You don't say 'family', we won't say 'bimbos'

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The Independent Online
A common trick of terrorists is to clutch a civilian hostage to them as they rush from the seized plane or building to the getaway vehicle. Snipers cannot take out one without killing the other.

For liberals and conservatives, the same dilemma arises from the sex scandals currently engulfing Washington and London, in which Bill Clinton is accused of multiple philandering while governor of Arkansas, and Tim Yeo, the environment minister, a married man, has admitted fathering a love child.

The easy - and popular - way out on these occasions is, if you agree with the politicians' views, to argue that the sex is irrelevant but, if you do not agree with the policies, to thunder that the moral line must be drawn somewhere and he should go.

Their tactic is more problematical in the matter of Bill and Tim's sexual adventures. The liberal and the conservative politician cling together at the door of the same besieged building. Is there really enough daylight between them to choose the one we shoot?

Let us begin with the larger target. A little less than two years ago, in the ice of New Hampshire, I arrived to report the then nascent White House campaign of Governor Bill Clinton. One of the great sages of US political journalism gently advised me to find another candidate, because no presidential contender had ever survived the kind of sexual dirt that had just been shovelled over Clinton by Gennifer Flowers.

Clinton's survival and triumph raised two possibilities. The first was that America had woken up to the stupidity of allowing disgruntled beauty queens and sleazy magazine editors to choose the President as a by-product of enriching themselves. The second was that 1992 was a freak year, economic distress overcoming moralistic fervour for one night only.

The quantity of coverage given to the sub-Gennifer stuff bleated by two of Clinton's Arkansas guards - although the US press has been generally more restrained than gleeful right-wing newspapers here - suggests the second explanation applies.

Two justifications are generally given for examination of a politician's sex life. The first is the prissy syllogism that 'if a man would cheat on his wife, he would cheat on his country'. But Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter were, by most accounts, strong husbands but weak presidents. I would guess that Pat Nixon knew where Dick was every night. The problem was that the American people couldn't be sure where he was during the day. Conversely, it is a sad but obvious fact that, to many of those men to whom he gave unusual political nous, God handed out too much testosterone as well.

The second excuse for prurience towards rulers is that leaders, tacitly or explicitly, set examples to the nation and thus their own slips from grace are hypocritical. But Bill Clinton, unlike many senior US politicians, has never publicly claimed that he has led an entirely decent life.

And, if the United States does wish to impose strict standards of sexual morality on its leaders, then it must properly address the Kennedy paradox. A month ago in Dallas, I watched people weep and cross themselves at the minute of the 30th anniversary of JFK's assassination. If only he had lived, they said then, and millions of middle-aged Americans say it daily. They construct a cult of stolen greatness. But, if JFK had lived, he would have been trashed weekly by bimbo anecdotes in the supermarket magazines. If he had run for President in the Eighties, he wouldn't have got beyond New Hampshire before the first high-heel fell on television.

So we tell the snipers not to fire at Bill Clinton. Must we let Tim Yeo escape as well? It is, in fact, possible to find an inch of daylight between the men. Mr Yeo belongs to a government that has moralised remorselessly. Here's the Education Secretary wanting children to be taught about Hell. There's the Prime Minister banging on about 'back to basics'. Mr Yeo himself has commented about the number of single mothers in Britain: a volume to which he now proves to have added. Is this not a little inconsistent?

Yes, it is. But there is now also a clear precedent in Britain that politicians do not leave office because of sexual scandal alone. Paddy Ashdown didn't. Steven 'Five Mistresses' Norris didn't. David Mellor presented himself as a victim of a rumpy-pumpy fuss, but it is probable that what did for him was the acceptance of iffy hospitality. For Yeo to fall now would reimpose a standard likely to encourage bad journalists and discourage good politicians.

The solution to these difficulties is a deal between voters and leaders. We will stay out of their private lives if they stay out of ours. There will be a sort of balance of morality, in the style of the balance of terror attempted during the Cold War. No first use of 'family values' by their side; no first use of 'bimbos' by ours. This stand-off would be abandoned only in cases of actual legislation pertaining to the family or in situations where politicians' sexuality overlapped with corruption or national security.

Under this arrangement we would be spared speeches about 'family values' and 'parental responsibility' by Conservative governments riddled with adulterers and others who use their mouths in public for moralistic speeches and in private for quite different activities.

By these rules, a president whose penis really did lead his administration or his nation into risky or suspicious areas could properly be challenged. But the United States would not be restricted in its choice of leaders to men who happened, by luck or devotion, to have remained true to their partner (or hidden well the contradictory evidence), while promiscuously indulging in numerous more religiously acceptable stupidities.

Certainly, a nation that uncritically venerates the ghost of John F Kennedy, while simultaneously chasing its incumbent president through long-empty bedrooms, has quite clearly - to use an appropriate English expression - got its knickers in a twist.

By these criteria as well, Tim Yeo would remain in office, but he must first make a public undertaking never to mention the word 'family' in a political context ever again. His government colleagues, too, should be reassured that, as long as they hold off on the judgemental adjectives, we will keep back the moralistic dogs.

Hamish McRae's column returns next week.

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