The Presidential Follies

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By the time the Watergate investigations and trials were over, the tally was devastating. The burglars, assorted spies, and their paymasters were found guilty and sentenced to jail (although some were pardoned and some were soon paroled). E. Howard Hunt was fined ten thousand dollars and sentenced to thirty months to eight years. Almost a dozen minions to the President in the White House and on the Committee to Re-elect the President threw themselves on the mercy of the court, but many like John Dean, Charles Colson, Jeb Magruder, and Herbert Kalmbach were given prison terms ranging from four months to four years. Haldeman and Ehrlichman each were sentenced to two-and-a-half to eight years. So was Nixon’s former law partner and attorney general, John Mitchell. Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans, who collected the money that made it all go, was fined five thousand dollars. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon, warned of certain impeachment, became the first President of the United States to resign from office. A month later Gerald Ford, his personally chosen successor, granted Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon … for all offenses.”

The accounting on the Iran-contra scandal is yet to come, but like its predecessors, it drags on. Crédit Mobilier, which first came to light on September 4,1872, concluded its investigations on February 19,1873. It then went into a debate on expulsion. Altogether the scandal was in the news for about six months. Teapot Dome investigations and trials went on for seven years. Watergate took nearly two years and was followed by individual trials. By these standards the Irancontra affair is still relatively young.

One final thread that seems to run through the background of these scandals is that each came after an electoral victory of overwhelming proportions: Grant over Greeley; Harding over Cox; Nixon over McGovern; Reagan over Mondale. Every victory seemed to encourage a propensity to overreach. The curse of a victorious President comes down, after all, to the illusion that he is irresistible. And this leads to the greatest folly of all: hubris.