10 Biggest Presidential Scandals
Every generation subscribes to the notion that its politicians can be the ones to raise the level of public discourse in America, and every generation is subsequently disheartened to find that their champions are just as corruptible as the men and women who came before. The presidents on this list all dabbled in criminal and stupid behaviors to bolster their egos or pocketbooks, and each successive scandal was a reminder that our leaders are a lot further from perfect than we’d like. Some of the scandals have diminshed or been forgotten over time; some are still fresh in our minds. But they’re all noted for being moments when the country lost its way for a moment.
- Watergate: Arguably the biggest and worst of all presidential scandals, the Watergate break-in and cover-up became inextricably tied to President Nixon. It had such a lasting cultural impact that the “-gate” suffix is now attached to presidential scandals by the media. Although some of Nixon’s operatives through the Committee to Re-Elect the President had been performing what they dubbed “dirty tricks” for a while, it was the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in 1972 that became the defining crime. The scandal came to light largely thanks to the reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, whose dogged stories and use of anonymous sources on deep background — one of these, “Deep Throat,” was years later revealed to be FBI higher-up Mark Felt — helped force the issue. The responsibility in the criminal conspiracy went higher than the American public could have imagined, and as a result, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974, the only president ever to resign the office.
- Monica Lewinsky: Just as Nixon’s crimes defined his presidency, so did President Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions become synonymous with his administration. Lewinsky and Clinton had an affair during the president’s first term, though she signed an affidavit denying any relationship when she was questioned during the Paula Jones scandal, another of Clinton’s sexual dalliances. Lewinsky’s friend Linda Tripp had recorded phone calls in which Lewinsky admitted to the affair, and Tripp then delivered these tapes to Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel currently investigating Clinton for Whitewater and other scandals. (Clinton’s time in the White House was not without its bumps.) Clinton denied the affair under oath, then later admitted it, rendering his testimony perjurious. Clinton was impeached in 1998, charged with perjury, obstruction of justice, and malfeasance in office, but acquitted the following year.
- Iran-Contra: Presidential scandals, like all others, are usually going to boil down to sex, money, or power. The Iran-Contra affair of the Reagan administration encompasses the latter two. The (admittedly complex) plan started when the U.S. government wanted Israel to ship weapons to a group of Iranians with the ability to influence the release of six U.S. hostages being held by Hezbollah, but it eventually morphed into a straight guns-for-prisoners program in which the American government sold weapons directly to Iran, which was technically under an arms embargo at the time. In 1985, Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council arranged for some of the cash from the weapon sales to fund the Nicaraguan contras, the anti-communist rebels. No firm evidence has yet tied Reagan to any decisions about the sales of weapons for hostages, though North later wrote in his memoirs that Reagan knew what was going on and approved it. This is in direct and awkward conflict with Reagan’s public speech in November 1986 in which he said that the American government wasn’t trading guns for hostages. Eventually, 14 officials were indicted, though all indictments and convictions were overturned at the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.
- Credit Mobilier: The Credit Mobilier scandal came to light in 1872, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, but it began in 1868 during the Andrew Johnson administration and can even be traced back to Lincoln’s time in office, when Credit Mobilier was formed. Basically, some Republican congressmen were given shares in Credit Mobilier of America or allowed to buy shares below market value. Credit Mobilier was a construction company involved with building the first transcontinental railroad. In exchange for the bribes, the congressmen kicked back gifts and subsidies to the company. The story broke in 1872 in the New York Sun, in part because the paper was campaigning against the re-election of Grant. When claims were made the Credit Mobilier had received $72 million in contract funds for a railroad only worth $53 million, the company and Union Pacific were left in disgrace and nearly broke. Future president James Garfield was implicated in the scandal, but since he went on to win the White House, he was apparently able to deflect most of the damage.
