Politicians are right to be frightened of the press barons; nothing sets Fleet Street alight quite like a political corruption scandal. Over the past few weeks the public has been bombarded with coverage of Paul Flowers, who resigned as chairman of the Co-operative Bank days before a £1.5bn capital shortfall came to light, prompting a party political showdown, with Tories as senior as George Osborne desperate to draw blood by stressing Labour’s financial relationship with the Co-operative Group. The initial scandal, however, seems to pale into insignificance when compared to the allegations of illicit drug dealing and political corruption that have followed Mr. Flowers since, all colourfully played out in the press.
Some would say that this has been something of a treat. British corruption scandals in this day and age tend to lack the juice of their international counterparts. Recently, ex-minister Chris Huhne was scoffed at by Jeremy Paxman for making a rather self-aggrandising comparison between his own fall from grace and incarceration, which began over a speeding ticket, and the execution of Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII. Meanwhile Huhne’s ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, has published Prisonomics, and the book has given rise to widespread public debate about the criminal justice system, all of it stemming from that fateful speeding ticket.
Of course, Scandal has also been rife across the pond. Recently the Mayor of Hampton, a small town in Bradford County, Florida, was arrested on drug charges, inspiring Sherriff Gordon Smith to declare, ‘This isn’t Toronto.’ According to Smith, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been making a mockery of the Canadian people with his lewd and disorderly behaviour. Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine in one of ‘his drunken stupors’ and a video, depicting a heavily inebriated Ford violently threatening to kill an unidentified man, emerged soon after and quickly went viral. Such events have made Ford the butt of American late night jokes and one of the most sought after interview guests on American television. Unfortunately, this seems only to have encouraged Ford, who has since made salacious remarks about oral sex and his linked himself with prostitution, drunk driving and drug taking, all whilst remaining incumbent in his position.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Ford isn’t a particularly unique case. Public office has a long and treasured history of scandal and corruption. So long and treasured, indeed, that these ideas and characters have transcended news and seeped into popular culture. The concept is most famously, and lovingly, immortalised in the character of Mayor Joe Quimby – commonly known as ‘Diamond Joe’ – from The Simpsons. As Mayor of Springfield, Quimby spends the majority of his time administering bribes and trying to cover up his philandering ways.
He is often cited as a parody of the late senator Ted Kennedy and there are a number of not-so-subtle parallels between the two men. Neglecting his mayoral duties, Quimby spends most of his time at his coastal estate, the Quimby Compound, which is not unlike the extravagant Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. In one episode, Quimby tries to bribe witnesses at the trial of his nephew, Freddy Quimby, who stands accused of assault; an allusion to the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in which Ted Kennedy was involved. Most famously Quimby yells, ‘you drive worse than Cousin Teddy’ at his chaotic driver; a reference to the Chappaquiddick Incident, in which Mary Jo Kopechne, a female passenger of Kennedy’s, was killed when he accidentally drove his car off a bridge and then fled the scene. Although the incident was probably a major factor in influencing Kennedy not to run for the presidency of the United States in 1972 and 1976, neither national scandal nor jail time put a stop to Kennedy’s flourishing political career. At the time of his death in 2009, Kennedy was the second most senior member of the senate and the fourth longest serving senator in United States history, having served for almost 47 years.
It’s difficult to say whether the existence of comic characters such as the dizzyingly corrupt Mayor Quimby indicates a public acceptance of some level of corruption amongst those who hold public office. However the domination, and continued veneration, of America’s so called ‘royal family’ in American politics throughout the twentieth century would suggest that this is in fact the case. Between 1947 when Jack Kennedy became a member of Congress until 2011 when Patrick J. Kennedy departed Congress, 64 years saw a Kennedy continually in elective office in Washington. Whether or not these kinds of corruption scandals have actually been normalised, Chris Huhne was at least right in identifying that the consequences of a political fall from grace are no longer as remarkable as they were in the past.