‘Lying, grasping politicians have an easy ride. Unleash the next ‘Gotcha’’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Josh Felise

Photo: Josh Felise

There are two political scandals doing the rounds in the US media. The first involves the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, who retired in 2007. During his eight-­‐year tenure as the longest-­‐serving Republican Speaker, Hastert presented a somewhat shambolic, avuncular front that endeared him to both parties.

He wasn’t known for being especially honest or particularly careful about the moral and ethical reputation of the House. But he was thought to be a man of good character and wholesome values — and that counted for a lot.

However, last Tuesday Hastert pleaded not guilty to federal money laundering charges. It is alleged that he paid $3.5m (£2.3m) in cash to an unnamed individual in return for that person’s silence about having been sexually molested by Hastert some years ago. It turns out that the man whom everyone considered a good old-fashioned Washingtonian of the right sort may have been a paedophile who was being blackmailed by at least one of his victims.

The same day that Hastert entered his plea, an even bigger scandal was splashed across the front page of The New York Times. The newspaper revealed that the Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio isn’t rich. In fact, a thorough investigation of his finances showed Rubio has so many debts and so few assets that he is distinctly middle class. Oh, and he’s bad at paying his parking fines.

This may be a scandal in certain exclusive golf clubs, but the failure to be both a successful politician and a wealthy businessman isn’t exactly newsworthy — unless, of course, it’s the run-up to the presidential election. Potential candidates — Rubio among them — are elbowing and jostling for place until the actual primaries begin next February. For the media it’s open season until the nominations are finalised and the candidates become hermetically sealed.

The Rubio “exposé” prompted a backlash against the press’s apparent penchant for character assassination, and not just among his right-wing supporters. A growing complaint is that the media have an oversized and distorting role in the political process. Ever since the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, critics have been arguing that the combination of journalists’ egos and consumer-driven news cycles has turned politicians into unfair targets.

The problem, so the narrative goes, is not that venal politicians have their sins blown up out of proportion, but that “gotcha” reporting destroys worthy candidates before they can prove themselves.

Last year was the 30th anniversary of the Mondale-Ferraro Democratic presidential ticket. In 1984 Walter Mondale made history by appointing a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, to be his running mate against President Ronald Reagan and his vice-president George HW Bush. Almost immediately, what should have been a triumphant moment was overshadowed by questions about the murky finances of Ferraro’s husband. Her campaign, and eventually her reputation, never recovered from the stream of unsavoury revelations. In the election the Democrats carried only one state.

Four years later Gary Hart, the finest candidate who never was (according to many Democrats), looked certain to win the nomination — and probably the White House — until The Miami Herald exposed his affair with a woman named Donna Rice.

The rumours swirling around Hart at the time were hardly different from those surrounding many other candidates. But he was the only one who told the press: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” The Herald scoop led to Hart’s campaign being over in a matter of days.

The Hart scandal is said to have encouraged the growth of character culture, in which politics plays second fiddle to a candidate’s personal life. But the claim that the media have ruined politics because candidates are no longer able to be human beings or make mistakes is utterly ridiculous and self-serving.

The real problem with the media gauntlet that ensues once a candidate decides to run for office is that it is far too soft. It is lack of sunlight, not too much, that has precipitated the public’s distrust and disengagement from political institutions.

If only the media had been quicker to unmask Senator John Edwards, the running mate of John Kerry in the 2004 election and a candidate for the presidential nomination in 2008. That, at least, would have spared Americans months of weeping alongside Edwards as his wife fought a public battle against inoperable breast cancer. After this Oscar-worthy performance, Edwards had to suspend his 2008 campaign when it transpired that he had a mistress, a love child and a secret benefactor who was paying for their upkeep.

Unblinking scrutiny might even have prevented the rise of “Client 9”, whose predilections provoked shudders among the prostitutes who serviced him. Mr 9, also known as the New York governor Eliot Spitzer, ran on his reputation as Mr Clean. In seven years as state attorney-general, Spitzer led the charge against New York’s infamous prostitution rings. Moreover, he was known as “the Sheriff of Wall Street”. I believed in him. Millions believed in him. Spitzer took that belief and spent it in $10,000 increments on the kind of prostitution ring he once prosecuted.

There are so many political scandals in Washington, both recent and unfolding, I could fill this entire newspaper with stories of secret payments, blackmail, harassment, sex triangles, coercion, bribery — you name it.

It may be that Rubio and the other Republican candidates have nothing to hide (unlikely). But if something does show up, it’s not an automatic disqualifier.

Americans are not moral idiots; they can tell the difference between a mistake and a flaw. As for the apparent harm suffered by candidates; a trial by media at the beginning of a campaign is a lot easier than a trial by jury after they’re in office. Nobody looks good in an orange jumpsuit.

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