Only ethically dodgy candidates need apply

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The Independent Online
A SINISTER liar in the White House. A murderer in the Oval Office. An embezzler as President. A murdering, embezzling, lying President, pussy-whipped by his crazed wife. Macbeth on the Potomac, with Duncan dead and the murderous couple wondering what to do about Banquo. This is roughly the picture of the Clinton administration currently appearing in much of the world's media.

Even by the febrile standards of modern politics, it is surely remarkable to have reached a point at which the President of the United States is - as a result of an obscure Southern land deal years before his presidency, the 'Whitewater' deal - quite openly gossiped about in connection with 'murders': of the White House aide, Vincent Foster, who was reported to have committed suicide last July, and of various Little Rock figures, who died in shootings, plane crashes and other tantalising movie thriller exits in the last few years. Indeed, last week the Dow-Jones index badly slumped following a piece of chit-chat about Mr Foster's corpse having been hauled from a White House 'safe house' to the park where he was found.

It is important to stress that no public evidence yet exists to connect President Clinton with financial impropriety, never mind homicide. Perhaps those newspapers that have most enthusiastically pursued the Clintons are right to take the attitude they do. But, for the moment, what concerns me is the culture of lurid innuendo and allegation around the President, and its implications.

If, as seems likely, Congressional hearings into the Whitewater affair are conducted alongside the independent investigation of the Special Prosecutor, Robert Fiske, then a horrific statistic will be achieved. Four of the last six American presidents - Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton - would have spent a large portion of their administrations under Congressional investigation. And the two who didn't - Ford and Carter - became president in direct reaction to previous scandal. The alleged presidential misdemeanours - 'Watergate', 'Iran-Contra', 'Iraqgate' and 'Whitewater' - would also now cover the vast arena from domestic conduct, via foreign policy, to, in Clinton's case, behaviour before assuming the presidency.

So, if 70 per cent of US presidents since 1968 have required Congressional investigation - and 100 per cent since 1980 - there can be only two possible conclusions. Either it is only ethically dodgy people that now become president, or anyone who becomes president can now be made to look ethically dodgy, perhaps because of the complexity of modern politics or the ferocity of the contemporary media.

Which is it? There is little evidence that politicians themselves have changed. Suppose we look back before the era of Congressional suspicion and threatened impeachment began with Nixon. The liability in more recent media climates of Kennedy's womanising has often been discussed. But both the 35th president, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, had potential Whitewaters in their bottom drawer.

The dubious sources of the Kennedy family fortune would not have stood the kind of background search on candidates that is now standard. Johnson's biographer, Robert Caro, has revealed that, on the same day the president announced the sealing of his family millions in a 'blind trust', he installed an Oval Office hotline to the lawyers running the trust.

And so we revisit the mad paradox that popped up in the course of the recent British morality scandals: that, in a world generally agreed to have worsened - in terms of public morality and expectation of leadership - higher standards are imposed on those in office than was the case in nicer times.

This raises another question. We do not yet know whether President Clinton is guilty of anything. But is it possible that all the current media inflammation could result from what is actually only a small wound: a chink in the Chinese walls between an Arkansas bank and the state governor's office long ago? The answer is that it is perfectly possible and, if so, would be the consequence of a phenomenon in American culture that might be called the imitation game.

Although they publicly acknowledge that another Watergate would be disastrous for the governance and reputation of their nation, all American journalists, senators and representatives are permanently on the lookout for just such a democratic catastrophe to call their own. This is because Watergate brought fame and television exposure on an unprecedented scale to an earlier generation of their professions.

Thus, American senators and representatives in the Nineties suffer from a condition known as Congress Envy, as a result of which, having watched earlier hearings, they long to conduct a cross-examination of their own, live on CNN. (A British strain of Congress Envy has had the beneficial effect of toughening up House of Commons select committees. The Tory David Sumberg, unexpectedly fierce over the Pergau dam, is clearly a senatorial wannabe. God bless CNN.)

American journalism, once two writers from the Washington Post had been portrayed on film by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, was equally keen on a repeat. The mania for adding the 'Gate' suffix to all headline stories - so that the Kerrigan/Harding Olympic imbroglio became 'Skategate' - is partly an irritating linguistic tic, but betrays a deeper longing. The 'Whitewater' affair was particularly doomed to comparison, being the first to bring to the marriage the irresistible dowry of the word 'water' (hence 'Whitewatergate'), and spookily falling more or less on the 20th anniversary of Watergate.

To be fair, neither media nor politicians have suggested that 'Watergate' and 'Whitewatergate' are identical: they have hinted that the latter adds to the mix murder and, in the person of Hillary Clinton, a lesson on the dangers of feminism. But that a presidency can attain this air of crisis - and administrative stasis while awaiting results of investigations that may take nearly two years - in the absence of any evidence is a grave matter.

If serious wrongdoing is proved, then 'Whitewater' is a story about Bill and Hillary Clinton. But if, as seems currently more likely, the investigations end only in an inconclusive sense of stain, threatening re-election, then it becomes a story about America. To any on the right who try to use the Whitewater case as a told-you-so about Clinton, it should be pointed out that the report of the last-but-one Special Prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, implicating George Bush in 'Iran-Contra', would have fallen smack at the beginning of a Bush second term, had there been one.

In the background of every man who unsuccessfully sought presidential nomination in 1992, there was one little scab of scandal - a family restaurant chain in one case, some political lobbying work in another - which, had they gone further, could have been scratched and inflamed in the Whitewater style.

Americans may soon have to ask themselves: who are we going get to run our country, and how will they run it, while these standards and these processes prevail?