Historical Presidential Scandals And The Manufacture of Outrage

The past 48 hours have been a steady bombardment of memes and self-proclaimed legal analyses on the FBI’s decision to not recommend charges against Hillary Clinton for wrongdoing over her use of private email servers as secretary of state.

The manufactured outrage seems to be along party lines, with Republicans flabbergasted by the outcome and Democrats having more of a ‘move on’ type attitude.

One of the most interesting arguments, used by several on social media, is a presumption that somehow we are losing our world credibility by not properly addressing this ‘scandal.’

A careful look at history shows us that scandals have been with us throughout our history, with only two sitting presidents impeached for their actions (one not scandal related). But largely, the president just goes unscathed by justice, with the court of public opinion exacting the only punishments.

The Grant Administration: A Scandal Magnet

It’s hard to have any piece on historical scandals without starting with or overly emphasizing the Grant administration.

More than 10 scandals plagued his administration as well as accusations of nepotism, but Grant came through all unscathed — and at times used his presidential powers to protect his friends with timely pardons.

The Interior Secretary, Attorney General, Navy Secretary (then a ‘cabinet level’ position), and War Secretary were all tied up in bribery and extortion cases.

Grant’s own personal secretary was indicted for framing a private citizen who had uncovered governmental corruption.

And Grant’s own friends cornered the gold market, causing a national panic and depression in 1869.

And in all, all of them, including Grant, got away with it — with the worst punishments received being forced to resign their position.

The Grover Cleveland Sex Scandal

Bill Clinton didn’t invent the concept of a sex scandal haunting his presidency, with Grover Cleveland bombarded by a sex scandal and the realities of an illegitimate child during his 1884 run for presidency.

Strangely enough, Cleveland took the honest approach to the scandal, completely admitting his faults — including placing the illegitimate child in an orphanage.

An almost juvenile chant was used against him politically, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

But Cleveland’s honesty helped him more than his opponent’s onslaughts hurt him — and he overwhelmingly won the electoral vote (219/182).

Perhaps when scandals don’t involve crimes or the possibility of indictment, history should tell us that honesty is the best policy!

Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome Scandal

Finally we get to a scandal where someone goes to jail.

Harding’s administration was hurt by several scandals, but the Teapot Dome Scandal became the greatest American political scandal until Watergate.

Interior Secretary Albert Fall used his position of selling oil rights, largely for the consumption of the U.S. Navy, for personal gain on numerous occassions.

Fall eventually was convicted, but Harding’s administration could never shake the scandal.

While Harding died in office during his first term, in all likelihood the scandals plaguing him would have precluded any run for a second term.

Nixon’s Watergate Scandal

Probably the best known scandal in American history, where Nixon actively used his office to cover-up a break in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate business park.

Nixon would have almost certainly been impeached, and his own party’s congressional leaders informed him he had fewer than 15 acquittal votes — far short of needed to avoid removal.

Scandal felled both Vice-President Spiro Agnew (from a different scandal) and President Nixon through resignation, with Nixon choosing Gerald Ford to replace Agnew.

Ford has the honor of being the only person to serve as both vice-president and president without being elected to the office.

But Ford’s unpopular decision to blanket pardon Nixon was probably his political undoing, creating his own presidential scandal by doing so.

In the end, Ford only served his one appointed term.

Reagan’s Iran-Contra Scandal

The Iran-Contra Scandal was a complex geopolitical maneuver, trying to secretly set up foreign policy wins on opposite sides of the globe.

Arms were sold to the Iranians, who were locked in conflict with Iraq. The arms sales were thought to soften the Iranians into letting American hostages go, in exchange for the military goodwill.

Then, the money from the sales, in turn, was used to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, circumventing laws forbidding the funding of the Contras.

After lengthy congressional hearings and special independent counsel investigations, several were indicted, but none would ever see prison time. President G. H. W. Bush pardoned at least 6 different individuals who had been indicted and/or convicted.

The Bill Clinton Sex Scandal

If President Clinton had followed Cleveland’s lead of being honest, this particular scandal would have probably not ended up as much of anything.

Instead, an independent counsel was appointed and then a vast bunny-trail of investigations ensued, most completely off the topic of why the independent counsel had been appointed, but culminating in the investigation of Whitewater land deals and Clinton’s involvement in pressuring illegal loans to certain individuals and Clinton’s sexual relations in the Oval Office.

Clinton became only the second president to be impeached by the House of Representatives, and the second president to have the Senate fail to remove them from office.

The G.W. Bush Email Scandal

Let’s not forget that 22 million emails were destroyed under the Bush administration, who also used a private email server provided by the Republican National Committee.

While Bill Clinton only sent two emails total while in office, by G.W. Bush’s terms it was a common form of communication — and in particular they didn’t necessarily want all of their interactions saved for later scrutiny.

Business and government have had to face this reality with email usage, where to draw the line at casual conversation and official use — or if there even is a line to be drawn (that it, that all correspondence is official use).

But in the end, once again, a series of resignations were the only real punishments ever handed out.

2016 and Beyond

Why are we not to the point where we just expect scandal with every presidency?

Instead, it becomes a political tool of shock, outrage, and political jockeying — all trying to make one’s political opponents look foolish and politically incompetent.

I can understand FBI director Comey’s decision to not recommend charges against Hillary Clinton, doing so would seemingly violate over 150 years of political precedent.

Right or wrong, this current scandal with Clinton is at an end; it made a lot of noise, had a lot of finger pointing, and a huge amount of political outrage from opponents. But in the end, it just becomes part of a long historical list that we should get used to happening.

Scandals happen, but it’s most often impossible to prove criminal wrongdoing by the President or even cabinet-level officials.

But there eventually has to be an end to every scandal, keeping investigations going indefinitely on the hope of coming to a different conclusion is a ludicrous waste of public resources.

With a certain amount of certainty, the next presidency will be marked by scandal and controversy — with both sides eager to feast on their opponent’s misdeeds.

Scandals tell us we still have a reasonably transparent government, but party-line witch-hunts only show the world that we’re locked in hopeless partisanship and gotcha politics.

Because in the end, the court of public opinion seems to be the only court that matters — both at home and abroad.

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