The White House is supposed to be like the shining city on the hill. Americans and indeed all citizens of the world should be able to look to the person holding the highest office in the land as someone who can be trusted and relied upon; as someone who exemplifies virtue and who would never abuse the office or breach the trust of the people. But as nice as all that sounds, it’s not how things work in the real world. Almost every single American presidency has involved at least some scandal, though many either passed largely unnoticed or else have been smoothed over by the passage of the years.
Then, on the other hand, you have incidents like the Iran-Contra mess or the Teapot Dome Scandal that are sure to be remembered for as long as American history is still being studied. In case neither of those scandals rings a bell with you, then you are in the right place, because you have a bit of studying up to do on your presidential scandal history. Here are 15 examples of times when the President of the United States of America failed to live up to the ideals of the office in a truly spectacular fashion.
15. Johnson – Impeached
14. Jefferson – The First Sex Scandal
Thomas Jefferson was many things: he was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, he was an amateur but accomplished architect, he was the third President of the United States of America, and he was the first president embroiled in a sex scandal. Jefferson’s intimate affairs were particularly awkward as they involved a woman he owned as a slave. At the time, it was widely believed that Jefferson had not only had relations with Sally Hemmings, but had in fact fathered one of her children. In the late 1990s, DNA testing of their descendants pretty much confirmed it.
13. Ford – Forgiving Nixon
Poor Gerald Ford… not only was he one of the shortest serving presidents of all time, being in office only for two years and six months, but he was also the only president never to be elected to the office. Ever. He was sworn in after Nixon vacated the White House in disgrace, and then lost his re-election bid a few years later to Jimmy Carter. What was the major glitch with Ford, the so-called Accidental President? His scandalous act was to give a full pardon to his scandal-plagued predecessor, thereby protecting Nixon from legal action and robbing the American public from the right to hold the man accountable.
12. Truman – Gifts Aplenty
President Harry Truman assumed office after the death of FDR, inheriting leadership during the final months of WWII and being forced to make the decision to use the world’s first nuclear weapons. Generally unpopular when he left office, Truman’s image has been burnished some over the years, but no presidential scholars have forgotten his administration’s penchant for giving gifts. Apparently dozens of members of the Internal Revenue Bureau (forbear of the IRS of today) were given lavish gifts, including fur coats and appliances. The bribery was uncovered and more than 150 bureau personnel were fired, as were several members of the Justice Department.
11. Clinton – Whitewater
The so-called Whitewater Scandal that plagued much of Bill Clinton’s first term in office was a lot more noise than substance, but the Republicans squared off against Clinton (the Clintons, really, as Hillary was also implicated in the mess) certainly made a lot of noise. At issue were investments the Clintons had made in business known as the Whitewater Development Corporation. It seemed, for a time, as though the Clintons had pressured other investors into making a series of illegal loans in support of the business, hoping to bolster some land deals in which they had interest. In fact, while many other people were convicted of criminal activity related to the venture, the Clintons were never even formally charged.
10. Grant – Whiskey, Of Course
President Ulysses Simpson Grant was famed for his love of whiskey; indeed he was almost as well known for his drinking as for his being the victorious commander of the Union Army during the Civil War thing. So it should come as little surprise that the major scandal of Grant’s presidency involved… whiskey. While Grant was likely not a direct participant in the Whiskey Ring Scandal, which saw a group of distillers, distributors, and government officials working in cahoots to siphon off major sums of tax revenue, the mess was emblematic of the loose reins kept on those in his administration. Grant’s own personal secretary was even implicated.
9. Taft – The Ballinger Affair
On the heels of the nascent conservation movement that had grown up under President Theodore Roosevelt came the presidency of William Howard Taft. His administration cared less about nature and more about business, thus echoing our current times all too well. Taft appointed Richard Ballinger as Secretary of the Interior, and Ballinger quickly revoked the protected status of millions of acres of land in Alaska, returning the land to private hands and opening it for resource exploitation. Ballinger also cozied up to various private entities with interests in land and water issues. When several government officials decried the secretary’s activities, Taft responded by promptly firing them under questionable pretenses.
