Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) was elected as a war hero—the Northern General who’d defeated the South in the Civil War. After the shooting stopped, the United States were anything but united. The Southern states were crippled as the Northern ones prospered…and corruption ruled the land.
Grant’s popularity declined as evidence of serious political chicanery came to light. As money and land grants were given to railroad companies in the West, it was discovered that members of Congress were bribed to vote in the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad. In the Whiskey Ring Scandal, a group of distillers and tax officers defrauded the U.S. Treasury out of revenue tax on whiskey. Grant was not found personally responsible in either scandal, but lost support by appointing people who turned out to be dishonest, and continuing to back them after their dishonesty was revealed.¹
The visionary leadership that America needed after the Civil War, assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and divisive Presidency of Andrew Johnson, was not to be. In a time of money-grubbing self-interest, no constituency went less served than the former slaves over whom the Civil War had been fought. It is ironic that Grant’s narrow election victory was decided by African Americans in Southern states…considering that African Americans would have to wait another hundred years before their civil rights were finally legislated.
Warren Harding (1921-1923) was a popular President for an America tired of fighting the First World War. The highest tariffs in history were passed during his administration, and an immigration restriction law.
The Teapot Dome Scandal involved Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, who convinced the Secretary of the Navy to transfer naval oil reserves to the control of the Interior Department. Harding signed the executive order for the transfer. Fall then leased oil drilling rights in the Elk Hills, CA, and Teapot Dome, WY, reserves to oil men, and received Liberty Bonds and large “loans” in exchange. Fall resigned from the cabinet and was later convicted for his role in the affair, serving nine months in prison.
Harding’s long-time friend and political benefactor, Attorney General Harry Daugherty, also resigned due to a scandal involving graft by the Alien Property custodian and director of the Veteran’s Bureau.
The Harding administration saw much scandal for its 2 ½ years. The President died mysteriously in San Francisco after contracting influenza. His wife returned immediately to Washington, D.C., and burned all of his papers.¹
Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) was the first American President to resign, as his role was discovered in covering up a burglary, by agents of his re-election committee, of the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.
Early in his career, Nixon had dodged an allegation of corruption and turned it to his political advantage. In 1952, while running for Vice President, he was accused of having a secret trust fund set up by supporters. Nixon decided to go on national TV with a live speech, inviting investigation of his finances and stating that no donor had asked for or received any favors. The emotional clincher was his statement that one admirer had sent the family a cocker spaniel puppy named Checkers. “The kids love that dog,” he declared, “and I want to say right now that regardless of what they say, we’re going to keep it.”
The "Checkers Speech" saved Nixon's career. Dwight Eisenhower kept him on the ticket and he went on to serve eight years as Vice President.
In 1960 Nixon ran for President, losing a close race to John F. Kennedy. Two years later he lost a bitter race for Governor of California to Pat Brown and retired from politics, telling the press, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
But Nixon apparently had a change of heart as he worked over the next six years on behalf of fellow Republicans. In 1968 he was able to win the party's nomination for President. He went on to beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the general election on a promise of "law and order" and a "secret plan to end the war in Vietnam," which he said he "couldn't reveal without damaging national security."
Upon Nixon's election, the secret plan to end the war in Vietnam never unfolded. Yet four years later, with the war still raging, he won a landslide re-election against Democratic Party "peacenik" George McGovern. The Republicans' rout did damage to the Democrats' anti-war mettle that lasted until the Iraq fatigue of the 2006 elections.
But as it turned out, Nixon's landslide re-election was the highlight of his abbreviated second term. Vietnam got worse and worse. His Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from office and was convicted in federal court on a felony charge of income tax evasion. Nixon appointed Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan to replace him.
Nixon's second term derailed over the Watergate break-in. What finished his presidency was his decision in April, 1974, to release edited transcripts of taped White House conversations that he thought would assure the public of his innocence over Watergate. They did exactly the opposite, precipitating his resignation.
Soon the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release additional tapes sought by the special Watergate prosecutor as evidence in criminal proceedings. Three of these recordings documented Nixon’s personal role in the Watergate cover-up.
With Congressional support gone, Nixon resigned the Presidency on August 9, 1974. Gerald Ford was sworn in as president and declared, "Our long national nightmare is over."
Ford's hopeful words earned him a brief honeymoon with an American public sick and tired of Watergate. But the honeymoon ended several weeks later, when Ford pardoned Nixon for any and all crimes he may have committed while President. The public’s harsh reaction to the pardon—including the suspicion that it had been pre-arranged when Nixon picked Ford for VP—played a role in Ford's 1976 defeat by Jimmy Carter.
