Blogs > HNN > Where Does this Scandal Rank?

Oct 29, 2005 2:35 am

Where Does this Scandal Rank?

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Presidential Ambition.

How bad is it?

There are three types of scandals that strike presidents. They involve either or in some combination: 1. money, 2. power or 3. sex.

Ranking the scandals is difficult, but here are several questions to keep in mind: Did the scandal prevent the president from implementing his agenda? Did the scandal affect his poll numbers? Did the scandal result in the dismissal or resignation of high officials or of large numbers of officials? Did members of the president's own political party agree with the critics of the administration regarding the scope and impact of the scandal or was the scandal largely considered a partisan affair? Was the president's own integrity damaged? Was there a cover-up? Did the scandal damage the president's popularity with his own base? Was there an abuse of power? Did the scandal damage the institution of the presidency? How did the scandal affect the president's reputation and historical legacy?

The greatest scandal in U.S. history remains Watergate. It involved points #1 and #2 and led to all of the unfortunate results outlined in the list above: After the Watergate hearings Nixon was unable to advance his political agenda, his poll ratings collapsed, high officials from the government resigned or were fired (Attorney General Mitchell, Domestic Advisor Erlichman, Chief of Staff Haldeman, White House Counsel Dean, and of course, most seriously, the president himself), Republicans joined Democrats in denouncing the administration, the Republican base lost confidence in Nixon, Nixon's own reputation for integrity, such as it was, was destroyed, the president and aides attempted to cover-up their scandals by lying, Nixon abused his power on innumerable occasions (using the IRS to go after his political enemies, for one), the scandal damaged the institution of the presidency for years, eroding public confidence in public institutions, and the scandal blackened forever Nixon's legacy.

How about other scandals, say, in the last half century? Two other scandals stand out: Iran-contra and the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Iran-contra wholly involved questions related to only one of our three categories: the use of power. And it led to many of the unfavorable results associated with scandals. Reagan's poll numbers dropped precipitously (faster and harder than any other president's in history). Several high officials resigned including the head of the National Security Council and the White House Chief of Staff. The Tower Commission Report, which concluded that Reagan had approved the exchange of arms in return for hostages in violation of American policy, won the bi-partisan backing of members of Congress. Reagan's reputation for honesty was damaged. Several members of his administration (such as Oliver North) lied to Congress about the scandal in an attempt to keep matters secret. The president, knowingly or not, abused his power by seeking an end run around the Boland Amendment, which forbid aid to the contras. In addition, he effectively allowed the foreign policy of the United States to be privatized by financing government operations through the sale of arms to our enemies. And the scandal damaged the institution of the presidency by further undermining public faith in presidents, contributing to American cynicism.

In several important respects the scandal was inferior to Watergate. It did not damage Reagan's ability to get things done, though it paralyzed the administration for about a year. After the scandal broke he delivered his famous call to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, he succeeded in winning approval for major tax reform, and he helped bring about a new relationship with the Soviet Union, and ultimately helped bring about the USSR's demise. Although historians take the scandal seriously it did not damage Reagan's reputation with the public over the long term. At the time of his death he was considered one of our greatest presidents by many.

The Monica Lewinsky Affair is another scandal that involved questions mainly related to only one of our three categories, this time, of course, being sex. Like Iran-contra it led to many but not all of the unfortunate results associated with scandals. The scandal clearly prevented Clinton from implementing his own agenda--and may have even affected his ability to conduct war (the Kosovo bombing campaign, which occurred during his impeachment battle, was considered suspect by many). The scandal resulted in the resignation of one White House employee (Linda Tripp) and the reassignment and subsequent resignation of a White House intern (Monica Lewinsky). The president was impeached for only the second time in our history. Democrats agreed that the president should not have had sexual relations with an intern and that he disgraced himself and the office by doing so. Clinton's reputation for integrity--again, such as it was--was severely impaired. Clinton himself tried to hide the fact of his adultery from both his wife and cabinet and the country. This constituted a cover-up. Clinton clearly used his power as president to try to intimidate the court system and stop prosecutors from investigating his sex life. (He claimed that he should not be subject to subpoena in the private lawsuit filed by Paula Jones.) The scandal lowered the image of the presidency and seriously affected all assessments--including his own--of his presidency.

