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

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Technical Sales Manager

£45000 - £53000 Per Annum plus bonus plus package: The Green Recruitment Compa...

Humanities Teacher

£110 - £135 per day + Competitive Rates: Randstad Education Maidstone: Outstan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
US first lady Michelle Obama (2nd L) and her mother Marian Robinson (L) share a light moment with Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd R) and his wife Peng Liyuan  

Europe now lags behind the US and China on climate change. It should take the lead once more

Joss Garman
Former Tory MP Douglas Carswell (right) has joined Ukip but this won't stop the existing Ukip candidate for Clacton, Roger Lord, from challenging the ex-MP for the right to represent the party in the forthcoming by-election  

Carswell’s defection was a nightmare for Cameron but disaffected Tories would be wise to stay put

Steve Richards
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor