Tuesday Book: Washington's school for scandal

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The Independent Culture
THE 25 years since Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace has not been a vintage era for the American presidency. The office has lost power even as retinues of courtiers, security details and other trappings of power have grown more bloated. To use the league tables Americans love, none of its recent occupants can be classified as "great" or even "near- great".

Instead of great deeds, there have been great scandals, and independent counsels probing them. Indeed, the presidents, the scandals and the counsels almost constitute a parallel history: Nixon, Watergate and Archibald Cox; Ronald Reagan, Iran-Contra and Laurence Walsh; most recently, Bill Clinton, the Lewinsky affair and Kenneth Starr.

Looking back, a couple of things are clear. The independent counsel law, signed by Jimmy Carter in 1977 as a down payment on his promise of a post- Watergate cleansing of government, was an unmitigated disaster. Inadvertently, a virtual fourth branch of government was created, controlled by and responsible to no one.

By the end, Starr was conducting a rolling, real-time investigation of whatever he chose at the Clinton White House. So the trail led from the obscure Whitewater land deal in the early Eighties to a few bouts of furtive sex with a White House intern in a windowless anteroom of the Oval Office between 1995 and 1997.

I remain convinced that Clinton should have resigned out of shame at the humiliation visited on his country by the Lewinsky affair. But it was never the stuff of impeachment.

Iran-Contra, a secret White House operation in defiance of official policy and the law of the land, indubitably was. And Iran-Contra was infinitely more serious than Watergate. All that saved Reagan was his own reputation for dotty incompetence.

Who better than Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post duo who unearthed Watergate, to explain it all? He is a charming man, a gifted listener with a knack of making important people spill the beans, who has talked to almost everyone who has mattered in Washington since Richard Nixon.

One of the few he did not talk to was George Bush. Everyone had to do their own thing, the former president wrote to Bob Woodward - mixing metaphors in his own inimitable style - saying: "Mine is to stay the hell out of Dodge [City] - and do as the old Chinese mandarin adage says: `Stand on sidelines, hands in sleeves'."

Clinton, too, declined to help. But, for the most part, the movers and shakers of Washington have found that a work-out with the six-guns in Dodge City in the company of Bob Woodward is far preferable to inscrutable oriental discretion.

Shadow, however, accomplishes a notable feat. The Lewinsky affair was a scandal to beggar belief, a spotlight on the fleshly weaknesses - but also the extraordinary resilience - of one of the most fascinating occupants of the White House.

Yet Woodward's account is a monumental bore. The style is plodding, the tone monotonous, with hardly a shaft of insight or judgement to illuminate it. The excuse, of course, is that facts should be allowed to speak for themselves. But facts have to be marshalled, and made digestible. Politics is process, but it is also people.

Shadow offers barely a whiff of the growing mutual loathing between Clinton and Starr, which largely drove the scandal in its later stages.

We deserve better from Bob Woodward. He is no mere beat reporter, but a man who has lived and breathed Washington at its highest levels for a quarter of a century. No one knows more about the way the modern presidency works. No one is better qualified to make comparisons and draw lessons. But, apart from a limp and tiny epilogue, he does not do so.

Woodward draws two conclusions, neither very original. The first is the old cliche that the only way to cope with a scandal is to get the facts out as completely and quickly as possible. Easier said than done - especially when the scandal is of excruciating personal embarrassment, and desperately wounding for one's family.

His second point, with which, again, few would argue, is that Vietnam and Watergate have left the presidency a circumscribed and weakened office. Thanks to public cynicism (in part fuelled by the endeavours of a generation of reporters who modelled themselves on Woodward), the mystery of the office has been largely stripped away. What remains is a gap between the myth of the all-powerful and heroic president and the reality that, in domestic matters at least, he ranks among the least powerful Western heads of government.

In frustration,Woodward maintains, Nixon's successors have rebelled - none more so, and in such self-defeating fashion, than Bill Clinton. His misfortune was to run up against Ken Starr, uniquely unable to see the mismatch between the offence and the proposed punishment. In the end, both men lost. But at least the independent counsel statute has now been scrapped. American government may ultimately prove to be the winner.