of ongoing criminal investigations of local Democratic officials.

Aside from exhibiting a political deaf ear to how bad the appearances of such calls would be, they both could well have committed serious ethical violations. The fact that both of them took a while to step up and admit to making these calls says a lot. (Wilson, for example, spent a few days "no commenting" after the story broke before finally admitting to the calls.)

In sum: The "no spin" zone, to borrow Bill O'Reilly's favorite expression, is needed here — on all sides. Not too much "shock" or sanctimony from the Democrats; and not too much "but everyone does it" defense from the Republicans.

Because the public is not dumb, despite pundits and politicians who still think we are.

Everyone got it pretty quickly — it's "deja vu all over again": It's not the crime that is usually the more serious problem — it's the cover-up.

Will that Crisis Management 101 lesson finally be learned by politicians or corporate officials who are caught up in a scandal before the rest of us learn about it?

If you think sometime soon, I have a bridge in Brooklyn ready to be sold for $5.00.