LM Comment
  6:34 pm GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar
01 February 1998

Sex scandals

James Heartfield explains why he's not prepared to swallow the latest stories coming from the White House

For the last two weeks America and Britain have been in the grip of sex scandals - scandals about American President Bill Clinton's alleged adultery and harassment of women, and scandals about British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's separation from his wife and relationship with his lover.

This is one instance where LM Online is happy to rally to the defence of Messrs Clinton and Cook. Not only are the allegations against them trivial, but even if they were entirely true they would be of no account.

The gravest charges against President Clinton are those made by Paula Jones in a sexual harassment suit that is being supported by the Special Investigator Kenneth Starr. Paula Jones' allegations, even if they were true, are at worst the description of a misunderstanding between two adults. But without any direct evidence they are simply unprovable. The attempt to 'establish a pattern of behaviour' by dredging through the President's past are a scurrilous attempt to smear Clinton and prejudice people against him - in the hope that prejudice will substitute for a real case.

The latest tittle-tattle standing in for news reporting is the Monica Lewinsky allegations. This parlour room gossip is dressed up as 'serious allegations' on the spurious grounds that Clinton told Lewinsky to perjure herself in the Jones' trial by denying an affair. But again there is no proof behind these allegations.

Similarly, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has been berated for trying to sack a civil servant so that he could get his girlfriend Gaynor Regan the job. (Which he didn't give her, in any case.) Cook is also challenged for taking Regan along on foreign trips as his spouse. These high moral principles about perjury, perks and civil servants are just an excuse for Conservatives and Republicans to stir up the sexual scandals and keep them in the public eye.

According to Hillary Clinton, the allegations against her husband are part of a right-wing conspiracy. It is true that opponents of the Democratic Party have rallied behind Kenneth Starr, but there is no need for a conspiracy theory to explain the scandals.

In fact the descent into scandal has more to do with the failures of the right-wing opposition - in Britain and in America. Rather than contesting the policies of Blair and Clinton, their opponents have latched onto sexual and other scandals to make up for their lack of a political alternative to New Labour and New Democrats alike.

But more than the politicians, it is the press that has fuelled the scandal-mania. The British press are preoccupied with Labour scandals in much the same way that they obsessed on Tory scandals in previous years. Labour's honeymoon with the press would seem to be over (though Tony Blair has managed to rise, presidentially, above the gutter-sniping).

There is a great deal for which the British press could criticise the Blair government. Labour's many attacks on civil liberties and its refusal to pay the nurses the award recommended by the independent review are obvious examples. But New Labour is rarely criticised for its policies. There is a consensus in Britain that political differences are best swept under the carpet, in case they provoke any real conflict.

In America, too, there is no real criticism of what Bill Clinton is doing - except what he does with his fly open. Revelations about the CIA's role in assisting the Mexican government's deaths squads against the Chiapas have been largely ignored as the media have zeroed in on his zipper. Bipartisanship is the order of the day between the Democratic President and the Congressional Republican majority. There the press are equally craven about the President's policies.

The British and American press both glory in their role as a check on the power of the politicians. But the truth is that the press have manufactured bogus scandals to embarrass the politicians, while going along with all the regressive social policies - from criminalising children to welfare cutbacks.

An additional force behind the US scandals has been the role of the Special Investigator Kenneth Starr. The existence of this permanent legal investigator into any and all allegations against the incumbent President is a sneak's charter. Any accusation, no matter how cranky, is investigated, without any end-point ever coming into view. Starr began looking at the Whitewater affair - an investigation into real estate speculation. Now Starr has lumped in the latest sexual harassment scandals.

Starr is alleged to be politically motivated. He might well be, but the principal motivation is the office itself. The role of Special Investigator was created after the Watergate era, as a check on the power of the President. It was characteristic of the left then that they would try to achieve by legal activism what they failed to do at the ballot-box: get rid of Richard Nixon. The creation of a special investigator with a roving brief to investigate allegations against the President might as well be designed to generate scandals. Starr's office is a magnet for 'smoking bimbos' and conspiracy theorists.

The way that Kenneth Starr has crippled the American political process should be a warning of what the future in Britain will be like. The Special Investigator is the model for the Nolan and Downey enquiries into parliamentary sleaze. Far from lifting the smell of corruption from the Palace of Westminster, the recent attempts at parliamentary regulation will foster more investigations and more newspaper-driven scandals. The creation of an unelected office, with greater powers than those of Parliament is a dangerous precedent. Those powers are designed to be used against politicians and they will - irrespective of whether the scandals have any substance or not.

Already the so-called opposition has taunted the Prime Minister with the recently published Code of Conduct for Ministers alleging that Cook is in breach of it for taking Gaynor Regan abroad with him. That just illustrates the problem of publishing the Code of Conduct. Instead of criticising the government's policies, the temptation is to fixate on their 'conduct' - as if politics were reducible to good behaviour. It will not be long before the demands for new Downey enquiries are made, and a government that has made a fetish out of moral rectitude will find it difficult to fend them off.

The only real grounds for complaint against these politicians' sexual adventures is that it would be a nice idea if they did some work instead of fooling around. Perhaps political leaders who dedicated more time and effort to the problems in society would command more respect. After all, it is the political leaders themselves who have made their own personal lives and behaviour the be-all and end-all of their political activity. Bill Clinton should think twice about forcing his family life down the throats of the American people. And Robin Cook should be more circumspect about 'ethical foreign policy'. If politicians will insist on reducing politics to a morality play about personal behaviour, they should expect that their own personal behaviour will come under scrutiny.

The one piece of good news from America is that the American public are wholly unmoved by the latest scandal, and the President's poll-ratings how no lasting surge of feeling against him. Indeed the latest polls show Clinton's support running at around 72 per cent - about what Reagan achieved in his heyday. Newsmen take note. Your prurience is not necessarily shared by the public. In particular the Republican Party failed to make any hay while Monica Lewinsky's sun was shining. Looking at the near-paralysis of the right in the face of the new style of politics promoted by Clinton and Blair, that is not surprising.

The bad news - though well told - is in David Mamet's screen-play to the film 'Wag the Dog', showing now acros the USA. In Mamet's film an American President embroiled in a sex scandal launches a war against a small country (Albania) to distract attention from his domestic problems. (Michael Moore had a George Bush-like President (Alan Alda) start a war against Canada in his straight-to-video classic 'Canadian Bacon'.)

In the lead-up to the Paula Jones hearings American spies known as 'weapons inspectors' provoked a fresh confrontation with Iraqi Premier Saddam Hussein. Robin Cook pledged British support for any American action against Saddam, while the other members of the UN Security Council balked at a renewed conflict. These staged conflicts have served as a useful distraction for American Presidents, regularly coinciding with the Presidential and Congressional elections and resulting in the deaths of innocent Iraqis. Already the Arab press is referring to the growing conflict as 'The War of Clinton's penis'. This gruesome human sacrifice to the virility of the American presidency must stop. Bill Clinton and Robin Cook should make love, not war.

Join a discussion on this commentary



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk