- Historic Sites
The Presidential Follies
An old, familiar show is back in Washington. There’s a new cast, of course, but the script is pretty much the same as ever. Here’s the program.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
Grant found it impossible to believe family and friends would betray his trust.
Apart from the secrecy common to all these acts, another one of the immediate similarities (and how those ancient Greeks would have savored this) was the inconspicuous, almost eerily inevitable way all four scandals emerged into the light:
In 1868 a Crédit Mobilier stockholder who wanted to buy more shares and was afraid he was being cheated out of them complained about a block of stock that had been placed in the trust of Oakes Ames. Ames, attempting to show that he was really working for the stockholder’s own interests, explained in a series of indiscreet letters that those shares were being used where they would “produce most good to us”—among prominent members of Congress. Furthermore, on the back of one letter he noted the names of thirteen senators and representatives along with the value of the stock they’d “bought.” The disgruntled stockholder kept the letters, and when he brought suit against the company and the case went to court in 1872, they were presented as evidence.
Teapot Dome came to light even less dramatically. One day in April 1922 Sen. John B. Kendrick of Wyoming received a letter from one of his constituents asking if the local rumors about Teapot Dome’s being leased to a private company were true. Kendrick called the Navy Department, was referred to Interior, and was told there was nothing to it. Four days later Kendrick found the same rumor reported as a fact in a featured story in The Wall Street Journal. Thereupon Senator Kendrick rose on the floor of the Senate to propose a resolution that the Secretaries of the Navy and the Interior “inform the Senate” about “all proposed operating agreements” having to do with Navy oil reserves. His fellow senators, almost as a matter of routine, voted agreement without comment or a roll call.
About 2:00 A.M. on June 17, 1972, a security guard making his rounds in the Watergate hotel-office building found the latches on two doors taped open. He removed the tape, making sure the door would close and lock. Returning a half-hour later on his rounds, he again found the latches taped open. He called the police, and on the sixth floor of the building they caught five men hiding inside the office of the Democratic National Committee. Two of the men had in their pockets the address and phone number of E. Howard Hunt, a CIA official and a recent consultant to Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon.
Iran-gate emerged on November 3,1986, on the eve of a surprisingly tight and hardfought congressional election, as the Reagan administration was enthusiastically hailing the release after nearly eighteen months of David Jacobsen, one of several American hostages held by Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militants. In view of Ronald Reagan’s public denunciations of Iran as a monster of terrorism, his pressure on allies to join a U.S. embargo on selling arms to Iran, and his repeated insistence on making no concessions to terrorists, the release was regarded jubilantly as the sign of a shift in Iranian policies. On the same day, however, an article in a Lebanese weekly magazine stated that after a secret visit to Teheran a little more than a month before by Robert McFarlane, the former national security adviser to the President, the United States had sent Iran a shipment of spare parts and ammunition for fighter planes and tanks.
In all four cases the public was shocked by the involvement of some of the highest government officials:
In Crédit Mobilier, Oakes Ames’s note named Grant’s outgoing Vice-President, Schuyler Colfax, and Sen. Henry Wilson, Grant’s current running mate, along with eleven other prominent senators and representatives and such rising stars as the Speaker of the House, James Blaine, and Rep. James Garfield. The overriding question was how much President Grant knew or did not know.
Teapot Dome involved two flamboyant oil tycoons of the day—Edward L. Doheny and Harry Sinclair—along with Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior, and Edwin Denby, Secretary of the Navy. Other names soon besmirched with oil were those of Postmaster General Will Hays, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (son of the former President), and William McAdoo, the son-in-law and Secretary of the Treasury of Woodrow Wilson. The overriding question was how much President Harding knew or did not know.
In Watergate it took a while for all the key figures to surface. But by the time they did, some twenty-four were directly linked to the White House. They included Attorney General John Mitchell; his successor, Richard Kleindienst; Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans; John W. Dean III, counsel to the President; H. R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff; John D. Ehrlichman, adviser to the President on domestic affairs; Herbert W. Kalmbach, personal attorney to President Nixon; and Robert Mardian, assistant attorney general. The overriding question was how much President Nixon knew or did not know.