At the same time the scandal did not damage his standing among Democrats--or the general public. His poll numbers went up after he was accused of lying about having sex in the Oval Office. Many people believed that he had been hounded by an overzealous partisan prosecutor.

Where does that leave the scandal involving the Bush administration? Because we are at the middle of the scandal cycle it is difficult to make an assessment at this time with confidence. But several generalizations can be made: The scandal is already throwing President Bush off his game, inhibiting his ability to set the national agenda. A high official has resigned; another may be forced to resign later. A cover-up was attempted. The scandal involves a charge of the abuse of power: a public official used his high office to silence a critic by leaking damaging information about his wife. Already the scandal had damaged the presidency by raising anew questions about the integrity of those entrusted with executive power.

Whether the scandal leads to other malodorous effects is as yet unknown. His poll numbers, already low, may sink lower. His base may or may not stand by him. His reputation may be damaged severely depending on what comes out at trial.

Stay tuned, as they say.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

glen loban - 11/6/2005


The real scandel is the none coverage of the activies related to Plame getting her unqualified husband hired with the expressed intention to undermine policy. Imagine if this happened to a Democrat President...

James Jude Simonelli - 10/30/2005

A fourth type of scandal is far more widesparead and far less able to be controlled. It is the very system we have that allows people to be appointed to ANY job by the Chief Executive.

The "system" should require that any "appointee" must first be or have been a career civil/military employee of the Federal Government.

Most importantly it would be extremely significant if ALL such employees and even elected officals had to conform to the standard "Civil Service" rules of behavior and employment.

Most Senators, Representatives and other elected officals would long be "history" if they were subjected to the strict, no-nonsense, Civil Service Rules or Military Code of Conduct Rules of employment/service.


John Allan Wilson - 10/30/2005

It's Perjury. And the man resigned. Keep on dreaming about bringing down the president, but let's wait a while until we discuss the history of the event.

Lee Croteau - 10/30/2005

Please ignore. Thanks!

John H. Lederer - 10/29/2005

My phrasing was poor and a line break intervened. I did not mean self correction, remove the "himself".

Stated differently what Libby told the press was true. Libby lied to conceal the fact that he had given true information to the press, presumably because that true information was secret.

All of which points out that if we were ever to adopt a shield law, it would be deucedly difficult to write a good one.,

Ralph E. Luker - 10/29/2005

John, Your capacity for boundless apologias for the Bushies (purgary as self-correction!) is astonishing. Congratulations.

John H. Lederer - 10/29/2005

Are these factors really the measure of a scandal?

I don't think so. Analogizing for a moment to criminal law, each of these classifications has many more gradations within it than there are among them them. We punish rape severely, prostitution barely (save in a few Nevada counties); slavery strongly, intimidation weakly, etc.

The offenses that Clinton was impeached for was not having sex, they were perjury and obstruction of justice (quite similar to Libby):

Article I:
" William Jefferson Clinton swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth before a Federal grand jury of the United States. Contrary to that oath, William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury concerning one or more of the following: (1) the nature and details of his relationship with a subordinate Government employee; (2) prior perjurious, false and misleading testimony he gave in a Federal civil rights action brought against him; (3) prior false and misleading statements he allowed his attorney to make to a Federal judge in that civil rights action; and (4) his corrupt efforts to influence the testimony of witnesses and to impede the discovery of evidence in that civil rights action."

Article III:
"1) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to execute a sworn affidavit in that proceeding that he knew to be perjurious, false and misleading.

(2) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to give perjurious, false and misleading testimony if and when called to testify personally in that proceeding.

(3) On or about December 28, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly engaged in, encouraged or supported a scheme to conceal evidence that had been subpoenaed in a Federal civil rights action brought against him.

