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9 American Political Scandals

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Greed and lust—for power as well as for sex—are the essential elements of most political scandals. Other contributing factors often include mendacity, obfuscation, obsession, moral bankruptcy, naïveté, misplaced loyalty or trust, and lapse of good judgment. Frequently, a vigilant investigative press is involved. Usually, the crucial question is Who knew what when? Sometimes the consequences for the perpetrators are dire and destructive, but sometimes the perpetrators get off scot-free. The historical impact of scandals can be transient or lasting and profound. Here’s a look at nine of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history.

  • Watergate scandal

    The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s is the gold standard of American political scandals because it forced Richard M. Nixon to become the first—and thus far the only—U.S. president to resign from office. After five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, the trail eventually led to Nixon’s Republican administration and to the president himself, who was ultimately incriminated by tape recordings that he had made of Oval Office conversations. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—aided by an informant known as “Deep Throat” (later revealed to be FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt)—catalyzed the probing of the ever-expanding break-in trial presided over by Judge John J. Sirica and the Senate special investigating committee chaired by Samuel J. Ervin, Jr. On August 9, 1974, facing likely impeachment, Nixon stepped down. Nearly a dozen of Nixon’s advisers and acolytes received prison terms. Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Pres. Gerald Ford.

  • Teapot Dome Scandal

    Pres. Warren G. Harding apparently was a very nice guy (albeit a philanderer) who really didn’t know how to pick his friends. Many members of the Ohio Gang, who had ascended to high political office by hitching their wagons to Harding’s rising star, became embroiled in scandal. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, Harding’s longtime campaign manager, was accused of selling government supplies of alcohol during Prohibition. Charles R. Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau, was convicted on bribery and corruption charges. But the scandal for which Harding is remembered was engineered by Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall. Two large oil reserves—Elk Hills, California, and Teapot Dome, near Casper, Wyoming—had been preserved for the energy needs of the U.S. Navy. Fall persuaded Harding to transfer control of the reserves from the Navy to the Department of the Interior. Then, in 1921–22, without seeking competitive bids, Fall leased Elk Hills to oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny of the Pan American Petroleum Company and Teapot Dome to Harry F. Sinclair of Mammoth Oil. Subsequent congressional investigations into the Teapot Dome Scandal revealed that Fall had received as much as $400,000 in payments and loans as a bribe to facilitate the leases, which were subsequently terminated by Congress. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes and became the first sitting cabinet member to be imprisoned. Harding was never personally implicated in the scandal, but the stress related to it took a toll on his health, and he died in office.

  • Whiskey Ring Scandal

    Like Harding, Ulysses S. Grant was seen as a man of great personal integrity. But, also like Harding, Grant was a poor judge of character, and his presidential administration was awash in corruption. In 1869 Grant’s cronies Jay Gould and James Fisk brought on the Black Friday stock market crisis. Before the 1872 election, Grant dispatched Internal Revenue supervisor Gen. John McDonald to Missouri to bolster waning political support. McDonald “rewarded” Grant’s trust by establishing the “Whiskey Ring,” a multistate criminal network in which whiskey distillers, Treasury and Internal Revenue agents, shopkeepers, and others worked together by manipulating liquor taxes to defraud the federal government of some $1.5 million per year by 1873. In 1875, as Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow was breaking up the ring, Grant appointed a special prosecutor, John B. Henderson. When Henderson began closing in on Grant’s personal secretary, Orville E. Babcock, and intimated that Grant might be involved, the president fired and replaced Henderson. Convinced that Babcock was innocent, Grant testified on his behalf. Babcock went free, but 110 of the 237 other individuals who were indicted were convicted.

  • Crédit Mobilier Scandal

    The Grant administration also was plagued by the Crédit Mobilier Scandal. This time, the owners of the Union Pacific Railroad—who were building a transcontinental railroad on government-granted land, financed by the sale of government-sanctioned stocks and bonds—used a small investment firm that they had renamed Crédit Mobilier of America to pay themselves about twice the actual cost of constructing the railroad, netting a profit of between $33 million and $50 million. In order to curry government support and forestall congressional investigation, one of Crédit Mobilier’s creators, Oakes Ames, a member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, had doled stock to some 20 of his colleagues as well as to Vice Pres. Schuyler Colfax. When the scandal broke, Ames and Rep. James Brooks of New York, who had served as government director of the Union Pacific, were censured. However, the roles of other prominent onetime Union Pacific stockholders, including Colfax and future president James A. Garfield, were papered over.

  • Iran-Contra Affair

    Two actions that had been proscribed by U.S. policy or law were at the center of the Iran-Contra Affair, which unfolded during Ronald Reagan’s second presidential term: (1) the secret sale of weapons to Iran in an unsuccessful attempt to win freedom for U.S. hostages held in Lebanon and (2) the use of some of the profits from those sales to provide military support for the counterrevolutionary efforts of the Contras in Nicaragua. Although Reagan had called the Contras the “moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” he had been unable to persuade Congress to authorize funding of their efforts, which was prohibited under the Boland Amendments. As the layers of the complex scandal were peeled away daily by televised congressional hearings, it was revealed that U.S. Marine Corps Lieut. Col. Oliver North, who worked on the National Security Council, had played a pivotal role in what was characterized by some observers as a “shadow government” covert program to support the Contras. Reagan claimed to have had no knowledge of the diversion of funds; Vice Pres. George H.W. Bush was found to have had no “operational” role in the undertaking. The immunity granted to many of the participants in return for their testimony and later presidential pardons meant that very few of the transgressors spent much time in prison.

  • Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky Affair

    While serving as independent counsel for an investigation into U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton's financial dealings as the governor of Arkansas (known generally as the “Whitewater” investigation), Kenneth W. Starr learned that Clinton had been involved in a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The news went public, and a media firestorm ensued. For some eight months, Clinton—who had already survived earlier allegations of marital infidelity during the 1992 election campaign and again in 1996—vehemently denied having had sex with Lewinsky. When DNA evidence surfaced that proved the affair, Clinton admitted in August 1998 to the relationship with Lewinsky but denied lying under oath, famously couching his defense in a tortured parsing of language: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” he said. The House of Representatives impeached Clinton on the grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice in December 1998, but the Senate acquitted him in January 1999.

  • Chappaquiddick incident

    The chances of Ted Kennedy becoming U.S. president were undermined by his involvement with the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne in the waters off a small bridge to Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts on the night of July 18, 1969. Kennedy was one of six men, all of whom were married, who had spent the day socializing with young female campaign workers. Kopechne was the sole passenger when the car that Kennedy was driving went off the bridge. He claimed to have tried to rescue Kopechne, who would be found the next morning trapped in the car, drowned, but some 10 hours passed before he reported the incident to the police. In the interim, Kennedy apparently sought advice about how to proceed. He later reported that he had been injured and disoriented after the accident. Many among the public were dubious and questioned Kennedy’s honesty and courage. In a contrite televised statement, Kennedy left his political fate to Massachusetts voters, who reelected him to the U.S. Senate. The scandal surrounding the incident would haunt Kennedy for the rest of his life, however, never more than when he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party’s 1980 presidential nomination.

  • “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

    Arguably the biggest sex scandal of the 19th century came during the 1884 presidential election, when  the squeaky clean image of Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland (known as “Grover the Good”) was aggressively besmirched by Republicans, whose candidate, James G. Blaine, was widely viewed as corrupt. Roughly 10 years earlier, Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock with Maria Halpin, a widow. After acknowledging paternity, Cleveland sent his son to an orphanage and had Halpin committed to a mental institution. During the heat of the presidential campaign, the partisan press waged war over the “truth” behind this story, especially after The Judge ran a cartoon in which Halpin is holding a crying baby who is calling out “I want my pa!” as a stunned Cleveland looks on. Quickly, the question “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” became the Republicans’ taunting battle cry. Democratic newspapers defended Cleveland’s character, cast Halpin as a harlot, and eventually accused Blaine of impregnating his wife before they were married. Republican papers painted Cleveland as a lascivious reprobate unworthy of the presidency. Late in the campaign, Halpin offered her own version, portraying Cleveland as a rapist. In the end, Cleveland won the razor-close election, and Democrats added “Gone to the White House! Ha, ha, ha!” as a rejoinder to the Republicans’ persistent query.

  • Rachel Jackson, bigamist?

    During the run-up to the 1828 presidential election, in which Andrew Jackson sought to unseat John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s opponents made much of the accusation that Jackson’s wife, Rachel, a divorcée, actually still had been married to her first husband when she and Old Hickory wed. Branding Rachel an adulterer, a bigamist, and a whore, Jackson’s critics argued that she was morally unfit to serve as first lady. That Rachel’s marriage to Lewis Robards was an unhappy one was incontrovertible. How the marriage ended was disputed. According to Robards, Jackson stole his wife and took her away to Florida. In Jackson’s version, he rescued Rachel from domestic abuse. In either case, Robards filed for divorce in 1790, but his case was not heard until 1793, when he was granted a divorce on the grounds that Rachel had abandoned him to live adulterously. In the interim, the Jacksons claimed to have married in Florida, though documentation of their marriage didn’t come until January 1794 when they staged a new ceremony supposedly to redress the timing issue. Deeply wounded by the attacks on her character, Rachel died of a heart attack on December 22, 1828, after Jackson’s election but before she could become first lady. Her tombstone reads “A being so gentle and yet so virtuous, slander might wound, but could not dishonor.”