The Presidential Follies

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The pattern of corruption repeated itself—and perhaps was predictable—after Warren G. Harding and the “Ohio gang” took office in the election of 1920. Again the country was swept with the easy money and easy morality of a postwar era. Again the country had elected a naive President who wanted to help his friends and couldn’t believe anyone would take unfair advantage of him.

By the standards of previous presidential scandals, the Iran-contra affair is still young.

In the President’s hideaway, a “Little House on H Street,” Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, and Daugherty’s sidekick Jess Smith, an Ohio dry goods merchant, kept a poker table and a supply of bootleg liquor ready at any moment to ease executive cares. They also ran a clearing house for patronage, through which many hundreds of lobbyists, fixers, and other favor seekers (including drug manufacturers who needed licenses to distill alcohol) came trooping.

On a trip to Hawaii, President Harding met Col. Charles R. Forbes, who turned out to be such great company that Harding eventually made him head of the Veterans Bureau. (It was later discovered that Forbes had been an Army deserter.) Busily building hospitals and supplying medical care for World War I veterans, Forbes in less than two years allowed more than two hundred million dollars to go astray. Twelve days after a congressional investigation was authorized, Forbes’s counsel in the Veterans Bureau, Charles Cramer, walked into his bathroom and fired a bullet into his brain. Forbes himself resigned, and later went to jail. Two months later Jess Smith, who had recently shown his girlfriend his money belt stuffed with seventy-five thousand dollars in cash, did the same thing.

So Harding was badly shaken when a friend confided that Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, his old cohort from Senate days, had accepted some hefty “gifts” in return for secret leases to the Navy’s oil reserves. “If Albert Fall isn’t an honest man,” said Harding, “I’m not fit to be President.”

The corruptions of the Nixon administration had to do with covert “tricks” and spying. Two months after his inauguration in 1969, Nixon (who promised an undisclosed plan to end the Vietnam War) started fourteen months of secretly bombing Cambodia. When The New York Times announced the fact, Nixon, in a fury to find the leak, started wiretapping the homes and offices of State Department officials, members of the National Security Council, newspaper and television commentators and correspondents, even his own assistants in the White House.

In 1971 The New York Times began publishing the secret “Pentagon Papers,” which described how our embroilment in Vietnam had come about. The papers had been stolen by a Pentagon bureaucrat, Daniel Ellsberg. Two months after the Supreme Court forbade Nixon’s attempt to stop publication, the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist was broken into and ransacked in an attempt to find Ellsberg’s file.

As the 1972 election approached, a bizarre series of incidents began to break before the public: Dita Beard, a lobbyist who had recommended that ITT give four hundred thousand dollars to the GOP campaign committee to defray the costs of the ’72 GOP convention—in return for the government’s dropping an antitrust suit, which it did—suddenly “became ill” on a plane. She was later found in a hospital, where she accused E. Howard Hunt of trying to silence her.

Television commentator Daniel Schorr, after delivering an unfavorable news analysis of the administration, learned that twenty-five of his acquaintances were questioned the next day by the FBI.

Edmund Muskie, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and the leader in polls against Nixon, suddenly dropped out of the race, beset by a welter of harassing incidents, disrupted meetings, sabotaged schedules, fraudulent letters, suspected bugs and wiretaps. When, on June 17, burglars were discovered in the Democratic National Committee headquarters, the pattern was familiar.

In the wake of all this Ronald Reagan appeared as a breath of fresh air. “Let us begin an era of national renewal” was the theme of his first inaugural address. To cap the celebration (and to deliver the final humiliation to outgoing Jimmy Carter), Islamic militants released fifty-two American hostages. After 444 days of captivity and excruciating national frustration, this was the happiest sign there could be that a new day was dawning.

The Reagan administration was determined that the hostage situation wouldn’t happen again. Henceforth America would “stand tall.” And appearances became an important priority. After cutting taxes, raising military expenditures, and, in the process, creating the biggest deficit in American history, Reagan blamed the deficit on Congress and social programs, then called for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. As those in public relations say, it seemed to play.