Greed, corruption and abuse of power are older than recorded history. Looking back on political scandals in American history we might conclude that as government has grown the tools of modern technology are becoming better at uncovering and reporting misconduct, or at least accusations of it.
George Washington’s administration was virtually scandal free and very few scandals marred our early history. Andrew Jackson’s relocation of the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma, like the Japanese internment in World War II should have been a scandal but wasn’t. It was not until U.S. Grant’s administration that scandals became common, but they didn’t prevent his re-election.
What has changed in this modern age of mass media, focus groups and think tanks is how scandals are managed by the political parties to maximize their impact and minimize their damage. Democrats and Republicans view this quite differently. Fox News and MSNBC certainly view them differently. The networks and CNN usually go out of their way to be neutral and not offend either party as being systemically guilty.
For literally generations Republicans used the Ted Kennedy incident at Chappaquiddick as a major fund raising tool. Naturally both parties want to look better than the other side. However, the facts surrounding political scandals over the past fifty years seem to show that investigations of misconduct were pursued in very different ways for different purposes.
Let’s start with Spiro Agnew, hardly a household name anymore, who pleaded no contest to bribery charges and quietly disappeared from view. That was followed by the massive publicly televised Watergate hearings that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, who was then conveniently pardoned by his hand selected Vice-president Gerald Ford. Then Ronald Reagan was elected and the Iranians released the embassy hostages in an October surprise that he probably didn’t need to win. The next major scandal was the much publicized Iran Contra affair that brought Oliver North into prominence. Reagan himself seemed hardly touched by the fact that his administration was covertly funding a secret war by trading arms for cash to Iran. The public seemed to accept that Reagan simply never knew about it because no one told him.
When Bill Clinton took office the economy was surging under an economic plan every Republican voted against. These were desperate times for Republicans since the public was less than thrilled with Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. What to do? They needed a scandal and called it Whitewater. With Ken Starr conducting an endless fishing expedition over an obscure Savings and Loan that the Clinton’s had invested in and lost money. Whitewater distracted from how well things were going. People thought they wouldn’t just keep investigating if there wasn’t something there would they? For good measure they tossed in Travelgate, Filegate and a host of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the death of Clinton’s friend Vince Foster. Since Watergate was a big deal, putting gate at the end made it sound like a scandal even if it wasn‘t.
As we all recall Starr and the Republicans finally hit scandal pay dirt with the Monica Lewinski affair about sex, or something like it, in the public’s very own Oval Office. The GOP didn’t need a plan to end poverty or fix immigration since they could push this lurid scandal all the way to impeachment. This would bolster their credentials as the “Party of Family Values,” even if impeachment failed.
For many Republicans scandals are a political tool. When the youthful indiscretions of Henry Hyde broke up a marriage, or when Newt Gingrich dumped his wife while she had cancer it wasn’t a serious scandal. Gingrich was even accepted as a major presidential candidate after he asked God for forgiveness. The list of those champions of family values include John Ensign and Bob Ney who resigned and Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff who when to jail. When Democrats such as John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are involved in scandals Democrats tend to judge them harshly.
When Obama became President and Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate many liberals thought there should have been hearings about torture and wiretapping. The Democrats decided they needed to get the country moving again and didn’t want investigations to be their focus. Not only did the guilty get a pass the Republicans blocked everything they could by filibuster The Republican have tried to keep Benghazi and the IRS action about the Tea Party front and center as long as possible to distract from the lack of progress. Scandals have reached the stage where they are often a tactic reflecting a political view instead of a means to address justice.