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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
When Congress balked at Reagan’s repeated insistence on military aid to support a Nicaraguan contra army staffed in part by followers of the overthrown dictator Anastasio Somoza, Reagan called them “freedom fighters” and the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers.” And that, too, seemed to play. The people gave Reagan the highest approval rating of any President since polling had begun.
But then, in five devastating weeks in 1986, something changed. In a startling revelation of the administration’s struggle with “image,” the White House chief of staff, Donald Regan, confided to an interviewer, “Some of us are like a shovel brigade that follows a parade down Main Street cleaning up.”
In all these scandals there is a chronological similarity. In each an initial cloud faded, then gathered with renewed fury and mushroomed as it revealed its more disturbing dimensions. In each, too, a lightning flash of evidence suddenly broke open each case. In Crédit Mobilier, Oakes Ames revealed that he kept a little memorandum book of all stock transactions. In Teapot Dome the discovery of a friend’s uncashed check for a hundred thousand dollars to Secretary Fall demanded an answer to where his newfound wealth came from. In Watergate the bombshell was that Nixon secretly taped conversations in his own office. In the Iran-contra affair, at this writing, the evidence is still being uncovered.
As for that incidence of sudden illnesses among principals in the face of pressure, to those mentioned earlier you can add Rep. Oakes Ames. Two months after the conclusion of the investigation into his activities, in May 1873, he died of apoplexy.
Also similar were the inequalities and inconsistencies of the justice meted out in the end:
In Crédit Mobilier, after months of investigation, the Poland Committee found that some of the senators and representatives implicated—among them Speaker of the House James Blaine—never took the stock at all. Others—like VicePrésident Schuyler Colfax—paid for the stock but claimed they had never received a dividend. Some—like James Garfield—agreed to buy the stock and collected dividends but never paid for it, and still others bought the stock, collected the dividends, but never received the stock certificate. In any case the committee did “not find … they were aware of the object of Mr. Ames, or that they had any other purpose in taking the stock than to make a profitable investment.” The condemnation of the committee fell instead on Representative Ames for selling the stock and upon Rep. James Brooks of New York, who, while he understood the purpose of the sale, wanted to buy the stock anyway. The committee recommended expulsion of these two from Congress. However, after much debate (during which Ames pleaded that no man could be accused of bribery without someone being found guilty of being bribed), the House refused to expel either mem ber and voted instead to “absolutely condemn” them both.
In Teapot Dome, Edwin Denby, who transferred the leases from the Navy Department to Secretary Fall and apparently did not understand what it was all about, was never charged with anything. Neither was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who helped Denby transfer the leases and whose brother, Archibald, was a vice-president of Sinclair Oil. Nor was Postmaster General Will Hays, who as the head of GOP fund raising in 1920 had accepted tainted contributions from Harry Sinclair. Also untouched was Andrew Mellon, who recognized the tainted contributions when Hays tried to pass some off on him but did nothing about it.
One who did suffer was William McAdoo, who was tarred because he furnished legal advice to Doheny. McAdoo was found completely innocent of the scandal, but just being touched by it ruined his chance of being the Democratic candidate for President in 1924.
For the rest, Doheny and Sinclair were charged with conspiracy and bribery and were acquitted (although Sinclair, found guilty of contempt of Congress and later of trying to bribe a juror, was sent to jail for six months and fined one thousand dollars). Both oilmen had to return their canceled leases to the Navy reserves and pay the government whatever they had made. And Albert Fall was found guilty of accepting a bribe (which, according to court decisions on Doheny and Sinclair, nobody ever gave him). Fall was fined one hundred thousand dollars and sentenced to a year in prison (the judge was lenient because of Fall’s poor health). He was the first cabinet member in U.S. history to be sent to jail. He would not be the last.
In Crédit Mobilier and Teapot Dome both Presidents—Grant and Harding—eventually recognized the corruption around them. But while they took no active part in it, they didn’t do much to stop it either. In Watergate, however, Richard Nixon not only inspired it but, particularly in the “cover-up” phase, took an active part in encouraging and guiding it.