Two Takes on the Modern History of the 'Scandal'

A system hard-wired for this 'narrative.'
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Take One. From Mike Lofgren, best-selling author of The Party Is Over, long-time staffer for Republicans on Capitol Hill. He writes in an email:
The three Obama "scandals" have varying characteristics and varying levels of legitimacy, but all three share a meta-story. And I think I know whereof I speak as a former GOP staffer.
 
Beginning with the dethronement of Jim Wright and the House banking scandal, and achieving escape velocity in the mid-1990s with Matt Drudge becoming the virtual assignment editor of the mainstream press during the Clinton impeachment, the Washington press corps has become increasingly "wired" to accept the Republican view of what constitutes a scandal. The public has been ignoring Benghazi for 8 months; as for the Washington press, we saw how Jonathan Karl got played by Republican staffers' misrepresentations of the administration's e-mails.
Take Two. From a middling-selling author and long-ago, one-time Democratic White House aide:
Let's think about the modern history of "the scandal," and how such episodes emerge. 

The modern saga all starts with Nixon. Obviously there have been scandals throughout political history, and in the immediate pre-Nixon era you had Bobby Baker, Billy Sol Estes and Walter Jenkins with LBJ; Sherman Adams under Eisenhower; and such different political dramas as the Army-McCarthy hearings in the early Eisenhower era and the Bay of Pigs aftermath under JFK. But Nixon marked the beginning of the modern scandal era. That is because the phenomena of the televised high-stakes public inquiries (as with the Watergate hearings and impeachment preparations) really dates to then, as does modern press-consciousness of how coverage of a big, exciting scandal looks and feels.

I. The main stops along the way:
  Nixon: Watergate -> hearings -> dramatic revelations -> Supreme Court hearing -> impeachment -> resignation.
  Also under Nixon: Spiro Agnew taking a brown paper bag full of bribery money, in his Vice Presidential office, and having to resign, something barely remembered now.
  Nixon era: Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick.

  Ford: None really.

  Carter: No long-running ones, despite flaps about his budget director and his chief of staff. But his era marks a major change, since round-the-clock news coverage was just getting going then, and Ted Koppel's Nightline, originally known as America Held Hostage, pioneered what we now think of as scandal-style coverage, of the American captives in Teheran.

 Reagan: The Iran-contra mess, complete with Fawn Hall and Oliver North.

 GHW Bush: None, really, though the Clarence Thomas nomination got scandal-style coverage because of the charges against him and the dramatic hearings.

Clinton: First the phony scandals of Whitewater and Vince Foster. Then the real problems via Monica Lewinsky. Clinton era notable for the creation/revelation of something like a permanent-scandal mentality in politics and the press.

GW Bush: Few scandals in the technical sense. But the election, recount, and judicial overreach known as Bush v. Gore got scandal-style coverage. Then Abu Ghraib, waterboarding and torture, and the war as a whole.

Obama: In his first term, the phony scandals of birtherism and Shirley Sherrod. Now the three-"scandal" combo made of elements that have nothing whatsoever to do with one another and don't necessarily have anything to do with Obama himself but that nonetheless satisfy that phantom-limb craving for a good exciting scandal.

II. What a Scandal Takes, to Take Off
  1. An underlying offense people can understand. Clinton and Monica meet this test. Also Nixon ordering wiretaps, or Agnew taking a bag of money. Iran-Contra was always sort of a struggle on this front -- for people to grasp what exactly the offense was. Today's IRS/Tea Party accusation meets the test (despite complexity of the underlying reality); Benghazi, less so.

  2. Evidence of president's personal involvement. The Watergate tapes again lead the way here -- Nixon's own voice, cursing and swearing. Monica and Clinton -- whew. Obama "scandals" lacking here.

 3. A formal hearing/ investigative structure that guarantees an ongoing daily drip-drip-drip coverage. When there is a schedule of witnesses for a hearing, an upcoming set of votes, or a sequence of new revelations, then the story can keep going for weeks, months, even years. Darrel Issa, listen up!

 4. A press culture and DC culture that is now wired to swing into "scandal mode," and start writing stories and giving commentary reflecting that "narrative." 

5. A structure of news coverage that keeps the scandal narrative going. This was probably at its strongest in the era of the weekly news magazines (Time, Newsweek, etc.) Then you would have: daily coverage in the papers; nightly coverage on TV news; weekly advancing of the narrative by news mags (and Sunday talk shows); analysis of "Administration in crisis" and "President under pressure"; and it would all keep going. Now, in a sense, the hourly / minute-by-minute cycle can make scandals "burn out" too fast. 
OK, as some may have guessed, this second take was from me. It was a note I sent to some journalist friends soon after I got back from the latest trip to China and discovered that, in my eight days' absence, the Scandal Mode switch in DC had been turned On. In a capital that might in theory be thinking about Syria or immigration or job-creation or CO2, the hot topic is Benghazi et al. I hate to be a spoil sport, but, c'mon. We've been here before. (I also discussed some similar points with Jacki Lyden this afternoon on Weekend All Things Considered.)
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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