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Scandal & the Road to Deadlock

Gaze upward, through the gaseous clouds of rhetoric littering the sky from the campaign that would not end—“I will never let you down,” “I will restore honor and dignity to the White House”—and you can spy, casting a shadow on the land like Barthelme’s Dead Father, an enormous pair of lips, belonging not to the Vice President or the Texas governor but to a young woman from Beverly Hills who one fateful day delivered a slice of pizza to the President of the United States. Scandal transformed what should have been an election commanded by a competent if boring incumbent seeking to ride unprecedented prosperity at home and peace and tranquillity abroad. The politics of scandal, of revelation, investigation, and prosecution, born of partisan deadlock and a widely excluded electorate, ended by producing the closest election in more than a century—and, inevitably, more scandal in its turn.

What happened yesterday,” Pat Buchanan declared on November 8 with characteristic swagger, “was the American people voted to convict Bill Clinton.” Better say they had chosen to punish his would-be successor for a fatal lack of subtlety. That Americans continue to approve Clinton’s performance by historic margins and yet feel obliged to disdain him personally attests to the President’s extraordinary suppleness as a politician. His would-be successor faced the obvious challenge of claiming the glittering mantle—the lowest inflation and unemployment in a generation, deficits magically transformed into surpluses, eight years of declining crime, and on and on—without drinking from the poisoned chalice. This trick the lumbering Al Gore never mastered. Clinton managed to “separate himself” from Clinton much more adroitly than Gore ever could.

Condescending in manner, chameleon-like in his relentless attempts to court the undecided, Gore never achieved intimacy with voters, and the calculation evident in his desperate efforts to distance himself from Clinton worsened his own “character problem.” Unable to shed Clinton’s moral baggage and still lay claim to the administration’s accomplishments, Gore ended by relinquishing the vital advantage of the successful incumbent: the appeal to continuity. Running as “my own man,” he gave invaluable cover to the inexperienced Governor George W. Bush, who felt free to proclaim, without risk of decisive refutation, “They had their chance. They have not led. We will.” Gore’s clumsy refusal to let Clinton campaign for him made the President’s “shadow” ubiquitous and left the Vice President himself seeming ungrateful and untrustworthy. The smiling Texas governor seized on Gore’s predicament, emphasizing the Vice President’s proclivity for “flip flops” and “exaggerations” and intoning solemnly and relentlessly the need to “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” Though the Clinton impeachment scandal had been deeply controversial, and voters had punished Republicans for it in the 1998 congressional elections, leading to the overthrow of Newt Gingrich, Bush could allude to the scandal without fear of backlash, for he knew he was attacking a sitting target. Gore had trapped himself by his refusal even to broach the impeachment and thus could say nothing of the Republicans’ highly unpopular record of carrying “partisan bickering” to new depths in Washington. The unexorcised ghost of Clinton, unmentioned but always present, haunted Gore and did him only harm.

Shortly after Clinton’s reelection and years before Americans had heard of White House interns, Boyden Gray, Bush père‘s former White House counsel, predicted that because of continuing Republican-led investigations in Congress, “Clinton will be debilitated.” That Gray’s prophecy came bitterly true for Al Gore testifies to the current dominance in Washington of “politics by other means.” In their book of that name, Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter describe in detail how, during the last quarter-century,

elections have become less decisive as mechanisms for resolving conflicts and constituting governments…. Rather than engage in an all-out competition for votes, contending political forces have come to rely upon such weapons of institutional combat as congressional investigations, media revelations, and judicial proceedings to defeat their foes.1

Since Watergate, all the ingredients of this “politics of scandal” have been ready to hand: a closely divided government, often with one party controlling Congress and the other the White House; an alienated electorate sharply divided by class, age, gender, and income, in which only one voter in two casts a presidential ballot; and a powerful and omnipresent communications industry complete with twenty-four-hour news channels hungry to sell scandalous “mega-stories” to eager viewers. John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, Richard Nixon, Jim Wright, Tony Coelho, Oliver North, Samuel Pierce, John Tower, Newt Gingrich, Web Hubbell, Bill Clinton; Watergate, Iran-contra, the Keating Five, Travelgate, Whitewater, Lewinsky: these names and nicknames have defined American politics for the last quarter-century.

In the hard-fought, down-to-the-wire election of 2000, one eligible voter in two did not vote. The major parties, beneficiaries of a corrupt funding system, spent more than a billion dollars in advertising, almost all of it “targeted” by issue and by television market to those, like the elderly and the suburban middle class, already known to vote in relatively large numbers. Neither party sees an interest in delivering a message that might mobilize the voters who never turn out. Republicans fear that most of them, poorer and less well educated, would be more likely to favor Democrats; Democrat incumbents fear that these millions of “great unwashed” might prefer that others occupy their now safe seats.

Victories at the polls are thus limited, circumscribed; real combat follows the election, when the congressional committees and the special prosecutors begin their work. In this they are greatly aided by a broadcast and print press that is “not liberal-leaning but ‘scandal-leaning,’”2 whose pundits have learned through long practice to combine artfully the lucrative appeal of sex and scandal with the chiding moral disapprobation displayed by Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer “interviewing” a scantily clad stripper.

Deadlock breeds scandal; scandal has now bred deadlock. Only serious reform offers a hope of eventually breaking this cycle. And yet can anyone imagine the incoming government passing effective laws to limit the sway of money in politics, opening up the electoral regime with an eye toward making voting easier, and championing issues that would attract to the polls millions of currently ignored and disaffected voters? To ask the question is to answer it. Born of relentless contention, the new president’s “mandate” will be limited and uncertain, much more so than Bill Clinton’s was when he arrived at the White House in 1993 after winning only a plurality. Reform will be out of the question. The knives will be out. Soon committees will be organized and prosecutors will be at their work. The press will hover and feed. The politics of scandal will hold sway. Gaze upward: only the spectacles will change.

November 15, 2000

  1. 1

    Politics by Other Means: Politicians, Prosecutors, and the Press from Watergate to Whitewater (Norton, revised edition, 1999), p. 16.

  2. 2

    The phrase was used by Paul Begala, the former Clinton adviser and current cable television commentator.

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