What is the History of US Presidential Scandals?
Presidential scandals, in all countries, have a long history and this is the case in the United States. Such history has included affairs, corruption, and various crimes and misdemeanors. Some of the scandals are hard to believe even, yet the American public has often been forgiving, as history shows.
The Early Presidents
George Washington is not often thought of as a scandalous president, but even he could not get away from some rumors. This included having been accused of fathering children out of wedlock, something not acceptable to 18th-century norms. However, one documented scandal did great problems for him and may have contributed to his somewhat early death. The Jay Treaty was a treaty signed in 1795 between the United States Government and Great Britain, which helped establish a firmer peace between the two countries at the time. The treaty gave Britain favored trading status and this greatly angered France, the ally of the United States, and led to a split among US politicians, with Jefferson accusing Washington of treason. The Jeffersonian party saw this as a power grab by the Hamiltonians; in Washington's own farewell address he warned against party politics and the influence of political parties (Figure 1).
Another early scandal, and perhaps the first major scandal involving sex, involved a cabinet member of Andrew Jackson, John Eaton, who was Secretary of War in the so-called Petticoat affair. Eaton had just married Peggy O’Neale after his previous wife had died. O'Neale herself was a young widow and had soon married Eaton after her husband died, which led to many accusations that the two were conducting an affair prior to what was seen as a convenient death. The wives of Jackson's cabinet refused to socialize with O'Neale, leading to Jackson becoming angry with his cabinet and scolding them for not having their wives socialize with O'Neale. Eventually, Jackson's entire cabinet resigned, as they saw Eaton's relationship as scandalous for the moral standards of the day.
Andrew Johnson is known as the President who came closest to being impeached. His relationship with Congress was so fractious that he even refused to carry out laws they had passed, resulting in continuous problems between the president and Congress. He also fired officials despite having been warned he could not and repeatedly created crises with congressional leaders. In fact, his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which gave authority to Congress for removing certain office holders, is what led to impeachment. The scandal did not reflect well on Congress either, as it was seen by the wider public as an attempt by Republicans to assert their authority on the President rather than being a legitimate reason for the impeachment.
Perhaps among the biggest scandals of 19th-century American presidents involved Grover Cleveland. This scandal also demonstrates the power of the public to give a President a pass, albeit the public may have been deceived. In 1884, Cleveland ran for president as a clean, moral president and was labeled as "Grover the Good." The reality was he had fathered an illegitimate child years earlier. The woman in question was Maria Halpin, a widow. Cleveland quickly admitted to the affair once it was revealed and said he even took care of the child in question by finding a family to adopt the child, even though he stated he was not sure he was the father of the child and Halpin had been accused of being with other men. Cleveland said he was being gallant for taking responsibility for the child even if he was not sure he was the father. Halpin, on the other hand, accused him of having forced her to give up the child for adoption and Cleveland had effectively bribed his way out of the issue by paying to have the child taken by adoptive partents and away from political scrutiny. It was bad enough to force the child to be taken away from Halpin and to then try to hide the story, but Cleveland was able to push his version of events, perhaps through some clever spinning, that he was trying to do the honorable thing in a difficult situation. This scandal occurred mostly during the campaign and led to a very close election that Cleveland was able to win.
From World War I to the Cold War
Perhaps the most notorious scandal to occur early in the 20th century occurred during the curtailed presidency of Warren Harding. The Teapot Dome scandal was a scandal involving bribes taken by members of Harding's administration in exchange for oil held in reserve by the US government (Figure 2). It involved oil reserves that the US government held in Wyoming that it began illegally leasing out to private companies. The scandal affected Harding directly because he was accused of having let the scandal occur and possibly being involved in bribery. Nevertheless, Harding would die while in office, but his administration would continue to be accused of corruption even after he had died.
Herbert Hoover was President from 1929-1933. Unfortunately for him, this was perhaps some of the worst economic years in US history. The Great Depression was likely not caused by him, but the public needed someone to blame and the President often is the first to get blamed. However, what made it worse for him is that World War I veterans, who were made jobless by the Great Depression, conducted a protest, what became known as the Bonus Riot, because they were promised pay bonuses that they never received. Hoover sent a general, by the name of Douglas MacArthur, to break up the demonstration. Unfortunately, the general seemed to be informed that a group of socialists was protesting rather than former soldiers who were made jobless. This led him to be far harsher than he might have otherwise been in breaking up the protest. Once the public heard about this, the public became even more negative of Hoover and this easily paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt to become President.
