Not every scandal is Watergate Redux. If the God-fearingvoters of South Carolina could forgive Mark Sanford for his “hike” off theAppalachian Trail, then it may not come as a shock that Americans are cuttingthe president some slack over IRS overreach, a concerted Justice Department waron the press, and the deadly fiasco in Libya, followed by a bumbling attempt toget the story straight.
Even scandals have hierarchies. Nowadays, voters are proneto judge politicians less harshly when the alleged wrongdoings involvedefending the country or sins of the flesh. Avarice will likely bring apolitician down, unless the pol can be portrayed as a champion of the littleguy or a cause. However, when the scandal is hatched in the White House, and isa raw abuse of power for its own sake, all bets are off.
National security? Think back to the Iran-Contra affair, inwhich the Reagan administration traded arms for hostages with Iran and usedthe proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Newspapers howled, Congress investigated, and the “I” word, impeachment, wasbandied about. In the end, however, Ronald Reagan served his two full terms,and Vice President George H.W. Bush won the 1988 presidential election goingaway.
Sex? Louisiana gave Senator David Vitter a pass, just asSanford’s constituents did this month. By contrast, New York’s EliotSpitzer and Anthony Weiner resigned in disgrace because their proclivities struck toomany as just too odd.
Greed? It ranks in the upper tier of the scandal scale.Unless the accused can garner sympathy, the pol is usually finished. In thelast decade, Representatives Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, William Jefferson—a diverse lot—took bribes and went to prison. Nobody shed a tear.
But, if a politician can transform financial irregularitiesinto something bigger than himself, he can grow up to be president. TakeRichard Nixon, who as a senator in the early 1950s, was aided by a donor-fundedcampaign slush fund. After having been tapped by Dwight Eisenhower to be hisrunning mate on the 1952 Republican presidential ticket, Nixon’s salarysupplement came to light.
Invoking his daughters’ dog and his wife’s cloth coat, Nixon delivered his infamous Checkers Speech.The speech riffed off Nixon’s ownclass resentments, and played to the GOP’s Main Street base. Ike, the five-stargeneral, had been outflanked.
More than a decade later, when faced with an investigationand expulsion from Congress for misusing congressional funds, HarlemCongressman Adam Clayton Powell told his supporters to “keep the faith,” andfor a while they did. After he was expelled from the House, Powell’sconstituents reelected him, until he was defeated in the 1970 Democraticprimary by a former federal prosecutor named Charles Rangel.
History can repeat itself. Rangel, after having beencensured by the House in late 2010 for a litany of abuses, survived reelection.
Watergate? It remains the gold standard of scandal. Nixon harnessed his own personal demons tothe presidency, orchestrated a criminal conspiracy from the White House,subverted the FBI, and, yes, unleashed the IRS upon his political enemies. Abroad bipartisan House Judiciary Committee majority found his sins to rise tothe level of impeachable offenses. The late New York Congressman Hamilton Fish,Jr., personally took Nixon to task for failing to supervise hissubordinates. According to Fish, “thesize and complexity” of the Executive Branch did not excuse the president fromlax or nonexistent oversight.
So where does today’s scandal cluster leave President Obama?In a recent CNN poll, a majority said the wave of scandals raises importantissues, and that Congress isn’t overreacting. Nearly three in four told Washington Post pollsters the IRS actedinappropriately. Six of 10 told a Fox News survey that the administration went too far inseizing Associated Press phone records. As for the IRS, its reputation hastaken a beating.
Still, the public’s view is nuanced, buffeted by thecompeting concerns of free expression and national security, a tension alludedto by Obama during his speech at the National Defense University onThursday. If Iran-Contra teaches us anything, it is that Americans will live with amodicum of Executive Branch law-breaking if it is the price for keeping ourenemies at bay.
This is not to say that people shouldn’t be outraged by theIRS’s antics and the DOJ’s intimidation. Indeed, they should be. A government agency targeted opponents of thepresident while they exercised their constitutional rights. A Cabinetdepartment sought to intimidate—incriminate, more likely—the press, and itwasn’t only the AP: the administration has clashed with Fox News since DayOne and may have retaliated against CBS News for its reporting on the “Fastand Furious” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms debacle.In all fairness, it also could have been the Chinese or others with a gripewith the Tiffany Network.
Yet the scandal fair has led to an air of a government runamok. Lois Lerner, who headed the tax-exempt-organizations division of the IRS,has now been placed on administrative leave after she invoked the FifthAmendment before Congress. Like New York City schoolteachers consigned to the“rubber room,” Lerner cannot be easily dismissed.
As for the DOJ, it remains in the news for charging Fox NewsWashington Bureau Chief James Rosen as an unindicted co-conspirator and reportedly seizing his parents’ phone records and those of other Fox Newsreporters. According to reports, Holder personally approved the seizure of Rosen’semail, after having recused himself in the AP investigation. [ ] For the record, Department of Justice andIRS employees collectively donated nearly $140,000 to Obama’s presidentialcampaigns. In contrast, Romney netted approximately $28,000 from both DOJ andIRS employees and McCain cobbled together little more a paltry $5,200.
Scandals, like other organisms, come with lives andtaxonomies of their own. These days, the White House seems to be tangled in agrowing web.