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.