NewsStreet Scribe

Presidential Scandals From Teapot Dome to Trump

Richard Nixon leaves the White House for the last time after resigning over the Watergate scandal. Credit: White House Photo Office

“I am not a crook,” said President Richard Nixon—but he was. 

“When the president does it, it is not illegal,” he claimed—but it was. 

Fifty years ago, in 1974, Nixon was swept out of the White House on the surging tides of Watergate, a scandal that began when burglars working to re-elect the Republican president broke into Democratic headquarters at Washington’s Watergate apartments.

Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, downplayed the break-in as “a third-rate burglary attempt,” but the Watergate caper was a first-class scandal of crime and intrigue. Across America, millions were captivated by the political soap opera starring a lawless president who trumpeted slogans of “law and order.” In his book Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon, author Fred Emery said of Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, “Despite some alarms, institutions held steady, law was upheld, and a chastened republic survived.”

We may not be so lucky next time. Fifty years after Watergate, Donald Trump seems poised to return to the White House with an angry agenda of revenge and recrimination. On May 30, Trump was convicted of 34 felony charges by a New York jury after a sensational trial involving sex, fraud and hush money payments to a porn star to keep her tryst with Trump quiet during the 2016 election. Trump remains angry and unremorseful after the verdicts while a roster of Republicans have rushed to his defense. So much for the GOP being the party of law and order.

Trump is the first former president found guilty of felonies, but he is not the only chief executive to run afoul of the law or morals. During America’s “Gilded Age” of the 1870s, the Republican administration of President Ulysses Grant was plagued by the Credit Mobilier scandal, named for a phony corporation set up by executives of the powerful Union Pacific railroad during the Civil War-era construction of the transcontinental railroad. For years the fake company practiced theft, bribery and overbilling until it was exposed by journalists in 1872. Business and political leaders were named in the investigative reporting, including Grant’s own vice president, Schuyler Colfax.

The scandal sullied the Grant administration, but he remained in office, later leading a campaign against the Ku Klux Klan. Grant was also involved in a more light-hearted brush with the law when he was arrested in 1872 while driving his horse-drawn carriage at high speed in Washington. Grant was taken to the police station, where he paid a fine with gentlemanly good humor. William West was an African-American cop who arrested the president, but Grant told the officer that he would not get into trouble for making the arrest and that “he admired a man who did his duty.” Grant’s lesson of a president not being above the law is one that Donald Trump could learn from today.

During the 1884 election, Democrat Grover Cleveland, a bachelor, was said to have fathered a child “out of wedlock.” Republicans taunted him with the chanted question, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” When Cleveland won the White House, Democrats answered with a chant of their own: “Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha!”

Republican Warren Harding was elected to the White House on his birthday in 1920, but the presidency was no gift for Harding. His administration became mired in a scandal called Teapot Dome involving bribery and illegal sales of federal oil reserves by Harding’s secretary of the interior, who went to jail. Harding moaned, “My enemies I can deal with. It’s my friends that keep me walking the floor at night.”

In the 1980s, the Iran-Contra scandal smeared GOP President Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton became fodder for comedians after his dalliances with a young White House intern became public. After the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the Republican regime of George W. Bush pushed the ill-starred and ill-conceived Iraq War. Despite these massive foul-ups, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all went on to win second terms.

In November’s election, Donald Trump could confirm the sardonic words of crusading attorney Clarence Darrow: “When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become president. I’m beginning to believe it.”