Washington March 2006

Schools for Scandal

Republicans might—or might not—want to look backward for lessons on handling life under a cloud
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Legend has it that certain Eskimo tribes in northern Canada had a fiercely efficient way to dispatch elders who outlived their usefulness and became a burden on the community: put them on an ice floe and shove them off to sea. That kind of cold-eyed realism is hardly alien to the tribes of Washington, D.C., forever locked in their own struggle for survival. And if the Republican scandals centered upon the former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the lobbyist Jack Abramoff suddenly metastasize this spring, as appears likely, Republicans may find themselves looking wistfully northward. After all, it’s an election year.

What worries Republicans is that DeLay and Abramoff are both, in their way, central figures in the party—and thus poised to taint the rest. More than anyone else now in Congress, DeLay is responsible for the GOP’s majority. He built it through aggressive fundraising and an autocratic style, winning tremendous power but also a reputation for sleazy excess, which was capped last year when a Texas prosecutor indicted him for money laundering. Abramoff did his part for the GOP from outside Congress, lavishing campaign money and perks on lawmakers (including DeLay) in exchange for access and favors, until he and a partner were discovered to have bilked Indian casino clients out of $82 million.

Forecasting the effect of a brewing political storm is not unlike predicting the path of a hurricane—at best it’s an educated guess. But those whose business it is to try believe the damage from this one will be significant. According to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Abramoff and his major clients contributed money to 210 members of Congress. And the plea deals prosecutors recently cut with Abramoff and an associate could soon implicate many of them, forcing what already was a large scandal into one of historical proportions.

Despite recent advances in campaign and election strategies, political pro­fes­sionals have never really developed a science of dealing with scandal. When Washingtonians feel helpless, they tend to let historical analogy be their guide. The range of past scandals is practically limitless, but two now stand out by virtue of being Republican difficulties that dominated an election year: Watergate, of course, and Teapot Dome, which held the same psychic significance until Watergate eclipsed it a half-century later. The two episodes are illuminating because the party’s leadership approached them differently—with starkly different results.

After Watergate drove Richard Nixon from office, in 1974, Gerald Ford faced the unenviable task of leading his party in the elections three months hence. There can be little doubt that Watergate would have cost the Republicans at the polls regardless of what Ford did in the interim. But he still faced the fraught question of whether to pardon Nixon. Just a month into his term—two months before the election—Ford granted amnesty to his disgraced predecessor without extracting so much as a word of contrition.

Pardoning Nixon may have been the right thing to do for the country, as Ford claimed. But failing to hold him accountable carried a clear political cost: Ford’s approval rating dropped from 71 percent to 50 percent practically overnight. Two months later Republicans lost forty-eight seats in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate. The hangover from the pardon continued to weigh on Ford’s presidency and undoubtedly contributed to his defeat two years later.

It was a different story after the Teapot Dome affair, which came to prominence in 1923 during the presidency of Warren Harding. Much like the Abramoff scandal, this one was revealed in the course of a congressional investigation, when it came to light that Harding’s Interior secretary, Albert Fall, had surreptitiously leased drilling rights to emergency naval oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and elsewhere to the Mammoth Oil Company (actual name!) and another in exchange for $400,000 in bribes and payoffs. Harding himself managed to escape most of the uproar by dying later that year, sparing his successor, Calvin Coolidge, any agony over the question of a pardon. But Coolidge faced a plight no less daunting than Ford’s: he faced his own election the very next year. Hardly renowned for bold action, Coolidge thunderingly denounced the scandal, well in advance of the election. “I feel the public is entitled to know that in the conduct of such actions no one is shielded for any party, political, or other reasons,” he declared. “If there has been any crime it must be prosecuted … If there is any guilt it will be punished; if there is any civil liability it will be enforced; if there is any fraud it will be revealed.” Then he appointed two independent counsels, undermining his Democratic opponents.

The investigation played out across the next year, ultimately claiming the secretary of the Navy and the attorney general, in addition to the wretched Fall, who became the first Cabinet member ever jailed for misconduct while in office. By standard political mortality charts, Coolidge’s prognosis was close to terminal. Yet his forthrightness not only saved his own political life but spared his party as well. Voters returned him to office in a landslide, and Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate. “Coolidge proved that the party responsible for a scandal can renounce the scandal, turn on those who perpetrated it, and still win an election,” says Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and an expert on political scandals.

What Coolidge recognized was that the public demands accountability, starting at the top—an obvious proposition, it might seem, but one that eluded Ford and has so far eluded Bush. Whether or not a president is responsible for a scandal (neither Coolidge nor Ford was responsible for his), it is he who sets his party’s moral tone—and with the Bush administration already hit by one indictment (former vice-presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby) in the ongoing CIA leak scandal, the president is not untarnished. Coolidge carried out his vow to root out and punish those responsible for Teapot Dome and was duly rewarded, though he caught a break in that the man ultimately responsible to voters was dead. DeLay, Abramoff, et al. are, inconveniently, not dead, and in fact DeLay continues to noisily profess his innocence through very expensive attorneys, which has done little to tamp down the public’s disgust. Bush hasn’t distinguished himself here either, voicing support for DeLay long after it became clear that DeLay was doomed.

So will Bush be Ford or Coolidge? Not the kind of comparison presidents fantasize about, surely, but in the current situation an apt one (some would say very apt). Bush’s indulgence of DeLay and—more important—his silence and stasis on the growing number of scandals besetting his party have left the unindicted Republicans in a very tough spot. If he does not change course soon voters, like Eskimos, are liable to give Republicans the cold shoulder on Election Day.

Joshua Green is a senior editor of   The Atlantic.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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