You Gotta Know These Presidential Scandals
- The Corrupt Bargain (1825) supposedly resolved the election of 1824 by making John Quincy Adams president. After the Democratic–Republican Party fractured before the election, four men ran for president: Adams, General Andrew Jackson, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and Treasury Secretary William Crawford. Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote and the Electoral College, but not enough to clinch victory. As a result, the House of Representatives selected among the top three candidates and gave the White House to Adams. Jackson attributed the result to a “corrupt bargain” in which Clay used his influence in the House to boost Adams in exchange for being named Secretary of State. Most historians believe that Clay backed Adams because they shared similar views, but Jackson used the issue to unseat Adams in 1832 and win reelection against Clay in 1836. The controversy foreshadowed later battles between Jackson’s Democratic Party and Clay’s Whig Party.
- The Petticoat Affair (1829–1831) disrupted the cabinet of Andrew Jackson. Secretary of War John Eaton’s wife Peggy was unpopular with the wives of Jackson’s other cabinet members, who thought she was immoral and too assertive for a woman. Led by Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, they snubbed her socially and caused an obvious rift in the Jackson administration. The only cabinet member to support the Eatons was Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, who was a widower. Jackson, whose own wife Rachel had died after being targeted by negative rumors while he ran for president, supported Eaton and forced his cabinet to resign. After the scandal, Van Buren became Jackson’s heir apparent and eventual successor in the White House, while Calhoun became the president’s staunch enemy.
- The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1868) was the first time a president was impeached. Johnson took office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As a former southern Democrat and opponent of civil rights for African–Americans, Johnson infuriated Republicans by blocking their Reconstruction policies. Radical Republicans responded by passing the Tenure of Office Act, which required the Senate to approve all changes to the cabinet. When Johnson violated the act by trying to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the House impeached him in March 1868. After a trial in the Senate, only 35 of the necessary 36 senators voted to remove Johnson, with Edmund Ross and nine other Republicans breaking ranks to keep him in office. Though briefly thwarted, “Radical Reconstruction” regained momentum when Ulysses Grant was elected president later in the year.
- The Whiskey Ring (1871–1876) scandal tarnished the presidency of Ulysses Grant. During the 1870s, whiskey distillers, primarily in St. Louis, set up a conspiracy to bribe U.S. Treasury officials to evade taxes. The “ring” was coordinated by General John McDonald, a federal revenue collector, and backed by Grant’s private secretary Orville Babcock. In 1875 the reform-minded Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow exposed the conspiracy and helped secure the convictions of over 100 people. The Whiskey Ring, alongside other controversies like the Star Route scandal, tarnished Grant’s reputation, though historians are unsure about how much the president knew about corruption around him.
- The Pinchot–Ballinger Affair (1909–1910) split the Republican Party over conservation issues during the presidency of William Howard Taft. After succeeding his friend Theodore Roosevelt as president, Taft controversially appointed Richard Ballinger as Secretary of the Interior. The appointment was seen as a reversal of Roosevelt’s progressive conservation policies. In office, Ballinger began returning private lands to private use and clashed with Louis Glavis of the General Land Office and Gifford Pinchot, the head of the U.S. Forest Service. When Glavis and Pinchot accused Ballinger of corruption, Taft fired them. Although an investigation cleared Ballinger of wrongdoing, the scandal led Roosevelt to break from Taft and run for president with the Progressive Party in 1912, which enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House.
- The Teapot Dome scandal (1921–1929) was a major controversy during the presidency of Warren G. Harding and was considered the most damaging presidential scandal ever to that point. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, leased Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming to private companies at low rates. The leasing of the reserves was not illegal, but allegations arose that Fall had taken bribes from oil tycoons like Edward Doheny. A long-running investigation by Senator Thomas Walsh uncovered proof of Fall’s corruption, and in 1929, he became the first former cabinet member to go to prison. During the scandal, the Supreme Court ruled in McGrain v. Daugherty that Congress could compel testimony by issuing subpoenas. The full extent of the scandal was not revealed until well after Harding’s sudden death in office in 1923.
- The Watergate scandal (1972–1974) became the biggest presidential scandal of all time by forcing Richard Nixon to resign as president. During the 1972 election, burglars were caught breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building in D.C. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated the case, receiving tips from an anonymous source called “Deep Throat” (later revealed to be deputy FBI director Mark Felt). The reporters linked the break-in to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP). Sam Ervin led televised Senate hearings on the scandal while Archibald Cox investigated as a special prosecutor. Nixon fired Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre and tried to hide incriminating recordings that showed his role in a cover-up. When the Supreme Court ordered the recordings to be released, Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. He was pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford in 1974. Watergate caused a lasting drop in public trust in government, and the suffix “-gate” is often used to name major scandals in the U.S. and abroad.
- The Iran–Contra scandal (1985–1987) rocked Ronald Reagan’s second term. Reagan’s administration wanted to send aid to a right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua, the Contras, who were fighting the socialist Sandinista government. However, Congress had prohibited sending aid through the Boland Amendment. To circumvent that restriction, Reagan officials secretly sold arms to Iran as part of a deal to free hostages in Lebanon and diverted some of the proceeds to the Contras. The effort was overseen by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council. The Tower Commission and independent counsel Lawrence Walsh investigated the scandal, indicting North and officials like Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The investigations did not find proof directly implicating Reagan in the scandal.
- The Monica Lewinsky scandal (1995–1999) led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. In 1995 Clinton began an affair with Lewinsky, a 19-year-old White House intern. Lewinsky’s friend Linda Tripp revealed the affair to Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor investigating Clinton’s controversial Whitewater land deal. Clinton had denied the affair publicly and to a grand jury, leading Starr to accuse him of perjury. The House of Representatives, led by Republican Newt Gingrich, impeached Clinton in 1998, but the Senate did not come close to removing him from office. However, Clinton was fined for contempt of court and briefly lost his law license.
- The Plame Affair (2003) roiled George W. Bush’s presidency amid his invasion of Iraq. Valerie Plame was a covert CIA officer married to Joseph Wilson, a diplomat who had been sent to Africa to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase uranium (a key justification for the invasion). Soon after Wilson wrote an op-ed disputing that Hussein was trying to buy uranium, journalist Robert Novak wrote a column about Wilson that identified Plame as a CIA agent. Critics claimed that the Bush administration had leaked Plame’s identity as payback for Wilson’s article. No one was convicted for leaking the information, but “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was sent to prison for lying to investigators.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Mike Cheyne.