10/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Scandal that Tells Us All We Need to Know About McCain and Palin

Is it possible to empty a presidential election of all political content? The economy is crashing, the climate is unraveling, Iraq and Afghanistan are hemorrhaging -- and the debate in the mainstream US media about who should be the most powerful man in the world was fixated for weeks on burbling trivia. Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a pig! (No, he didn't.) Obama wanted to tell toddlers about sex! (No, he wanted to warn them about pedophiles). The critics of Palin are sexist! (McCain voted against the Equal Pay Act. That's sexism.)

Can the collapse of Lehman Brothers ram a rare taste of reality into the campaign? The facts are plain. John McCain enthusiastically backed every one of George Bush's moves to deregulate the banks and the mortgage industry that caused this collapse, while Barack Obama opposed them. This isn't just a credit crunch; it's a conservatism crunch. The right got their dream of a totally unregulated 'shadow' banking sector -- and it swiftly imploded, bringing the world economy down with it.

Yet McCain's indignant promises to "close this casino" are being reported straight, without even bothering to look at this record - or noticing that he is cashing cheques from Wall Street lobbyists as fast as they can be written. They know their man: McCain's mantra even after this collapse began was "I am always for less regulation." Indeed, McCain's current adverts saying he will not let the "recklessness" that led to Lehman Brothers happen again are in part funded by left-over donations from... Lehman Brothers.

McCain knows his stances on the economy and foreign policy are opposed by 80 percent of the population as barely-trimmed Bush. So he needs to toss up a confetti of distraction-issues instead - and Palin was the biggest distraction of all. This attempt to run out the clock was working with slick efficiency until the stock exchange's opening bell started to sound like a death-knell. He is gathering fistfuls more of confetti as we speak.

The best key to unlocking these tactics may lie in a story that might seem at first glance a yellowing old scandal, but it is actually as fresh as tomorrow's Google News. By 1920, the oil age had revved into first gear. Cars were being bought all over America, so the petrol price was at an all-time high. The bosses of Big Oil were desperate for new oilfields -- and there was one in particular they coveted. In Wyoming, there was a vast oil field called the Teapot Dome reserve, shaped like a teapot and containing more oil than the whole of California. But the oilmen were shut out: it had been set aside to supply the navy with oil if there was ever a national emergency.

So Big Oil thought of a solution. They decided to buy the presidency. A consortium led by Jake Hamon -- a J.R. Ewing for the Jazz Age -- started to buy the delegates to the 1920 Republican Convention with brown-envelope bribes, one-by-one. Once they owned a hefty block, they approached the initial front-runner -- General Leonard Wood -- and said they would make him the Republican nominee if in return he had to promise to make Hamon Secretary of the Interior -- and therefore boss of Teapot Dome. Wood yelled: "I am an American soldier. I'll be damned if I'll betray my country! Get the hell out of here."

So Big Oil picked a different candidate instead: an obscure, bumbling Senator called Warren G. Harding, who had been a forty-to-one shot at the start of the convention. He had barely been out of Ohio and had only fuzzy ideas about politics -- but he could be marketed as Mr. Normal, the 1920s equivalent of a hockey mom. Big Oil lavishly funded a PR campaign selling him to ordinary Americans as One of You. He was pictured at baseball games eating hot dogs with his sweet family -- while his opponent was presented as arid and "elitist."

As soon as he won, Harding began the payback to the real elite. Teapot Dome was handed over to Big Oil. He even sent in the marines to clear the land. Eventually, the scandal broke, and Harding only stayed ahead of the investigators by dying. There's a consequential coda to this story. Not long after the scandal, Big Oil shifted tactics -- but only by a few inches. They decided that instead of under-the-table bribes, they would start giving "campaign donations." This time, they would give to all sides, Democrat or Republican, and they would make their demands through "lobbyists." A scandal suddenly turned into standard practice: almost the entire American political class became an oil-igarchy. The other big interests -- especially Wall Street -- followed close behind with an open cheque-book.

Until now. Barack Obama is the first major presidential candidate since Teapot Dome to refuse to take money from Big Oil or lobbyists, with 93 percent of his funding coming from small donors giving $200 or less. Every other leading candidate (even Al Gore) took their cash and saw the world through the bottom of an oil-barrel. Not him.

Most of the recent disasters of US policy are due not to the will of its unfairly-maligned people, but to this oil-slick over Capitol Hill. What has been the price of Big Oil owning American politicians? The US government has vandalised all attempts to stop global warming, even censoring its own scientists' reports. It invaded Iraq killing hundreds of thousands of people because, as Dick Cheney put it in 1990: "We're there because... that part of the world controls the world supply of oil." And it fawns over the House of Saud, which exports a toxic brand of Wahabbism -- all the way to the Twin Towers. What has been the cost of Big Banks owning American politicians? Watch the front pages for daily updates.

Obama offers a rare chance to begin to dismantle the petrol pump and the Wall Street cash-dispenser in the Oval Office. Yes, he would still have to work with an oil-and-bank-funded Democratic Congress, but the long-term public interest would at least be able to get a few lungfuls of air.

Yet the people who brought us Warren Harding and George Bush are now expertly packaging McCain-Palin as defenders of Main Street -- and they are outspending Obama's small donors for the first time. They are even paying for adverts which claim McCain and Palin "stand up to Big Oil." True, McCain did once flirt with campaign finance reform, but only after being caught taking money from a fraudster and in return lobbying on his behalf. Today, he's back to his gut instincts, with the Republican convention breaking into a chant of "drill, baby, drill!" led by McCain's men, and the delegates whooping and hollering for the men who caused this deregulation-crash. He is even committed to giving his Big Oil donors a $4bn tax cut -- at a time of record profits.

Jake Hamon couldn't have asked for more -- and he would be delighted to see us revert to distraction-blather about Palin's cute kids and her ability to shoot moose for the next fifty days. Unless Obama and his army of citizen-donors can break through this wall of white noise, it would appear we all live in Teapot Dome now.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. You can read more of his articles at here.