Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

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

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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.

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