President Clinton is obviously not the first chief executive to be accused of misbehavior while in office. Long before Whitewater, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Travelgate, Filegate, and the controversy over campaign finances, there were numerous tales of abuse of power, corruption, and bribery linked to cabinet officials and to the White House itself.
Sexual affairs seem to have been almost commonplace in the history of the presidency. Yet the more damaging, if not outright illegal, actions of presidents have fortunately been less frequent.
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Though respect for the office of the president had kept many sex scandals from the eyes of the public while the president in question was still in office, the highly publicized allegations of President Clinton's affair with a White House intern are hardly the first charges of presidential infidelity in our nation's history. In fact, the Father of our Country, George Washington himself, is believed to have cheated on Martha. In many cases, the media kept the sexual liaisons of the commander-in-chief out of the public spotlight, though it is now common knowledge that Presidents John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Thomas Jefferson carried on extra-marital affairs before and during their term in the White House.
Less well-known but perhaps more inflammatory were actions by Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child; he openly admitted the fact and went on to be elected president.
In general, sexual scandals seem less politically explosive for the act itself than for the subsequent cover-up, if any, which can lead to criminal charges. Ten presidents were purported to have had extramarital affairs: Bush, Clinton, Eisenhower, Harding, Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Washington, and Wilson.
Some, including Bush, Harding, Lincoln, and Johnson, were able to weather the storm by labeling the allegations "gossip." Patriotic fervor over the Allied victory allowed Eisenhower to largely ignore reports that he had had an affair in England during World War II. Allegations of infidelity on the part of Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy remained rumors, largely unsubstantiated until after their death, while Wilson and Clinton both managed to overcome the political liability of their liaisons to become two-term presidents.
Presidential Scandal: The Early Years
President Ulysses S. Grant was surrounded by corrupt officials even before he entered office. During the campaign it became clear that Grant's colleagues in the Republican Party were involved in the Crédit Mobilier, a shell company formed to siphon federal money out of the Union Pacific Railroad. Grant's second term didn't fare much better, with a succession of scandals that ultimately overshadowed Grant's legacy as a Civil War hero. The Crédit Mobilier scandal claimed Grant's vice president, Schuyler Colfax, as a victim when the congressional investigation ended his political career.
The Whiskey Ring scandal in 1875 featured high-level government officials conspiring with others to defraud the government of tax revenues on the sale of whiskey. Grant's private secretary was later implicated in government corruption, and his Secretary of War, William Belknap, was impeached for bribery.
The Great War And Modern Scandal
Though every president seems enveloped in controversy at least once during his term, most of those deemed "scandalous" share the added distinction of serving just after, if not amidst, a military crisis. It is almost as though the patriotism that unites the country also serves as a smokescreen behind which unsavory deeds can be hidden.
The years immediately following World War I saw a resurgence in political corruption, and one of the most notorious scandals in presidential history. The Teapot Dome Scandal during Warren G. Harding's presidency began in 1921 when Harding, in a move subsequently deemed illegal by the Supreme Court, transferred responsibility for naval oil reserve lands to the Department of the Interior. The Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, went on to exploit those rights for his own gain, in 1922 secretly granting exclusive ights to the Teapot Dome reserve in Wyoming to the Mammoth Oil Company in exchange for cash and no interest "loans." He granted rights to the Elk Hills and Buena Vista Hills reserves in California to the Pan American Petroleum Company in 1921-22 for similar compensation.
No secret is kept for long in Washington, however, and the scandal soon came to light with congressional demands that the leases be abrogated. Subsequent investigations led to the arrest, trial, and conviction of Fall, the first ever for an active cabinet member.
Though it was determined that Harding himself had not benefited from the bribery, the spotlight on his administration soon revealed it to be the most corrupt collection of officials since the Grant administration, later dubbed the "Ohio Gang." Harding died before the extent of the corruption was known, but congressional investigations into the scandals and corruption that characterized his administration eventually sent two of his cabinet members to jail for bribery, while a third was tried and acquitted of conspiracy charges. Harding's most lasting legacy is the addition of "teapot dome" to the American political vernacular as a synonym for public corruption.
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