Nixon, freed from the cares of the White House and the prospect of criminal prosecution, worked to win back respect on the world stage as an elder statesman, and succeeded. His funeral in 1994 was attended by all five living Presidents--Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton.¹
Indeed, alongside Vietnam and Watergate are accomplishments by Nixon that stand in stark contrast to the similarly controversial presidency of George W. Bush: for example, his signing of the Clean Water Act and establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, both to be severely weakened by Bush; his widely hailed diplomatic outreach to China vs. Bush's go it alone, anti-diplomacy tack; and his visit to the Lincoln Memorial on May 9, 1970 to chat with anti-war protestors, vs. Bush's refusal to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq.
However divisive the Nixon years, it's easy to wax nostalgic for a national press that helped expose a scandal instead of cover it up, and for a Supreme Court and Congress that were strong enough to make the White House hand over evidence of criminal wrong-doing. "One of the best things about having three branches of government," said Senator Sam Ervin at the time, "is that it's hard to corrupt all three at the same time."
But then came 2001-2009.
George W. Bush (2001-2009) came to office through a Supreme Court decision following a contested plurality of 537 votes in Florida, and his defeat by over half a million votes in the popular election. Most Americans know how narrow the vote was in Florida, but not why.
Five months before the election, George Bush’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, had 57,700 people purged from the voter rolls—ostensibly for being convicted felons, who were not allowed by Florida law to vote. As it turns out, over 90% of the voters on the hit list were not felons at all. Some of their supposed felonies were actually dated in the future. It was an overwhelmingly Democratic list of voters—over half blacks and Hispanics. Had these citizens not been prevented from voting, Al Gore would have been elected President of the United States.²
With six years in public office as Governor of Texas, Bush was new to foreign affairs, as evidenced by an interview during the campaign in which he could not identify a number of leaders of major countries. But savvy political handler Karl Rove knew that Bush's surplus of style could make up for his deficit of substance with many American voters. Rove groomed Bush’s image as a Washington outsider (though a Yale-educated President's son), born again Christian and down home cowboy.
The cowboy image being used in the run for the White House required a "ranch," a la Reagan. In 1999, Bush purchased a property in Crawford, Texas. Although no actual ranching ever went on there, the President busied himself clearing brush and riding his mountain bike around the property. He liked his "ranch" so much that he spent a greater percentage of his time on vacation than any President in American history.³
But then, George W. Bush had many cares of the office to escape. While at the ranch on a six week vacation in August, 2001, he received a memo from Condoleeza Rice entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
That's what happened a few weeks later on September 11 —apparently after no special effort by the White House to step up protection against the hijackings that were being predicted by intelligence reports.
Four years later, also while on an extended vacation at the "ranch," Bush was briefed on the destruction about to be unleashed on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. The meeting was videotaped. Bush asked no questions. He then flew to California to raise money for Republican candidates.
Meanwhile, Bush's politically appointed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, was unprepared to handle the disaster when the levies broke and New Orleans flooded—having managed only horse shows before getting the FEMA job. But he got on the job training, and the rest is history. Hurricane Katrina showed America the White House's incompetence in a new light...apart from its military adventures.
In between 9-11 and Katrina, Bush's "War on Terror" lost track of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and turned its attention to invading Iraq. Removing Saddam Hussein from power was imperative, Bush said, because (a) he had weapons of mass destruction, (b) was linked to Al Qaeda terrorists, and (c) needed to be removed in order to make that country safe for democracy. All of the reasons given for the war were soon discredited by real events, but Bush dug America in for the long haul, saying that “future Presidents” would decide when we’d leave Iraq.
Meanwhile the firm formerly run by his Vice President, Halliburton, gained multi-billion dollar contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the gulf coast by sealed, noncompetitive bids. In gratitude, Halliburton moved its corporate headquarters in 2007 from Houston to Dubai, thereby avoiding U.S. taxes.
The Bush family was not left off the War on Terror's money train. Uncle "Bucky" earned millions in a war firm sale in 2006.
Historians will record many other Bush scandals: the secret meetings of Cheney’s “Energy Council,” followed by systematic weakening of America's environmental laws and staffing of the EPA and other agencies with industry insiders, the attempt to dismantle Social Security, drug company influence on the Medicare bill, the cruel realities of the No Child Left Behind act, the bankrupting of the U.S. Treasury by waging two wars while cutting taxes--with the vast majority of benefits going to the super-rich, the torture of prisoners, the bullying of whistle blowers like Joseph Wilson (whose wife was outted as a CIA agent), another disputed election in 2004, the arrest of a number of White House appointees for assorted crimes, the mistreatment of returning war veterans at Walter Reed and other hospitals, and for a grand finale, a leading role in the collapse of the economy.
Karl Rove and other Bush insiders referred to favorable news events that helped people forget bad news as "page turners."
Now President Obama also wants America to turn the page and "look forward" rather than go after wrongdoers from the Bush administration...as if good government no longer required accountability.
Historians will likely judge the Bush scandals as far more extensive than any that disgraced Grant, Harding, Nixon, or any other American president, due to their sheer scale. He ranks 39th out of 43 presidents in the Siena Institute's survey of 238 presidential scholars released in July, 2010.
--Robert C. Keating, Editor
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