The Presidential Follies

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WHEN THE IRAN-CONTRA STORY BROKE LAST NOVEMBER, A NUMBER OF public figures as well as news commentators put the revelations in a historical context. Walter Mondale said in a New York Times interview: “It was all so knowable. Did they really think they could get away with it—violate the law and nobody would care?...They were so full of hubris....”

Shades of Thucydides! Was Mondale really aware of the range of judgments he had brought reverberating back down through the ages? As witness to another democracy being shaken by adventurers two thousand years ago, Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War with the idea that “in the course of human things,” events would repeat themselves, that “the future...must resemble if not exactly reflect [the past].” Implicit was the hope that if people could recognize and understand the mistakes of the past, they would not repeat them.

But he also wrote that “an exact knowledge of the past [could be] an aid to the interpretation of the future.” So a crucial question arises: Can a knowledge of history actually give you the power to predict? The question struck me in a rather startling way. I had been working, by coincidence, on a book dealing with political scandals in American history. When Iran-contra broke, I was comparing some similarities between Teapot Dome and Watergate. I recalled Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall’s physical breakdown in the face of the rising pressures of the Teapot Dome investigations, not to mention President Warren G. Harding’s fatal illness in anticipation of the scandal’s breaking. I also remembered Richard Nixon’s attack of phlebitis under the pressure of facing an impeachment trial. With these thoughts in mind I casually said to my wife, “If the pattern holds, before this thing is over I’d say at least one of the principals is going to become seriously ill.” A few weeks later, to my honest astonishment, William Casey collapsed with a brain tumor. Just days after, Ronald Reagan went into the hospital with a swollen prostate and polyps on his colon. And soon after that Robert C. McFarlane attempted suicide.

Rather disconcerted, I turned to the history of the Crédit Mobilier scandal in the Grant administration. I could then look at the records side-by-side of four major scandals in American history (the fourth still unwinding on the front pages of the newspapers). With the facts spread out on my worktable, I could see not only a provocative pattern but at least a dozen striking similarities, the first being a combination of secret doings saturated with what Mondale recognized as hubris—that wonderful Greek word combining pride and arrogance.

Crédit Mobilier, the first scandal on my charts, got its name from a defunct Pennsylvania firm that was resuscitated expressly to handle the government contracts for the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1872, during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, not only was Crédit Mobilier revealed to be skimming considerable cream off those contracts (its stock was paying dividends of 60 to 80 percent), but one of its owners—Congressman Oakes Ames of Massachusetts was “selling” shares in the company to a number of prominent government officials who could influence the vote on further funds for the railroad.

Teapot Dome, the second scandal, occurred in the early years of this century, after the U.S. Navy had switched its fuel from coal to oil. First President Taft and then President Wilson set aside two great undeveloped but proven oil fields —Elk Hills in California and Teapot Dome in Wyoming—as emergency reserves. Both were explicitly put under control of the Secretary of the Navy. But in 1922 it was learned that both reserves had been secretly leased to private oil companies for their own exploitation and profit. And it had been done under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, a man who suddenly and mysteriously had risen from near bankruptcy to considerable wealth.

Watergate, the third major scandal, brought something unique to the game. Although it, too, involved millions of dollars that were secretly gathered and disbursed by high government officials, the purpose was not for private gain but for political power. Watergate got its name from a hotel-office complex where the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters was broken into in an attempt to rob the files, copy private documents, and plant phone bugs and wiretaps as part of an overall strategy to undermine the opposition and reelect President Nixon.

Now comes the Iran-contra affair, another set of secret acts. These involved an ex-officio group responsible only to the President secretly selling arms to a terrorist country that, in the President’s own words, was guilty of “acts of war against the United States.” It was an attempt to buy the freedom of American hostages and then to divert profits from the sales to supply arms to the Nicaraguan contra army in defiance of a law passed by Congress.