- Sally Hemings: Sally Hemings is probably one of the most famous slaves in U.S. history thanks to her connection to Thomas Jefferson and the scandal that arose surrounding their relationship. Sally Hemings was of mixed race and rumored to be the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. During Jefferson’s presidency from 1801-1809, journalists and others alleged that Jefferson had fathered a child with Hemings after his wife died in 1782. Jefferson, of course, denied any and all charges of impropriety, claiming that Hemings was his slave and nothing more. In 1998, the British scientific magazine Nature published evidence that DNA testing led researchers to believe that Jefferson was in fact the probable father of one of Hemings’ children. There’s plenty more information here about the scientific process and the method of getting the samples. When the news broke, it created controversy about a man who’d been dead for 172 years, proving that you’re never too old to scandalize the White House.
- The Whiskey Ring: Another dark mark on the administration of President Grant, the Whiskey Ring scandal of 1875 dealt with the distribution of tax revenue to a variety of agents involved in a conspiracy, including government officials, whiskey distillers, and alcohol distributors. A group of Republican congressmen established rings in St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New Orleans that used a complicated series of bribes to skim millions of dollars in taxes from liquor sales. The Secretary of the Treasury used secret agents to infiltrate and bust up the ring, which led to the recovery of more than $3 million in falsely collected taxes and the convictions of 110 participants. Grant wasn’t directly involved, but his personal secretary was, adding to the public image of Grant as a corrupt official.
- Teapot Dome: The Teapot Dome scandal of President Warren G. Harding was one of the worst in U.S. history until Watergate came along. Teapot Dome refers to an oil field on public land in Wyoming; control of the oil reserves there and at two other locations was transferred in 1921 from the Navy to the Department of the Interior. Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior, then leased the land without allowing competitive bidding to Edward Doheny and Sinclair Oil’s Harry Sinclair. A Senate investigation found that Doheny had lent Fall $100,000 interest free, and had given him more money when Fall retired from the secretary position. Fall was indicted for conspiracy and convicted of taking bribes. Harding died in office in 1923, but his reputation suffered posthumous damage when critics attacked his administration for engaging in such criminal activities.
- Warrantless Wiretapping: Not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which allowed President George W. Bush broader powers to conduct the war on terror. As a result, his administration began a secret program conducted by the National Security Agency designed to listen in on domestic phone calls made by U.S. citizens without first getting a warrant to hear those calls. However, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires a warrant for such wiretapping to be approved, meaning that the NSA program was in effect avoiding this legal checkpoint. Congress challenged the practice as unconstitutional, and in 2010, a district court judge in California found the practice to be illegal when he ruled on the NSA’s tapping of phone calls between an Islamic charity and a pair of American lawyers.
- Truman’s Freezer: Rumors spread during Harry Truman’s administration that senior officials had received payments including deep freezers and fur coats in exchange for favors. The IRS began an investigation of the corruption that led to the resignation or firing of 166 IRS employees, many of whom were also looking at bribery charges from the Department of Justice. The attorney general even fired the special prosecutor for doing his job too well, though Truman in turn fired the attorney general. Although Truman was largely uninvolved, there was one instance where his probable guilt became damning: His wife received a new and valuable deep freezer from a businessman who was then given priority by a Truman aide to fly to Europe days after World War II ended to buy perfumes for his business. On his return trip, he actually bumped a wounded soldier from the flight. The scandal tainted Truman, and the aide was eventually tied to a number of gift-for-favor scandals.
- The Plame Affair: Another recent one: Valerie Plame’s position as a covert CIA officer was a secret until it was mentioned in a July 2003 Washington Post column by Robert Novak. Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson was a former ambassador who had served during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations who asserted that his wife’s identity was revealed as retaliation for a column he wrote a week before Novak’s titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” in which he questioned the facts used as the Bush administration’s basis for invading Iraq. In September, a grand jury convened as part of the CIA investigation didn’t indict anyone or lead to any convictions, but in 2005, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was indicted for obstruction of justice, perjury, and false statements made to the earlier grand jury about his role in leaking the information about Plame, and he subsequently resigned. Libby was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney and was convicted on several counts, all pardoned by Bush in 2007. The affair was one of the messiest of the Bush administration.
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