After the muckraking, simply make a comeback

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The Independent Online
LAUGH if you like - after recent events in British politics - but I think we are witnessing a shift in the significance of scandal as a bar to public advancement.

It is true that in the narrow world of Westminster the bar under which sinners must slither for admission has recently been lowered - as Tim Yeo and others will attest. But look beyond the House of Commons and we see the development of a comeback culture.

In Virginia, Colonel Oliver North announces, with fair expectations of success, a bid for election to the US Senate. The colonel's conviction for illegal arms-dealing by the very body he now seeks to join was, admittedly, reversed on a technicality, but the election of Senator Ollie North is still roughly equivalent to asking Robert Maxwell to keep an eye on your pension fund.

In Washington, Bill Clinton has recently faced probably the most serious gossip assault of any president in history, with allegations relating to his sexual and financial behaviour. And yet Clinton's approval ratings have risen since the bad publicity.

In the same city, where admitting to having smoked pot was until recently a serious problem for politicians, there is talk of Marion Barry being able to secure re-election as mayor, despite a jail term for possession of cocaine.

In Britain, Terry Venables has been appointed England football manager, despite his slowness in suing those who have accused him of financial irregularities. It is true that nothing has been proved against Mr Venables, and as an admirer I hope this remains the case. But the point is that the aura of uncertainty surrounding him is such that even the famously cautious BBC lawyers permitted breezy jokes about the England team being managed from Pentonville in this week's Any Questions? In recent memory, such a climate would have been enough to destroy his candidacy.

And so it seems that, outside of London SW1, grave charges no longer seem to subject a person's popularity to the usual effects of gravity. Until 1992 the 'character question' in American politics referred to whether or not there was scandal in the background of a candidate. Now, a candidate's 'character' seems to be judged by how well he or she handles the revelation of such scandals.

How do we explain the development of this second-chance mentality? There has always been great enthusiasm in American culture for the concept of 'recovery': from drug or alcohol abuse, poverty, bankruptcy or criminality. This has been applied to politicians' wives - witness the Betty Ford Clinics for alcoholics - but generally not to politicians. Even the establishment of a Richard M Nixon Clinic For Constitution-Abusers would not have saved him during Watergate.

That this has changed is because of the general distrust of politicians and political establishments as demonstrated in any recent western election you care to examine, except the 1992 one in Britain where anti-politics has been a more recent development.

This mood popularises the figure of the outsider, the politician at odds with the establishment. Bizarrely, this benediction seems to apply even to those - like Marion Barry - who put themselves outside the system through criminality, or those - like Oliver North - who are at odds with the political establishment because of helping to subvert the US Constitution. And yet both would-be returnees are surfing on the wave of anti-politics. Barry, as an African-American, is seen by poor black Democrats as the victim of racism; North is regarded by rich white Republicans as a victim of Washington liberals.

It should be remembered, in this context, that the official campaign tag of candidate Bill Clinton two years ago was 'the comeback kid', a reference to his status as the first modern presidential candidate to survive personal scandal. Clinton's luck is that, when facing allegations, he has generally been seen by Americans as a victim of the Republicans or - the second element in the birth of the comeback culture - of the media.

The idea of 'cultural relativity' - that Motown is as good as Mozart, if that is how it sounds to someone's ears - has been mentioned in this column before. But the media have encouraged their own twist on that philosophy. Readers and viewers increasingly subscribe to 'factual relativity': the feeling that no 'fact' about a public figure, whether favourable or damaging, has any more relevance than any other. The campaign commercial and the television 'Special Investigation' are regarded as merely different kinds of lies, to be judged with reference to personal prejudice.

A great deal of journalism depends on the ancient belief that there is no smoke without fire. It is the astonishing achievement of the modern media to have created the perception among consumers that there is no fire without smoke. Reports and allegations routinely arrive attended by such clouds of ethical doubt and windswept debris of irrelevance that the target is frequently provided with a protective smokescreen.

One of the reasons this has happened is that the press has taken too many stories from polluted sources. The majority of Clinton's accusers in Arkansas would be unwise to move into the second-hand car business. Supporters of Terry Venables are only too keen to see the fingerprints of their man's known enemies in the game on the Panorama report, and others.

This is the most serious consequence of the comeback culture, for it hugely complicates the delineation of the probity of public figures. Where will it end? Lorena and John Bobbitt, of the celebrated 'severed penis' case, also live in Virginia. Might one of them run against Colonel North for the Senate, with audiences warmly applauding their references to 'domestic cuts', or, indeed, to 'Congress'?

British politics, as we have seen, is the exception. An American Norman Lamont sacked as Treasury Secretary would not be loosening his tongue with a woman from the Times, but running for governor of his home state on an anti-administration ticket.

In cases of sexual controversy particularly, 'recovery' in Britain is complicated by the Christian/moralist wing of the Conservative Party, and by the long memories of the newspapers who originally called for the politicians' departure from office. Indeed, it is probably much harder for discarded ministers to return to office now than in the days of, say, the Parkinson affair, because of the breakdown in relations between the Conservative Party and its once-loyal press.

In general, the British spirit of forgiveness is strictly extra-curricular. Among slipped ministers, Edwina Currie has been resurrected from the bad eggs business as a best-selling novelist and David Mellor from his sex problems as a ubiquitous broadcaster. Professional forgiveness is slower. Even Lord Archer - who resoundingly cleared his name - struggles to find a market for the idea of himself as Conservative Party Chairman. In America, an Archer would be running for president on an anti- press platform.

Ah, well, when you look at it like that, perhaps there is a lot to be said for British unforgiveness.