The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- An obsession with trivia marks the run-up to the US elections

With precisely a fortnight to go before the presidential poll in the United States of America, you might imagine that Americans ' at least the voting ones ' are wrestling with weighty issues in what is generally agreed to be the most important election in the free world in our time.

But no, alas, nothing can be farther than any such expectation. Most of last week, edging out every other campaign issue in the public domain was the sexual orientation of Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who is on the Republican ticket for re-election as the running mate of the president, George W. Bush. One television anchor was aghast, though not displeased, that in the timespan of a few hours one morning, he alone in his sprawling media organization received 2,000 unsolicited e-mails about the Cheney offspring. Another TV channel was bombarded with 5,000 e-mails on the subject.

Nearly two million Americans have lost their jobs since Bush entered the White House. Five million Americans have lost their health insurance under this president's watch: one in seven Americans now has no access to regular medical care. The remainder are paying 50 to 100 per cent more for their medical needs even as medical expenses have rocketed four-fold. Lobbyists for polluters have undone in almost four Bush years, decades of work undertaken by environmentalists. When Bush assumed office in January 2001, America had a record budget surplus of $236 billion, which he has managed to turn into a record estimated current deficit of $422 billion.

An average American family now spends $600 more per year on gasoline than they did four years ago in stark contrast to the huge profits raked in by oil companies. The independent presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, described Bush the other day as 'marinated in oil', a reference to his Texas past and his friends in the oil industry. Tuition fees at public universities have risen by a record 35 per cent under this president's rule. And the 'No Child Left Behind Act', which was the cornerstone of his campaign four years ago, is languishing because it has been under-funded by a phenomenal $27 billion. It is possible to go on and on'

Yet none of this appears to bother American voters. The latest polls show that virtually half the registered voters and half the likely voters will cast their votes on November 2 to re-elect Bush for another four-year term. About half of America's voting-age population couldn't care less: they have not even registered to vote.

Before the week was out, Mary Cheney was replaced on national television as big news by the alleged sexual peccadilloes of a popular, conservative, Fox-Television talk-show host, Bill O'Reilly. The French ambassador to the US, respected politicians like Senator Edward Kennedy and the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, are among the many otherwise regular faces on American television who have repeatedly refused to appear on O'Reilly's programme because he is abrasive, bullying and is unable, often, to conceal his crass ignorance, especially of world affairs. Nor does he have much value for truth. Yet O'Reilly is hugely popular: he has a daily viewership of about 2.3 million Americans on prime time every night.

O'Reilly's lawsuit against 33 year-old Andrea Mackris, a female producer on his show, accusing her of extortion and the producer's sexual harassment counter-suit again- st the powerful talk-show host have already introduced into America's sexual lexicon words like falafilia and batata harrahssment.

Falafel is a common item on the Arab menu, made from ground, spiced chickpeas, shaped into balls and fried. Falafel was part of O'Reilly's sexual fantasies conveyed to Mackris in his late night telephone calls to her home, according to court papers, now all over the internet and prominently figuring in every programme on American television. Batata Harrah is a similarly spicy potato dish popular among Arabs. Here it is being used as a pun to sum up the harassment of Mackris by her boss.

The way Mary Cheney's sexual orientation and Bill O'Reilly's lascivious fantasies are dominating America's airwaves at a time when issues affecting the political landscape ought to engage attention, reflects a long-standing American obsession with trivia. It also reflects a sense of disbelief among many Americans that conservative icons who have collectively attempted to rewrite their country's politics, society, media et al have been routinely caught with their pants down and stripped of their claims to morality and righteousness.

The week that catapulted the vice-president's daughter and O'Reilly to the top of the news also saw Tom DeLay, the authoritarian, arch-conservative Republican leader of the House of Representatives, admonished twice for ethics violations. Yet the landmark verdict against DeLay was on television news for no more than a day. What has galled Republicans is that the admonition of DeLay was unanimous by the House Ethics Committee, made up of five Republican Congressmen and five Democrats.

The charges against the house Republican leader were serious indeed. He was accused of soliciting political contributions from a Kansas energy company in return for legislative favours, violating Texas laws prohibiting corporate political donations, and worst of all, of interceding with civil aviation personnel to track down a plane carrying Democratic legislators in Texas, who were fleeing the state to defeat DeLay's plans to redraw the electoral districts of Texas so that Republicans could win a majority anyway. In plain language, it amounted to bribery, money-laundering and the use of state power to persecute the opposition by someone who is the equivalent of the leader of the House in the Lok Sabha. A third case against DeLay is pending before the same committee.

California has a law known as 'three strikes you are out'. In implementing the law, a poor, starving Californian was recently sentenced to 25 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. A sentence was mandatory because it was his third similar offence and he had no chance. Never mind, who wins next fortnight's presidential election, Americans will be awaiting word from their new Congress if the principle behind 'the three strikes you are out' law will be applied to DeLay.

The unseating of DeLay from his high horse comes seven years after the House Ethics Committee ' and the full House later ' voted to reprimand the then Speaker Newt Gingrich on ethics violations and imposed a fine on him. The reprimand was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel's back. Gingrich, who stormed into Washington only a few years earlier with his infamous 'Contract with America', a conservative effort to put the clock back in American society, saw his political career effectively end with that reprimand.

More recently, Strom Thurmond, who retired from the Senate and died at the age of 100, was revealed to have fathered an illegitimate black daughter. Thurmond was an unalloyed Southern racist who once campaigned for the presidency on a segregationist platform. For many Americans, what was shocking was not that he had fought on an apartheid manifesto, but that he had a black offspring.

The other cases that have exposed the hypocrisy of America's conservatives include prescription drug abuse charges against Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk-show host and a patron of conservative values, as well as revelations about a gambling addiction on the part of Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan's secretary for education, who turned into America's moral crusader. Those cases have been dealt with in these columns earlier. While the hypocrisy of many a torch-bearer of conservatism may have surprised Americans, these conservatives have by no means been disowned by their followers. Otherwise, the word 'liberal' would not have become the worst insult to be hurled at the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, throughout this year's presidential poll campaign.

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