8. Johnson – The Bobby Baker Mess
The Bobby Baker Scandal was almost a massive mess for President Lyndon B. Johnson, but ended up fizzling out before it brought down LBJ. In the modern era, it likely would have tanked Johnson. Why? Sex and bribery and lies all in one package. During the early 60s, Baker co-established a business that installed vending machines in companies funded by federal grants. It seems he secured his contracts by arranging bribes and the distribution of sexual favors. And it’s quite possible that LBJ knew all about it; they had been known associates for years. Fortunately for Johnson, Baker resigned from his position and eschewed the opportunity to work with the government shortly before historical events conspired to usher LBJ into office.
7. Wilson – Killing for Love?
Did President Woodrow Wilson murder his first wife in the summer of 1914 so that he could wed a new woman within little more than a year? Or did Ellen Louise Axson die of natural causes, and then Wilson and Edith Galt just kind of moved quickly? Many suspected foul play in the Wilson Engagement Affair, while still others knew it was preposterous to assert that the champion of the progressive movement had killed his wife. However, you cannot deny that it was rather unseemly how quickly he had moved on to a new woman after his late wife passed away.
6. Jackson – The Appointed Fugitive
With a name like Samuel Swartwout, you pretty much have to be a dirty crook. Unfortunately, President Andrew Jackson didn’t realize that when he appointed this thieving bastard as the Collector of the Port of New York, a position Swartwout held from 1830 to 1838. Jackson appointed Swartwout during a government recess, knowing many would oppose the less-than-honorable man’s installation in such an important post. And indeed during his tenure as the Collector of the Port, Swartwout embezzled an alleged $1.2+ million, a massive sum at the time. Then he fled to England to escape prosecution, though he later returned after paying back a lesser amount.
5. Clinton – Lewinsky
Alright, I’m sorry, President Clinton. I actually have immense respect for the 42nd President of the United States and I hate to make him the only two-timer on the list, as it were… but history is history, and the guy faced his share of scandals. The Monica Lewinsky affair really had no business being in the public eye, as the entire mess was related to personal and intimate matters (meaning sex-related, e.g.). But when Clinton came out flatly denying all allegations of an improper affair, he was lying, or at best dissembling. And after that, he was in breach of the trust of the American people and deserved the heat.
4. Harding – Teapot Dome Scandal
It sounds almost cute, doesn’t it? The Teapot Dome Scandal. Heh. Well, in fact this was one of the worst cases of corruption ever perpetrated by American government officials, so wipe off the grin. The incident involved members of Warren Harding’s administration granting access to federal property for use by a group of private oil companies without competitive bids and without proper vetting. The officials essentially handed over oil-drilling rights, and all for a measly massive pile of cash in bribes. No one was ever convicted of paying the bribes, but no one doubted that it had happened, either.
3. Bush – Story time during 9/11
Oh, George W. Bush. So many scandals to choose from but so little time. Alright, let’s go with his horrendous response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Can we ever forget that infamous clip of him reading a book to an innocent gaggle of children, even after he was informed of the Twin Tower attacks? America was literally under attack and our former president thought it pertinent to keep reading to his young audience. We get it, reading is fundamental. But we expect the commander-in-chief to…well act like the commander-in-chief. He could have easily excused himself from the class without inducing panic or scaring the kids. Even after the reading lesson, Bush was seen lingering and looking generally uncomfortable for several minutes. Reacting to a major national crisis was never a forte of his. Hurricane Katrina anyone?
2. Regan – Iran-Contra
The Iran-Contra Affair truly is shocking when you understand just how carefully calculated the deception really was. Here’s the breakdown: there were American hostages held in Lebanon, and there was a government in Nicaragua hostile to American interests. Got it so far? The government never paid for hostage releases, and had been specifically restricted from funding the Contras, the rebels opposed to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. So instead members of Ronald Regan’s government worked out a deal where Israel shipped weapons to Iran, which then negotiated for the hostage release as a surrogate. We then sold new weapons to Israel to resupply them, which was fine, they were allies, all good on paper. Then some of the money from that sneaky sale was diverted to the Contras, directly violating an act of congress. Got it?
1. Nixon – Watergate
Well of course Watergate is going to be the headline as the worst-ever presidential scandal, the whole thing was a damned travesty. And unlike so many presidential scandals that merely happen on the POTUS’ watch, this one occurred with direct knowledge of Richard Millhouse Nixon. The long and short of it is that men working on behalf of Nixon’s administration broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex, hoping to obtain information that could be used to damage the reputation of various opposition politicians. It was a dirty, illegal plan from the get-go, and once all the pieces started coming to light, it led to the only ever presidential resignation. So far, anyway…
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