The targets of scandals often complain that those who have launched the scandalous allegations are politically motivated, that what they are accused of doing was longstanding common practice, and has been done by others before them without public outcry, and in this they are generally accurate. Corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and illegal behavior are central characteristics of the capitalist class’s mode of functioning. Many of the revelations that become the focal point of media attention in various scandals have actually been known about for a long time and only become worthy of media attention because of political circumstances external to the subject matter of the scandal itself.
For example, the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to Richard Nixon's fall from power in 1974 is perhaps the most sensational political scandal in post war American history. Political dirty tricks, the surreptitious tape recordings, lying and suppression of information that were at the heart of the scandal were not unique in American political history. Indeed when the break-in at Democratic party headquarters in 1972 by operatives secretly working for the White House and Nixon’s re-election committee occurred, neither the media, nor the Democratic party made such a big deal out of it, as it was to become over the next two years. The reason the scandal mushroomed was nothing intrinsic to the Watergate break-in itself, but was related to larger political themes. The first of these was the Nixon administration's use of the state apparatus against members of the ruling class, an abuse that was unacceptable within the capitalist class. This included not simply the break-in, which in fact was a minor event, involving relatively unimportant information that was taken, but the use and abuse of the power of various government agencies at the behest of the administration against critics of the administration’s policy on Vietnam, including for example the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service.
Equally important was the Nixon administration’s inability to liquidate the war in Vietnam and consummate the alliance with China, which the Nixon administration itself had played such a central role in cultivating. The rapprochement with China was central to long term US imperialist objectives, much more important than Vietnam, as it would put Russian imperialism under pressure on two fronts, from the West and the East, and allow the US to focus attention on the strategically important Middle East. A precondition for the Chinese bourgeoisie to come over to the American side was the liquidation of the Vietnam War, something which, despite all their so-called “secret plans,” the Nixon team was incapable of delivering. It was the confluence of these two political concerns of the ruling class that led to the Watergate scandal assuming historically gargantuan significance. Nixon resigned in August 1974; American withdrawal from Vietnam was achieved by April 1975. Legislative measures were implemented to protect against the worst abuses of executive power within the ruling class, which were more or less effective until the current Bush administration began its policies of restoring presidential power to pre-Watergate levels.
Ronald Reagan was clearly of limited intellectual capacities, probably at the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and his administration was surely corrupt and plagued by scandalous exposes in the press, but even the most significant of these, the Iran-Contra scandal, was relatively mild in its impact. This caused some media pundits to refer to Reagan’s regime as the “Teflon presidency” because nothing stuck to it. This telfon-icity of the Reagan administration had more to do with the political circumstances of the time, which required no significant pressure be brought to bear on the administration.
In the Clinton administration, as we noted in Internationalism’s pages at the time, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, ostensibly triggered by his handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, actually had more to do with divergences within the ruling class over imperialist policy in the Far East than whether Clinton lied about having oral sex with a White House intern. Rightwing Republicans strenuously disagreed with the Clinton administration’s intentions to play a China card, and instead preferred relying upon Japan as our key regional partner in Asia. The Lewinsky affair simply became the pretext for putting pressure on the administration.
Likewise, the scandals that have led to a whole series of media campaigns in the last few years reflect the increasing political isolation of the Bush administration within the ruling class because of its inept handling of the Iraq War and its squandering of American political and moral authority on the international level. The refusal of the administration to respond to pressure only increases the intensity of the attacks. Even if they haven’t or cannot achieve a total revamping of administration policy, they can exert enough pressure on the administration to change personnel or abandon certain disastrous policy options.
So for example, earlier scandal-driven media campaigns (WMD, Abu Ghraib) forced the administration to remove first Wolfowitz, and then Rumsfeld, from responsibility for handling war strategy.
And more recently, the administration’s rejection of the Iraq Study Group’s central recommendations to salvage the situation in Iraq in January prompted a corresponding intensification of scandals. These include the trial and conviction of Scooter Libby, the Walter Reed hospital scandal, and the US Attorneys’ dismissal scandal, which have forced the administration for the moment to seem to abandon any intention of military action against Iran.
On a general level, the Walter Reed scandal, which exposed the horrendous living conditions and medical treatment for soldiers wounded in Iraq, not only cost the careers of several generals and a hardline deputy secretary of the Army, but also totally undercut the administration’s efforts to attack their policy critics within the bourgeoisie as disloyal cowards, who would abandon American soldiers in harm's way. This neutralized the administration's propaganda blitz against its opponents, and put it totally on the defensive for its hypocrisy in its treatment of wounded servicemen, and created the climate in which military action against Iran seemed to disappear as an immediate policy option. Of course there had been complaints for over two years about the unacceptable treatment of wounded soldiers, but only in the context of political considerations did it become cause for sustained media attention.
The trial and conviction of Scooter Libby, assistant and key adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney further eroded Cheney’s political authority, who remains the main remaining foreign policy hardliner in the administration.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, is on the verge of being driven from office in a scandal that has as its pretext his role in the dismissal of eight US Attorney’s around the country, but is more likely associated with his hardline war-related policies. As White House legal counsel, Gonzales played a key role in formulating administration policy on warrantless searches and wiretaps and on disregarding the Geneva Conventions on the torture and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo interment facilities. In January, Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, who had served until November on the Iraq Study Group panel, proposed shutting Guantanamo down because it was so discredited in the international community. He was supported by Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, but opposed by Gonzales and Cheney. Each day, there are more and more revelations that put Gonzales’ ability to survive the crisis in doubt.
These recent scandals are seized upon with vigor by the media because there is essentially political open season on the administration within the dominant fraction of the ruling class which is totally dissatisfied with the administration and needs to put pressure on it to curb its disastrous policies and minimize any further damage until a change in ruling teams is possible in 2008.
Jerry Grevin, 04/15/07.