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

QA/BA - Agile

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

PPA Supply Teachers

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prima...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per annum: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prim...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Primary supply teacher Hertford...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Ebola virus in the US: How did the disease ever spread this far?

Sophie Harman
 

The most common question I am asked is 'How do I become a YouTuber?' This is my reply

Jim Chapman
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?