American Spirit / Shutterstock.com
The Internet and the 24/7 news cycle have created a situation in which scandal appears to pop up every day. This climate even reaches up as high as the White House, as it seems that each week brings a new accusation of President Obama. While many of these scandals are cooked up, the truth is that scandal in American government is almost as old as the nation itself. In fact, one of the first political rivalries ended in murder, as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton settled their scores with a duel, leading to Hamilton’s death — and to the end of the Federalist Party. Throughout the history of the United States, controversy has raged in government. These are the top 10 scandals that have embroiled the country’s Chief Executives.
1. The Monica Lewinsky Affair
President Bill Clinton had several scandals shoot across his bow, but the one that had the most weight on his administration was his affair with Monica Lewinsky. A White House intern, Lewinsky engaged in what Clinton would later call an “improper” relationship but which was intimate, a fact that he had denied during a deposition about another case. As a result of this, the House of Representatives impeached him in 1998. The Senate did not convict him, but the scandal still led to Clinton joining Andrew Johnson as the only two presidents ever to go through an impeachment trial. Many people thought the Republicans took the scandal too far, but Monica Lewinsky has had her entire life affected as a result.
This may be the most famous of all the American political scandals, and it represents a turning point in the relationship between the media and the White House. Five men broke into the Democratic National Headquarters in 1972, entering the Watergate office complex illicitly. Also, the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist was the target for a break in (Ellsberg had released the controversial Pentagon Papers). Richard Nixon and his team of advisors tried to hide the crimes, but the investigation overwhelmed his efforts. In lieu of impeachment, he resigned in August 1974. The sitting vice president, Gerald Ford, had to spend his time in office rebuilding the faith of the American people.
3. Where’s My Pa?
Presidential scandals date well back before the twentieth century, of course. Grover Cleveland ran into problems of his own when he was in the running for the White House in 1884. He had engaged in an affair with Maria Halpin, a widow who later gave birth to his son. Her claim was that Grover Cleveland was the baby’s father, and she gave the baby the name Oscar F. Cleveland. Grover had agreed he would pay child support but then placed Oscar into an orphanage, as Halpin was not fit to raise a child. The chant “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” became a rallying cry for the opposition, but Cleveland’s honesty turned things to his advantage, and he won.
4. The Star Route Affair
James Garfield was only in office for six months before Charles Guiteau shot him, but most of that time was taken up dealing with the Star Route scandal. In the 1880s, private companies managed postal routes across the west. They would submit low bids to postal officials, but the officials would turn around and ask Congress for more money, keeping the difference. Garfield was blunt in his handling of this affair, holding officials accountable even though a lot of the people in question came from his own political party. Ironically, his assassin was incensed about not getting a political patronage job and shot Garfield in revenge.
5. Black Friday (1869)
While Ulysses S. Grant emerged from the Civil War a hero, his presidency was associated with scandal from just about the very beginning. Just one of his ballyhoos involved speculation in the commodities market for gold. James Fisk and Jay Gould had tried to corner the world’s market. However, when Grant found this out, he ordered the U.S. Treasury to inject gold into the economy. Because the country was still on the gold standard then, this had an immediate impact on the price of gold, bringing prices crashing down on Friday, September 24, 1869. This hurt everyone who had purchased gold during its travel up the commodity list.
6. The Whiskey Ring
While Black Friday hurt President Grant, it was not nearly as damaging as the Whiskey Ring, which broke out in 1875. At that time, government employees had been collecting taxes on whiskey but not passing those funds on to the federal government. At first, Grant demanded quick punishment for all implicated, but when it turned out that his own personal secretary was one of the guilty, he refused to expose the secretary to prosecution. This double dealing incensed the American public and tarnished the reputation of one of the nation’s great military heroes. Well into his second term, Grant was left a lame duck for most of the rest of his administration.
7. The Marriage of Andrew Jackson
In 1791, Andrew Jackson married Rachel Donelson. She had been married before but believed that her first marriage had ended in a legal divorce. However, once she married Jackson, Rachel discovered that this was not true. Her original husband had her charged with the crime of adultery, and Jackson was forced to wait three more years to wed Rachel legally. While this was ancient news by the time Jackson ran for president in 1828, it was used against him in the campaign. Rachel met an untimely death two months before Jackson’s inauguration, and he blamed the personal attacks for her ruined health and ultimate demise.
8. Iran Contra
During Ronald Reagan‘s second term as president, one of his favorite causes was the “contras” in Nicaragua, who were fighting to overthrow what was seen as a Communist friendly government. When the government sold arms to Iran, the funds were illegally and secretly diverted to the contras. The hope was that the contras would be willing to give up some of the hostages they had taken in their fight, and that tensions in the Middle East would lessen. The illegal nature of this transfer led to hearings in Congress and resignations, but President Reagan’s administration did not come down as a result.
9. Teapot Dome
The administration of Warren G. Harding remains one of the most clouded in mystery, as he died before completing his first term, and the list of possible suspects includes his wife, as he was known as one of the more adulterous Chief Executives. The Teapot Dome scandal was just one of many that rocked his office. This scandal involved the Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, selling the right to exploration of oil reserves beneath Teapot Dome. In exchange, Fall received cattle and cash. The scandal eventually broke, though, and Fall was convicted and sent to prison. Harding would pass away soon after Fall’s conviction.
10. Credit Mobilier
The third major scandal to hit during President Grant’s time in office, the Credit Mobilier scandal broke open when the company’s thefts from the Union Pacific Railroad became knowledge. Before the information went public, though, Credit Mobilier attempted to hide it by offering company stock to members of the government, including Congressmen and vice president Schuyler Colfax. When the entire scandal hit the press, reputation up and down Grant’s government were damaged, including the nation’s vice president. By the time Grant left office in 1877, the nation’s belief in the integrity of the White House had taken many hits.
With the arrival of the information age, more and more misdeeds become public knowledge. This means that the reporting of scandal is only sure to grow as American history moves forward.