Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Those oversized egos on Capitol Hill, and why I was rooting for George Galloway

Share

Consider America's colossal budget deficit, its botched health care reform and the rest, and you realise that competent law-making is not exactly the forte of Congress. But when it comes to looking after their political reputations, members of the US Senate have few peers. For proof, consider the bizarre little affair of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, as many readers will know, is an online encyclopedia, whose distinction is that it can be edited by anyone. In one sense, this feature merely formalises what every journalist knows: whatever you write, and however thoroughly you research a subject, there is always someone out there who knows more about that subject than you do. By and large, this goes for Wikipedia.

But you have to take it on trust that contributors are acting in good faith, motivated only by a desire to promulgate the truth. That principle, alas, does not apply when eager-beaver young aides on Capitol Hill, concerned above all else to spruce up the image of their boss, get in on the act.

In fact, the first falsification case to crop up here on Wikipedia had nothing to do with Congress. Last November, it emerged that its biography of John Siegenthaler, the retired journalist, writer and one-time aide to Robert Kennedy, had been altered to suggest Mr Siegenthaler had lived for 13 years in the Soviet Union and might have been involved in the JFK assassination. The victim of this slander was understandably outraged, and Wikipedia launched an investigation. In the end, a culprit came forward, who said the whole thing was intended as a prank and that he didn't think anyone took Wikipedia seriously.

Congressional aides, however, clearly take it very seriously. That is why, for example, someone airbrushed out references to plagiarism in the bio of Democratic Senator and possible 2008 presidential candidate Joe Biden (he's the garrulous law-maker who, back in 1988, had to drop a bid for the White House when it was revealed he had stolen words from, of all people, Neil Kinnock).

It also explains why assistants of Norm Coleman, the ambitious Republican Senator from Minnesota, amended his Wikipedia entry to describe their boss as an "activist" in his university days and not a "liberal" - perish the thought. This, too, is why a reference to a false claim by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa that he flew combat missions in Vietnam conveniently vanished from his entry.

To be fair, there has been black-washing as well as whitewashing. Someone got hold of the entry on Oklahoma's Republican Senator Tom Coburn (who is said to have described global warming as "a load of crap" and homosexuality as "the greatest threat to America") and inserted in his bio the claim that colleagues had once voted him "most annoying senator". Robert Byrd, the curmudgeonly, pompous Senator from West Virginia who loves showing off his knowledge of Roman law and history, has been another deserving victim. Mr Byrd has been in the Senate for almost half a century. He's 88 years old, but some wit neatly changed that to 180 on Wikipedia. Whether 88 or 180, the odds are he'll run again this autumn.

The offending edits have been removed, and Wikipedia has blocked various entries to prevent further meddling. It is a footling affair. But it illustrates a real problem. Why is it that such lampooning is confined to surreptitious adjustments on a rather esoteric website? Why is there no regular forum where the oversized and over-sensitive egos of many of America's politicians are cut down to size?

That was why I and not a few others were quietly rooting for George Galloway when he defended himself last year before a congressional sub-committee investigating the Iraq oil-for-food controversy. His preening, mendacious glibness is appalling. But finally someone was giving as good as he got (or a good deal better than he got) to the sanctimonious Mr Coleman, the sub-committee's chairman, and his colleagues - and without the presence of single lawyer to protect him.

But on Capitol Hill, a Galloway moment comes along only every decade or so. If only Washington had its equivalent of a racy, gossipy British tabloid or a local version of Private Eye, I find myself thinking for the umpteenth time - a publication for whom the bigger the reputation, the more tempting the target.

The Washington Post is a splendid newspaper, but the serious skewering of politicians is not its strong point. Surrounded by small armies of aides, almost never forced to defend themselves in serious debate, the grandees of Capitol Hill have a ridiculously easy time of it compared with their opposite numbers at Westminster. And even the strange tale of the Senators and Wikipedia is unlikely to change that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there