(4) Beginning on or about December 7, 1997, and continuing through and including January 14, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton intensified and succeeded in an effort to secure job assistance to a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him in order to corruptly prevent the truthful testimony of that witness in that proceeding at a time when the truthful testimony of that witness would have been harmful to him.

(5) On January 17, 1998, at his deposition in a Federal civil rights action brought against him, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly allowed his attorney to make false and misleading statements to a Federal judge characterizing an affidavit, in order to prevent questioning deemed relevant by the judge. Such false and misleading statements were subsequently acknowledged by his attorney in a communication to that judge.

(6) On or about January 18 and January 20-21, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton related a false and misleading account of events relevant to a Federal civil rights action brought against him to a potential witness in that proceeding, in order to corruptly influence the testimony of that witness.

(7) On or about January 21, 23 and 26, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton made false and misleading statements to potential witnesses in a Federal grand jury proceeding in order to corruptly influence the testimony of those witnesses. The false and misleading statements made by William Jefferson Clinton were repeated by the witnesses to the grand jury, causing the grand jury to receive false and misleading information."

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/29/2005

This is in response to both Tony Luke and Vernon Clayson.

First, re Vernon’s point about impeachment:
The impeachment of a president amounts to the bringing of a charge or an indictment; it is not a conviction. Thus, while Clinton was impeached, he was not convicted; i.e., he was not found guilty of the alleged crime. If I remember correctly, he was charged with giving false testimony; not for having sex. Whether I am a Clintonian or not, as Vernon charged, is irrelevant to the issue at hand; namely, the comparative seriousness of the “crimes” proven or alleged to have been committed by the Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and G. W. Bush administrations. This is what Rick was asking about originally, and this is what I wrote about in earlier comments. I criticized Clinton for his actions on several counts in my previous comments. In so doing, I implied that I believe he had illicit sex and that he was disingenuous in his testimony, even though he wasn’t convicted on the charge brought against him. What more can I say? Oh, this: he was stupid, as well. I agree with you; it was “foolish” conduct and politically disastrous. Nonetheless, I still think that his sex act and his disingenuous testimony were lesser “crimes” than the alleged and/or proven crimes associated with Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the CIA leak and associated lies that took the country into war.

Watergate, Iran-Contra, and CIA-Iraq War have to do with grave Constitutional issues; Clinton’s act was sordid, disrespectful to the office of the presidency, and a violation of the trust we place in the person occupying the office, but it was not a grave Constitutional “crime.” He should have been censured by the Senate, not impeached. One could argue that this impeachment was an abuse of Congressional power. To draw an analogy, I don’t approve of the Reconstruction policies carried out by President Andrew Johnson (I am not a Johnsonian), but I think it’s accurate to say that Congress’s impeachment of him was tantamount to abuse of power. (I say that even though I sympathize more with the Radical Republicans than President Johnson).

Second, about Vernon’s comment regarding my not being a neutral observer:
Isn’t that an ad hominem argument? Deal with my argument, please, not what you presume about my neutrality. I’ll extend you the same courtesy.

Third, re Tony Luke’s and Vernon’s observations about (a) Libby having been indicted, not convicted; (b) Libby having been indicted for obstruction, perjury, and false statements, not for outing a CIA operative:
I prefaced my original comments with “Assuming that Libby is guilty . . . .” That said, I went on to address Rick’s question with the implied understanding that it was in the spirit of “if Libby and his cohorts are guilty, then . . . .” But beyond that, look, I am a historian and a citizen, not a U.S, prosecutor. I don’t have to follow the strict rules of criminal law. I only have to follow the rules of historical integrity, logic, and evidence to present a plausible theory/argument about this case. Although Fitzgerald didn’t charge Libby for revealing that Valerie Wilson was covertly CIA (for reasons Fitzgerald explained in his oral remarks), in his written indictment he presented evidence (yet to be challenged in court) that Libby told reporters about Wilson and obstructed the investigation into the what, how, and why of the case. (Indeed, it appears that Libby’s defense will not be that he didn’t "out" Valerie Wilson; it will be that when he talked about her to reporters he forgot that he had talked to other high government officials about Velerie and Joe Wilson.) As a historian and not a criminal prosecutor, I (and others) are saying that there seems to be abundant evidence that Libby’s actions were designed to discredit and punish Joe Wilson for challenging the administration’s justification for going to war and that, beyond Libby, there was a White House conspiracy to do so. (It was a conspiracy to make an ad hominem case against Wilson in order to avoid debating the merits of the case for war.) If this historical-theory-based-on-available-evidence turns out to be correct, Libby's actions, and those of his co-conspirators, amount to a very grave Constitutional crime. That’s all I was saying.