During the years after World War II, Harry Truman faced allegations of corruption when an investigation discovered widespread impropriety at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Overall, this led to the firing of 166 employees at the IRS. While nothing directly linked Truman to this, this continued to haunt his administration. The next administration, that of Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced numerous allegations of corruption, mainly in the form of gifts given to administration officials that may have derived from tax payments and money from the federal budget. One person called to account for this was Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower's Vice-President at the time. He had been accused of taking $18,000 gifts, but he disputed this and said he only received a dog as a gift from anyone during his time in office. After Eisenhower was John F. Kennedy. His scandals involve mainly accusations of affairs he had from the well-known case of Marilyn Monroe to his own personal secretaries. He was mostly able to evade these accusations until his assassination.
Lydon Johnson mostly had to contend with an unpopular war in Vietnam. However, after he had left office, the revelation of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post indicated he had extensively lied to the American public about its involvement in Vietnam. But even this was overshadowed by the next President, Richard Nixon, who had ordered the break-in on the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex in Washington DC. While the story of this is well known, the coverup with this scandal, as with many others, is what often gets a President in trouble. Nixon repeatedly evaded and refused to hand over evidence about the break-in and this ultimately led Congress to begin formal impeachment proceedings on him. This threat was enough for him to resign and leave office as the only President who has resigned. This also led to the next scandal, which was Gerald Ford's unconditional pardoning of Nixon. This prevented Nixon from being tried or being brought before Congress for any testimony on his actions.
The Regan administration is best known for the Iran-Contra Affair, which saw arm sales to Iran being used to fund anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua. These fighters were accused of numerous war crimes and the fact that the actions violated US sanctions on Iran and the act itself was done in secret by Regan administration officials led to accusations against the President. Regan was never directly linked, but the fact his administration also tried to prevent papers and other documents from being sent to Congress for an investigation led to accusations against the President.
After Nixon, perhaps the second most well-remembered scandal in recent history was the Monica Lewinsky affair during Clinton's time as President. Similar to Nixon, the coverup of the affair led to Congress investigating further and ultimately drawing articles of impeachment against him for perjury. Ultimately, Clinton triumphed against the impeachment but made this among the most memorable scandals of his time. During the presidency of George W. Bush, perhaps the Iraq war and events related to how the war was sold to the public might be among the biggest scandals of the administration. It did lead to the arrest and jail time for one administration official, Scooter Libby, for having leaked a name of a CIA opperative who was the wife of a prominent Iraq war critic. Accusations also revolved around how much did the Bush administration know before they launched the war and if they lied to start the war.
The last two presidents, Obama and Trump, have also had various accusations of scandals. For Obama, the biggest may have been the storming and killing of the US ambassador in Libya, where the administration was accused of a cover-up. For Trump, many accusations, including affairs, corruption, treason, and other crimes and impropriety, have been leveled but to this day nothing has been formally established. Throughout US history, we see that Presidents are often held to a high ethical standard. When they fail, it can be disastrous to their political careers but the public has also shown itself to be forgiving, such as the case of Clinton and Cleveland show, with Cleveland winning another term after his scandal became public.
- For more on the Jay Treaty, see: Estes, T. (2006). The Jay Treaty debate, public opinion, and the evolution of early American political culture. In Political Development of the American Nation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
- For more on John Eaton and how this scandal affect Jackson, see: Marszalek, J. F. (2000). The petticoat affair: manners, mutiny, and sex in Andrew Jackson’s White House. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- For more on Johnson's various conflicts with Congress, see: McKitrick, E. L. (1988). Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press.
- For more on Cleveland and his scandals, see: Lachman, C. (2011). A secret life: the sex, lies and scandals of President Grover Cleveland. New York: Skyhorse Pub.
- For more on the Teapot Dome scandal, see: McCartney, L. (2009). The Teapot Dome Scandal: how big oil bought the Harding White House and tried to steal the country (Random House trade pbk. ed). New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
- For more on Hoover and his handling of veteran protesters, see: Lisio, D. J. (1994). The President and protest: Hoover, MacArthur, and the Bonus Riot (2nd ed). New York: Fordham University Press.
- For more on the early Cold War presidents and their alleged scandals, see: Klein, W. (2010). The inside stories of modern political scandals: how investigative reporters have changed the course of American history. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger.
- For more on the Pentagon Papers, see: Ellsberg, D. (2003). Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon papers. New York: Penguin Books.
- For more on Regan and the Iran-Contra Affair, see: Wroe, A. (1991). Lives, lies and the Iran-Contra affair. London; New York: I.B. Tauris & Co.
- For more on Clinton and George W. Bush scandals, including media responses, see: Entman, R. M. (2012). Scandal and silence: media responses to presidential misconduct. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press.