Rupert Cornwell: The strange virtue of Barack Obama

Out of America: A lack of juicy stories from the White House has left Americans to get their fill of sleaze via a fictionalised TV version

Share
Related Topics

In 1946 George Orwell wrote a famous essay, Decline of the English Murder. Whatever happened, he asked, to those crimes born of dark passions masked by petty bourgeois respectability that used to grip a nation? Here in Washington right now we have cause for a comparable lament: whatever happened to the White House scandal?

The thought occurred to me as I watched the first episode last week of a new TV drama series entitled Scandal. It's rip-roaring fun, a sort of amoral version of The West Wing, dealing with a high-powered PR outfit specialising in image-making and damage control for clients embroiled in scandal, including, soon, a president of the United States accused of having had an affair with a female aide. Sound familiar? The only problem is that these days, real-life Washington is desperately short of such nation-enthralling tales.

Broadly speaking, White House scandals can be divided into four categories: sex, corruption, abuse of power and downright incompetence – and virtually every recent administration has had its share of them. The Iran-Contra affair which nearly brought down Ronald Reagan was a combination of incompetence and abuse of power.

Of Bill Clinton, we need not speak. But his predecessor George H W Bush was seriously damaged when he was forced in late 1991 to jettison his chief of staff John Sununu, alleged to be living high on the taxpayer dollar. For his part, Clinton's successor, the younger Bush, was buffeted by Plamegate, with its sensational allegations that top White House aides had deliberately leaked the identity of the CIA agent Valerie Plame (an offence that is a federal crime) in order to punish her diplomat husband, a fierce public critic of the Iraq war.

Like many a political scandal, Plamegate was a desperately convoluted affair, but it mesmerised political junkies for the best part of four years. In the end, vice-president Dick Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, confirming the old Watergate adage that it's not the crime that matters, but the cover-up. In fact the leak did not come from the unfortunate Libby and appears to have been a complete accident.

But can you name an Obama scandal? Yes, there's been the routine hyperventilating from the opposing party about cronyism, and the usual grumbling about unjustifiable government extravagance. Michelle Obama has been accused of wasting taxpayers' money on expensive family trips, and the last week there were complaints about dozens of trips home to California by Leon Panetta, on special military flights costing $32,000 compared with $600-odd for a regular commercial flight. But what's a Defence Secretary supposed to do: discuss with the President whether to launch a commando strike against Osama bin Laden with the whole of cabin class listening in?

Yes, Obama has made his share of verbal gaffes. He accused the police of acting "stupidly" when they arrested his friend, the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, in 2009, and overstepped the constitutional mark the other day when he warned the Supreme Court not to mess around with his healthcare reform. Then there were those remarks to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev about missile defence that reporters overheard – but such "open mike" embarrassments are practically a rite of passage now for American presidents. Remember George W Bush's "Yo, Blair" and the rest?

But in Obama's three-plus years in office, that's been about it. The closest call was probably the Solyndra affair, involving a solar panel company (which you probably never heard of) that went bankrupt last year, losing $535m of federal government subsidies in the process. Republicans, who it should be noted are no great friends of alternative energy, worked themselves into a lather of indignation, claiming improper White House favouritism towards the company. But it soon emerged that the Solyndra project had originated with the George W Bush administration. End of indignation.

Obama now has a good chance of completing an entire term without a serious scandal, which given the circumstances would be remarkable. Bill Clinton correctly blamed much of his trouble on Republicans who were out to get him. Indeed, we might never have heard of Monica Lewinsky but for the politically motivated appointment of a special prosecutor to probe the Clintons' failed Whitewater land deal in Arkansas in the early 1980s. Whitewater was a non-scandal if ever there was one, but it provided the legal scaffolding for the Lewinsky investigation.

If anything, today's Republican animosity towards Obama is even fiercer, as shown by the absurd controversy over his birth certificate, and whether this president is a US citizen at all. What's more, the mechanism for trouble has been in place ever since the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms. Every pundit predicted that Obama's officials would be subpoenaed and subjected to death by a thousand cuts at House committee hearings. But it hasn't happened. Why?

Republicans would blame continuing infatuation with Obama on the part of the liberal mainstream media – but that is to ignore Fox News, conservative talk radio and the rest, whose endless ranting against the President have at least as large a public audience. Another factor may be the well-aired ethics problems of Congressman Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform which would conduct many of the hearings.

Simple battle fatigue is another theory. The special prosecutor investigations of Iran-Contra and Whitewater cost a fortune in public money, and hurt Republicans and Democrats in turn and in equal measure. Maybe a tacit truce has ben declared.

Some contend that there has simply been too much else happening. Bill Clinton's misadventures came in prosperous and relatively placid times. A scandal lives by the oxygen of news coverage, and what with wars, economic crisis and the fight over healthcare reform, perhaps there was no room for one on the front pages. There is, of course, one last possibility, that Barack Obama is indeed running an unusually clean ship. If so, then scandal addicts may have to rely on fictionalised television drama for a while yet.

React Now

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

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little