Gavin Esler: A perfect sex scandal for the new Puritans

'Whatever you do,' Schieffer advised, ruefully, when news about Clinton and Lewinsky first broke: 'Don't do the interns'
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The Independent Online

Bob Schieffer, the veteran Texan newscaster on the CBS television network, once offered sound advice about Washington sexual scandals. It was a few years ago, right at the start of Bill Clinton's problems with someone nobody had ever heard of, a woman called Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky, as all the world now knows, was a White House intern, one of the young, unpaid, desperate-for-success volunteers who help do the most menial work in politicians' offices in the hope of somehow attaching themselves to the levers of power.

"Whatever you do," Schieffer advised, ruefully, when news about Clinton and Lewinsky first broke: "Don't do the interns."

How Bill Clinton, and his successor in this summer's sexual-scandal circus, Congressman Gary Condit, must have wished they had heeded Schieffer's sage advice. In Washington, you do not do the interns because the spectacle of those at the very top of the political food-chain playing with those at the very bottom is America's equivalent of Lady Chatterley having it off with the gamekeeper.

The Condit scandal will keep Washington entertained, and the rest of the US appalled, amused, and transfixed, throughout the long hot summer when politicians traditionally head to the beach and refuse to make news. But whatever the truth behind the three-month disappearance of Chandra Levy, 24, and her relationship with the blow-dried Congressman from California, the real importance of the scandal is, as always, the baleful light it sheds on how Washington works.

The city does not look sexy. It is full of starkly white neo-classical monuments, button-down men in button-down shirts and women who dress like your mother. Mini-skirts, Prada and Agnes B are for New York and LA. Washington is more America's equivalent of Marks & Spencer. When Americans think of Sex and the City, it has to be some other city. In Chicago, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Charleston, Miami and San Francisco, people have sex and they have fun. In Washington, they have dinner parties.

And the Washington high-powered dinner party is like a wake but without the corpse.

The powerful and wannabe-powerful assemble according to their pecking order in the hierarchy. They nibble a little food, mostly salad, and pretend to sip at one solitary glass of wine, which is usually left undrunk, to avoid being thought too wild.

The point of such cheerless socialising among the political élite is never fun. It is power. The city straddles the line between the northern states and the Old South, and perversely combines Northern charm and Southern efficiency. Public displays of puritanical religiosity mask the private perversions of the real Washington behind closed doors. This is the Washington in which J Edgar Hoover, the former FBI director, persecuted communists and homosexuals as security risks while keeping private his own sexual preferences, and storing up information on president Kennedy's sexual relationship with the mistress of a mafia godfather.

This is the Washington in which a Clinton adviser could lecture the president on values, responsibilities and morality while engaging in toe-sucking sessions with a prostitute in a downtown hotel. And this is the Washington in which, in years gone by, travelling with the president and the White House press corps meant seeking out hotels with the best bars, best martinis, best restaurants and best steaks. Nowadays, in the fake New Puritanism, travelling with the president involves seeking out hotels with the best gyms and best selections of bottled water. The Big Beasts of the Washington press corps used to be those who could drink three martinis before dinner. Now, they are those who run three miles before breakfast.

Gary Condit, sleek and fit, is absolutely at home in the phoney New Puritanism of a Washington of aerobics classes, lunchtime sports, low-cal diets and blow-dried members of Congress. But the truth, as is now equally clear, is that he is also at home in a city which has always celebrated power as the only real aphrodisiac.

Condit, until this scandal, was an obscure politician who had spent more than a decade in Congress without obvious distinction. He once appeared in a "Hunks of the House" calendar as Mr June. He rode a Harley-Davidson motorbike.

But now he joins the legions of Washington politicians known for their predatory attitude towards the least powerful and most ambitious people in the capital, the interns. And he also joins the roll-call of those whose powerful position intimidates the police and investigators, as he refuses to give a full public account of his actions.

A few years ago, Senator Bob Packwood from Washington State, one of the few Republicans genuinely respected within the women's movement for his pro-choice views on abortion, was exposed as a serial fondler of women. For years, Senator Packwood had been nicknamed "The Tongue" on Capitol Hill. He was also known among staff as Senator Peckerwood, but he managed to fend off scrutiny of his conduct for a long time, even though his reputation was such that he was not regarded by women as a safe travelling companion in elevators.

Similarly, the Clinton sexual scandals were never with women who might have been considered anywhere near his equal. The publicly exposed relationships of Mr Clinton were with the night club singer Gennifer Flowers, the unpaid intern Monica Lewinsky, and allegedly with Paula Jones. a lowly Arkansas state employee who claimed he propositioned her while he was governor. Mr Clinton has married a woman talented enough to become a senator, but his other relationships fall precisely into the pattern now repeated again by Gary Condit, of the powerful and the vulnerable.

The Condit affair re-affirms two other peculiarities about Washington. When I first lived in the city, a friend warned me that you can quite literally get away with murder there, but you cannot get away with parking illegally. Parking fines are a huge revenue-raising device for the impoverished city, and the law is rigidly enforced. But murder? Well, the murder rate in the city has gone down from its peak, but nobody pretends the District of Columbia police are in the Sherlock Holmes category when it comes to solving major crimes. That it has taken them eleven weeks to get this far in the Levy investigation is no surprise.

And the second peculiarity is that Washington scandals always result in a collision between what is sensible under the law and what is politically necessary. With Bill Clinton, his lawyers always wanted him to say nothing about the Lewinsky scandal. Defendant Clinton had the right to remain silent. But President Clinton had a completely different need – political survival. That meant, in the end, that he needed to trumpet his supposed innocence and talk publicly to the American people.

So it is with Congressman Condit. He is, we are told, not a suspect. But he has hired a tough Washington lawyer to argue his case. If he wishes to remain in politics, he will soon have to take the Clinton route and decide he needs to talk rather than behave as if he were facing prosecution.

Ms Levy's family will not rest until they know the truth. It will be one helluva summer.


The writer is a presenter on BBC News24 and a former BBC chief North America correspondent