Whitewater as seen across the pond

March 29, 1994|By Simon Hoggart

AS NEWS of Whitewater crosses the Atlantic, we Europeans search again for the answer to the central question: Just what do you guys think you're doing?

This looks like the third presidency in the last six to be severely damaged -- perhaps crippled -- by a major scandal.

The other three, Ford, Carter and Bush, suffered from minor scandals, but you got rid of them anyway, at the first opportunity.

The received wisdom appears to be that it's not the details of Whitewater that count; what's important is the cover-up.

The subtext of that is: We don't care what happened all those years ago in Arkansas, a faraway state of which we know little.

All that does matter is what occurred in Washington, where Washington people can police the breaking of their own obscure and arcane rules.

Washington used to be called the Capital of the Free World, but since the fall of communism it's more like the Capital of the Whole World.

Yet it appears to run by a set of mores and customs as obscure to the rest of the world as the social practices of the Trobriand Islanders.

For example, we are told, Bernard Nussbaum had to resign as White House counsel because he took part in "inappropriate briefings."

I can't imagine a single head of government -- certainly not here in Britain or even in largely scandal-free nations like Canada and Finland -- who could survive if that particular charge were thought damaging.

Possibly the development of the scandal can be attributed to Republicans' exacting their revenge for Watergate and Iran-contra.

Possibly the American press, among the world's most conservative in its habits, feels comfortable going through the familiar motions once again.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the man who is ex officio the leader of the world finds himself stymied by distant events that everyone agrees are of little real importance. It's an astonishing situation.

For the rest of us, especially those who admire and even love the United States, this is depressing enough. But it heightens again a crucial fact: The means by which a president gets elected is increasingly incompatible with his role as world leader.

You demand total financial integrity from your politicians, while agreeing to a system that requires them to raise millions of dollars to have any hope of being elected.

You say in effect, "We will vote for you if you woo us at stupendous expense, but every penny you raise must be unblemished."

You also require that the president run for office in a unique and demotic American fashion.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton wear baseball caps to show they're regular guys; Francois Mitterrand wears the most expensive suits to show that he isn't, and he'd sooner wear a dead trout on his head than a baseball cap.

This matters only at the level of symbol. But writ large it means that the president always has to follow an essentially domestic agenda.

When the late Speaker Tip O'Neill observed that all politics is local, I don't imagine he meant that the local politics of swing states should be helping to determine America's day-to-day response in, say, Bosnia.

Sometimes the two interests mesh or at least don't conflict, as in the Middle East. But it's paralyzing for the United States and the world when that's not the case.

The problem has been hugely exacerbated by the Permanent Campaign.

The days when a president could follow his judgment for three and a half years, turning himself only briefly into a huckster, are long gone. In 19 of the past 25 years, the president has been up for re-election, and a modern presidency is largely a four-year TV commercial for the next campaign.

It's probably too late to get that toothpaste back into the tube.

But meanwhile the world looks on, fearing that its leader will be paralyzed by events of scant interest or significance to anyone at all -- perhaps this time, even inside the Beltway.

Simon Hoggart, former Washington correspondent for the Observer, now covers the British Parliament for the Guardian.

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