Finally! An Obama-era scandal—two actually—with sex appeal.
God knows a sleaze-addicted media and public had to wait long enough. This president is well over three years into his term, and, until this month, the man’s only brush with real scandal (as opposed to fevered conspiracy theories regarding his birth certificate and religion) involved the possible preferential treatment of a solar-cell manufacturer. I’m sorry, but it’s tough to gin up too much outrage over that, even in our outrage-happy political climate. Halfway through even the most basic debate over whether politics played a role in the Energy Department’s decision to award … zzzzzzzzz. I’m sorry. What were we talking about? Oh, yes. Solyyyynnndra. Hardly the stuff of which presidential “–gates” are made.
By contrast, government bureaucrats blowing $823K on a regional staff conference in Las Vegas? Secret Service agents (and possibly military men!) frolicking with prostitutes in Cartagena on the eve of a presidential visit—then getting busted when one of the guys refuses to pay up? Now we’re talking! These sorts of shenanigans are so juicy they might even help us forget the Bush-era controversies, which tended to involve grim matters such as whether the intelligence on Iraq was cooked or the degree to which the White House was transforming the Justice Department into an arm of the GOP. The time has come to bid farewell to all that. After all, the only political subject more fun than hookers may be Colombian hookers.
Admittedly, both of these new scandals suffer from not having a direct connection to the president. None of the 11 Secret Service personnel in this month’s Colombian installment of “Boys Gone Wild” belongs to the presidential detail. Just as key, Obama isn’t exactly the kind of commander-in-chief who can be blamed for setting the tone for such misbehavior, notes scandal aficionado Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“If this were Bill Clinton, there would be an argument that he set the standard,” says Sabato. Ditto JFK. “Kennedy really did set a very bad standard for the Secret Service, which started fooling around and partying extensively,” observes Sabato, who has been long at work on a book about the 35th president. But Obama, he says, “If there’s one thing we know about him, it’s that he’s clean.”
Similarly, the General Services Administration geniuses who blew taxpayer funds on clowns and a mind-reader and unnecessary scouting trips to plan the 2010 Vegas extravaganza, were far enough down the food chain that no one really thinks Obama should have known what was up. And we are, after all, talking about the GSA, whose proud tradition of overspending was well established in the Bush years as well.
Even so, this scandal has a bit more potential for administration critics looking to score political points. “The president has certainly tried, and I think succeeded in getting people to believe he is concerned about efficiency of government, and this is a setback” says Larry Kamer, who teaches crisis management at the University of Southern California. “When there’s waste of the taxpayer’s money like that in such a visible and ridiculous way, it’s just bound to cause heartburn over at the White House.”
Indeed, congressional probes of the GSA are in full swing, and House Republicans are eagerly painting the episode as a symbol of big government run amok. In his opening statement at Monday’s hearing, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa opined, “What has come to light surrounding GSA’s activities should give pause to anyone who has opposed cutting government size and spending.”
More ambitious partisans, meanwhile, like Rep. John Mica, are suggesting that the White House attempted to cover up the GSA’s abuses. “People from the White House knew about it, did nothing, kept it quiet, until just a few days ago when a statement was released by the president condemning the act,” the Florida Republican charged on CNN Tuesday.
Democrats, in turn, are doing their best to make the outrage bipartisan, scolding GSA witnesses like naughty children, even as they try to keep the focus on this particular agency.
Unlike the Secret Service’s Colombian adventure, the GSA’s Vegas vacation plays into a broader political narrative and so could make an appearance in the presidential race, predicts Kamer. “It happened on Obama’s watch,” he says, noting, “If it had happened in the Bush administration, it would have been fair game to hang it around Bush’s neck.”
Of course, if things get really desperate, the White House can always refer back to the PR tempests Obama generated not once but twice—both times drawing the ire of then-Mayor Oscar Goodman—for warning companies and individuals against busting their budgets on glitzy getaways to Sin City.
If only the GSA had gotten the memo.