Last week, somebody asked Magary what the biggest political scandal in American history is, and Magary inexplicably answered “the Burr-Hamilton duel.” [It’s Watergate. NO ONE DENIES THIS.] But that got me thinking about other important political scandals in US history. Let’s talk about three of them!
Ha ha, look at this guy. He just screams, "Synonymous with political corruption."
What President?: Warren G. Harding
Was It His Fault?: Not really.
What happened?: The US Navy had owned some oil fields in Wyoming and California, in an effort to have an emergency supply of oil after switching from coal to gas power. Harding signed an executive order handing those oil fields to the Department of the Interior, and it became Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall’s job to lease them to private companies. Instead of companies bidding on the fields, though, Fall just took about $500,000 [a fuckton of money in those days] in bribes from the oil companies who won the fields. Nobody suspected any wrongdoing until a bitter oilman wrote an angry letter to a congressman about how noncompetitive the leasing process was, and alleging wrongdoing on Fall’s part. Indeed, it was Fall’s mysterious newfound wealth and property [Fall also received a “substantial amount of livestock” in the bribes] that aroused people’s suspicion, much like the bank robber who starts tipping way too much at the diner a block away from the bank. Eventually, someone found part of the paper trail from the bribes, and Fall became the first cabinet member to go to jail as a result of their actions while in office.
Any Lasting Effects?: Oh, hell yes. This was Watergate before Watergate. For one, even though it was found out in 1924, it cast a permanent pall on the Harding administration, one that persists to this day. [You never see Warren Harding on a list of “best presidents.”] Harding probably didn’t care all that much, as he died in 1923. But it totally ruined Albert Fall’s career, and it became THE big issue in the elections of 1924 and 1928. Democrats tried to sink Herbert Hoover’s campaign because he had been friendly with Fall in the past. They obviously weren’t too successful, as Republicans won both those elections, but Democrats were still beating this horse as late as 1956, where the keynote speech at the Democratic convention noted that Eisenhower came from the party of Teapot Dome. [They lost that election, too. If there are attack ads in the 2016 election linking the Republican candidate to Teapot Dome, you probably know who’s gonna win.] Fall’s besmirched name even gave rise to the popular idiom “fall guy,” or maybe it didn’t and I just made that up. I honestly can’t remember.
What President?: Ulysses S. Grant
Was It His Fault?: Not really.
What Happened?: Okay, so best I can tell, the government offered loans and land to whatever private contractor would build the Union Pacific railway. When nobody wanted to do it, executives of the Union Pacific itself made a false company, Credit Mobilier, to serve as the contractor, and Credit Mobilier regularly billed Union Pacific for lots of charges that were paid for by the government. These excess profits were paid out to shareholders, who eventually included some of the big political names of the day, like James Garfield and Schuyler Colfax. All told, the Credit Mobilier scam milked $20 million more dollars out of the government than the railway was worth. At least, as far as I understand it. I’m a history major; finance is very confusing to me. The point is, this was fraud and very bad.
Any Lasting Effects?: It ruined a couple political careers, to be sure. It also helped popularize the conception of Grant’s presidency as a corruption and graft-filled taint on the office, thanks to stuff like this and the Whiskey Ring scandal, which was also confusing so I didn’t write about it.
The Petticoat Affair [Ahahaha, the PETTICOAT AFFAIR. This should be good.]
What President?: Andrew Jackson
Was It His Fault?: Kinda, yeah.
What Happened?: A very young Senator named John Eaton married a widow named Peggy Timberlake. Seriously. That’s it. The scandal was that they got married. Timberlake’s husband was a Navy crewman who died at sea, and they didn’t wait a socially-acceptable amount of time to get married. This caused an uproar, especially among the respectable women of Washington. The wives of many members of Jackson’s cabinet, like Vice President Calhoun’s wife, vehemently opposed the marriage. Jackson was sympathetic to Peggy Eaton, who reminded him of his late wife. Jackson had actually encouraged the Eatons to get together in the first place.
Hoping to make this whole foofaraw blow over, Jackson appointed Eaton to be his Secretary of War, which only increased the scrutiny the matter received. Eventually, Jackson’s entire cabinet, including Eaton, resigned in 1831, as the Petticoat Affair had taken over Washington discourse. Only Jackson’s Postmaster General stayed, which was fine, because who gives a shit about the Postmaster General.
Any Lasting Effects?: Well, Jackson had to find a brand-new cabinet, and also had to replace Calhoun as his running mate in the next election. So, really, the whole thing inadvertently led to the rise of Martin Van Buren. Everything’s coming up Van Buren!