What is scandal? It’s easier to say what it is not, and the main thing it is not is partisan. If, that is, Democrats think something a Republican president has done should be seen as scandalous, it means nothing unless at least a quorum of Republicans think so too. And vice versa. What may be the quorum of the other party prepared to agree that their own man has stepped over the line is not certain, but the experience of Watergate, that great paradigm of our national scandalology, suggests it is high. Richard Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974, is widely supposed to have been precipitated when Barry Goldwater told the President that there were fewer than ten Republican Senators remaining who would vote against conviction if he were impeached, as he seemed certain to be at the time.
But Watergate also made its own contribution to the moralization of politics which has, in turn, made it much more difficult for potential scandals to clear that partisan bar. The difficulty is increased when, as in Watergate, the supposed scandal is partisan in nature to begin with. Nixon’s suspicion of Democratic disloyalty is what set the whole thing in motion. Democrats were of course outraged by this, but the feelings among many other Republicans who had witnessed the capture of the party of Johnson and Humphrey by anti-war activists were likely to be in some sympathy with Nixon’s doubts. That’s one reason why it has since become a truism that what brought about Nixon’s downfall was not the crime but the cover-up — and why this is so often seen as the pattern for subsequent scandals, such as that which got Bill Clinton impeached.
These reflections are not just academic. In today’s Guardian, there is a new attempt from the left to tar President Obama with scandal. Glenn Greenwald, who has been trying for some time to make scandal out of the President’s promiscuous use of targeted killings by drone-strike, thinks he has found new and even more damning material in a New York Times article on Sunday which revealed that the Obama adminstration had made an attempt last summer to put in place legal and oversight restrictions on the use of drones when it began to seem possible that the unrestricted powers the President now enjoys might fall into the hands of a Republican. Here is how Mr Greenwald imagines Mr Obama’s reasoning:
I’m a Good Democrat and a benevolent leader; therefore, no limits, oversight, checks and balances, legal or Constitutional constraints, transparency or due process are necessary for me to exercise even the most awesome powers, such as ordering people executed. Because of my inherent Goodness and proven progressive wisdom, I can be trusted to wield these unlimited powers unilaterally and in the dark.
Things like checks, oversight and due process are desperately needed only for Republicans, because — unlike me — those people are malevolent and therefore might abuse these powers and thus shouldn't be trusted with absolute, unchecked authority. They — but not I — urgently need restrictions on their powers.
“This mentality,” he adds, “is not only the animating belief of President Obama, but also the sizable portion of American Democrats which adores him.” In a less polarized and partisan world, one could imagine how such double-dealing might be seen as scandalous, even if the targeted killings — many of them, according to the Times article, of people whose names and terrorist connections are completely unknown but who have the terrorist “signature” — were not. But on this side of the Atlantic, the President’s easy assumption of moral privilege over his inferiors in the other party has hardly been noticed — presumably because the media here all share it. Mr Greenwald understands what he is up against in trying to persuade people to be outraged.
There’s one final irony worth noting in all of this. Political leaders and political movements convinced of their own Goodness are usually those who need greater, not fewer, constraints in the exercise of power. That’s because — like religious True Believers — those who are convinced of their inherent moral superiority can find all manner to justify even the most corrupted acts on the ground that they are justified by the noble ends to which they are put, or are cleansed by the nobility of those perpetrating those acts.
Now why did those words immediately make me think of Steven Spielberg’s and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln? To find out, read my review. . .