John H. Lederer - 10/29/2005

Wow! You all must see a lot that I don't.

Assuming the indictment is correct, Libby appears to have lied to conceal the fact that he had attempted to correct a wrong assertion by himself revealing correct information that was classified.

Punitive? I don't think so. Were he out to "get" WIlson there were probably more effective ways to do so.

Silence critics? Doesn't seem like that fits the facts.

HNN - 10/29/2005

Here are the distinctions I was trying to make, perhaps inadequately.

In its consequences the Lewinsky scandal was serious and comparable to Watergate and Iran-contra.

But the underlying act behind the Clinton scandal was hardly comparable to the abuse of power evident in the other two.

Maia Cowan - 10/29/2005

Rick, you lost me when you compared Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky (Linda Tripp wasn't fired until January 2001, and that was because she was in the category of employees expected to resign when the Administration changes) to the people who lost their jobs in the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. Then again, having to reach so low to find "White House aides" who lost their jobs because of Clinton's scandals shows just how the Clinton scandals, unlike the others, did not involve actual crimes committed by high-ranking White House officials.

The "scandal" of Watergate and Iran-Contra was that, if the American people had never learned what those presidential Administrations were doing, we would still have been harmed by their actions. By contrast, if we had never heard of Monica Lewinsky, we would have been completely unaffected by Clinton's dalliance with her. The "scandal" of the Clinton scandals was that his political enemies dragged the country into the muck to prevent Clinton from doing his job.

Vernon Clayson - 10/29/2005

Jeffrey is hardly a neutral observer, he fails to see any allegations in Libby's conduct, it's all crime. With Clinton he uses "alleged" when, in fact and in a conviction, Clinton was impreaced. No allegation remains in contention in that matter except in the loving hearts of Clintonians.
Libby was not a president, he was merely an appointee. Jeffrey, if comparing apples and oranges ever fit a situation, you've done it. Loosen up and let the matter play itself out, Libby will be a minor footnote, Clinton will be the standard for the most foolish conduct earning impeachment.

Tony Luke - 10/29/2005

Point of order: Mr. Libby was NOT indicted for "outing a CIA official" or for "leaking classified information." He was indicted for allegedly lying to the FBI and the grand jury about what he knew and how he came to know it.

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/28/2005

Assuming that Libby is guilty---as well as Rove, Cheney, and Bush---this is a very serious scandal, not only because of its political impact on the Bush presidency but also because of the nature of the crime; i.e., it was not only a crime of outing a CIA official and leaking classified information for reasons of political vindictiveness; the reasons also had to do with covering up the administration’s fabrications about its launching of an aggressive war (aggression defined in the dictionary and historical sense of “unprovoked initiation of a military attack against another nation”). Iran-Contra was similarly a Constitutional crime and breach of public trust. One of the many abuse-of-power crimes of Watergate was Nixon’s attempt to protect the secret policies he was pursuing in relation to the Vietnam War. These three scandals are all serious, involving as they do high crimes and misdemeanors.

Clinton’s alleged crime, which had to do with lying about sordid sex, did not, if I recall correctly, even amount to perjury. He was wrong in the illicit sex act, he betrayed his trust, he set a terrible example, but his crime did not involve lying a great nation into war, with all of the ramifications associated with that.