The Presidential Follies


Among the first names attached to the Iran-contra affair were those of Robert McFarlane, former national security adviser; his successor, Vice Adm. John Poindexter; Lt. Col. Oliver North, a member of Poindexter’s staff; William Casey, head of the CIA; White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan; and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. The overriding question was how much President Reagan knew or did not know.

One thing also common to all four scandals—and most predictable—was the initial strenuous denial of everything by all of the principals involved:

“Libel!” cried one of the congressmen named in Crédit Mobilier. Vice-presidential candidate Henry Wilson issued a full denial. And Oakes Ames, who started it all, said simply that in his opinion “they had a perfect right to buy that stock and share in the profits without having their integrity questioned in the slightest degree.”

In Teapot Dome, when confronted with his secret leasing of the Navy oil reserves, Secretary Fall explained, “I regarded myself as a business agent of the Secretary of the Navy, acting in what I regarded as a military matter under the President of the United States.” As for profiting by the arrangement, “I have never even suggested any compensation and have received none.” This was corroborated by both the oilmen, Sinclair and Doheny, with Doheny sanctimoniously adding, “My lease was made in the interest of the United States Government.” As for Secretary of the Navy Denby, he “didn’t know” and “didn’t remember” anything, which in fact, turned out to be true.

In Watergate one of the first statements came from John Mitchell, by then Nixon’s campaign manager. None of those in the raid, he said, were “operating either on our behalf or with our consent.” The White House press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler issued a statement saying, “Charles Colson has assured me that he has in no way been involved in this matter.” Maurice Stans, the former Secretary of Commerce who had been put in charge of finances for Nixon’s reelection, denied that any money intended for the GOP campaign had helped finance the break-in. And in his first public statement after the event, President Nixon assured reporters that “the White House has no involvement whatever” in Watergate; such a thing “has no place whatever in our electoral process or in our governmental process.”

In Iran-contra no sooner was the Lebanese magazine’s article mentioned in the American press than the State Department denied it. Robert McFarlane called the report “fanciful...largely fictitious.” The White House press spokesman Larry Speakes assured reporters that the United States had made no concessions to gain Mr. Jacobsen’s release. And eleven days later in a television address to the nation, President Reagan decried the “wildly speculative and false stories about arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments. We did not—repeat—did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages—nor will we.”

Now comes the intriguing part. Given the nature of the people involved and what they had done before, can one say that each of these scandals was predictable?

Ulysses S. Grant had been President of the United States for only six months when Jim Fisk and Jay Gould attempted to corner the gold market and throw the country into financial panic. It was later discovered that the key man in making the operation work was a lobbyist named Abel Rathbone Corbin, who was also the brother-in-law of Ulysses S. Grant. But nobody was punished. And so, under the most honored, admired, and popular man in America, the Grant administration began to make its mark as one of the most corrupt regimes in American history.

A stubborn man of fierce loyalties, Grant found it impossible to believe friends and family would betray his trust. So he shrugged off rumors that another brother-in-law was selling political favors on the side. When still another relative, whom he had appointed customs collector in New Orleans, was found guilty of misconduct and malfeasance, Grant ignored the charges and reappointed him. Grant had appointed an Army friend, Gen. W. W. Belknap, to be Secretary of War. Belknap quickly discovered there was money to be made in selling the franchises for military trading posts in Indian Territory. Very soon he’d sold several, including one for forty thousand dollars to the man who already owned it. When Congress cried extortion, Grant could protect Belknap from impeachment only by accepting his immediate resignation.

Also shaping up was an elaborate fraud involving the printing, selling, and approving of forged federal revenue stamps on bottled whiskey. This was a sideline of Gen. Orville Babcock, the private secretary of President Grant. His enterprise coined three million dollars a year.

In sum, when on September 4, 1872, the New York Sun broke the story of Crédit Mobilier, it may have been shocking, but it came as no surprise.