In early 1919, former president Teddy Roosevelt was the early favorite to re-assume the Republican Party’s mantle for the 1920 election. However, he died unexpectedly shortly before the campaign season began, and a crowded field of contenders soon emerged.
Warren G. Harding initially had little hope of winning, and entered the race mostly to bolster his control of Ohio politics; he was one of the state’s two U.S. senators and held sway over much of its corrupt machine. But when party leaders could not agree on any of the front runners, the convention deadlocked. They soon settled on Harding, in part because he was from a crucial swing state, and in part because he was relatively unknown and hadn’t offended many delegates.
The compromise candidate from Ohio went on to win a resounding victory, setting what was then a record by taking 61% of the popular vote.
Harding was generally well liked during his time in office as society settled down from the tumultuous effects of World War I and its immediate aftermath. It didn’t hurt that the economy also began to hum. But he would serve just 2½ years, dying of a heart attack while visiting San Francisco in 1923.
At first, Harding’s premature death increased his already widespread popularity. It was only after his passing that the litany corruption attached to his administration would become a salacious public debacle.
It turned out that family man Harding had kept at least two mistresses, including one who claimed he fathered her child. But it was the criminal antics of his administration that would eventually lead Historians to rank Harding as one of the worst presidents ever.
The name that still rings a bell among some Americans who learned about it in high school is the Teapot Dome Scandal. Interior Secretary Albert Fall took bribes totaling $400,000 (nearly $6 million in today’s money) from oil executives in return for awarding them leases to drill on public land in Wyoming and California. Fall was convicted, fined, and became the first U.S. presidential cabinet member to do time; he was sentenced to a year, and served 9 months.
Attention then turned to Harding’s Attorney General, Harry Daugherty. The nation’s top law enforcement officer was implicated in a number of crimes. Two witnesses accused him of directly partaking in a bribery scheme that allowed Ohio gangsters to gain prosecutorial immunity on bootlegging charges, and to access confiscated liquor from government warehouses. When Daugherty told Congressional investigators he would not allow them to access Justice Department records, President Calvin Coolidge (who’d succeeded Harding) asked for his resignation. Daugherty was later indicted for defrauding the government because his cronies had deposited bribe money into his campaign financing account. After two hung juries, the case was dropped, but Daugherty’s reputation was in tatters. He blamed communists.
Finally, Veteran’s Affairs Director Charles Forbes ran up costs on the construction of a new VA hospital, and pocketed the overruns. He was convicted and served nearly two years, sharing a cell with Frederick Cook, a con man who for years falsely claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole.
Half a century after the fiasco of the Harding presidency, Richard Nixon’s administration would be so rife with criminal activity that it led to the only presidential resignation in U.S. history. Watergate is still synonymous with corruption; to this day it seems that nary a public scandal can find its way into the news without having the suffix -gate attached to it, just to make sure everyone knows what a travesty it is.
A short blog piece is no place to detail of all the Watergate peccadilloes; that would require a book. Here’s a good one if you’re interested. Instead, I’ll merely list some highlights:
- The president’s goons broke into a psychiatrist’s office and stole patient files to get dirt on an American citizen.
- Vice President Sprio Agnew was forced resign because he’d taken kickbacks and bribes when he was governor of Maryland.
- The president was nailed for non payment of income taxes (That is what actually led to Nixon’s infamous “I am not a crook!” declaration.).
- The president’s goons repeatedly broke into the Democratic Party Chairman’s office to tap phones and steal campaign information and election strategy secrets.
- Nixon almost certainly knew of the break-in in advance, although there’s no hard proof; we do have him on tape ordering the illegal coverup shortly thereafter.
- The president ordered his new attorney general (more on the first one below) to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. The AG refused and resigned instead.
- A federal grand jury named the President Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in an obstruction of justice case against seven of his goons.
- The president lost a unanimous Supreme Court decision, forcing him to turnover evidence.
- Congress recommended impeachment charges, and Nixon faced the near certainty of impeachment by the House and removal of office by the Senate.
- Forty government officials were indicted or imprisoned. Forty.
- Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson pled guilty to obstruction of justice; he was fined $5,000, disbarred, and served 7 months.
- Nixon’s first attorney general of the United States, John Mitchell, was convicted of: conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury. He was disbarred and sentenced to upwards of 8 years. It was later reduced to 1-4 years; he served 19 months before being paroled for a medical condition.
None of this has anything to do with the fact that presidential candidate Richard Nixon committed treason in 1968 when he sabotaged Vietnam War peace talks by independently negotiating with foreign agents (leaders of South Vietnam); he begged them NOT to go along with the peace treaty negotiated by outgoing president Lyndon Johnson and the North, because he would offer them better terms.
In retrospect, the impeachment and removal he dodged by resigning were too good for him. He probably should’ve been imprisoned.
And now today, nearly a century after Harding and nearly half-a-century after Nixon, come the details of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s first criminal indictment against a member of President Donald Trump’s inner circle.
Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election has produced a confession. A former Trump campaign adviser admits that he lied to the FBI. George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about his Russian contacts, whom he thought had connections to high ranking Russian officials and were offering him dirt on Hilary Clinton.
Papdapolous has cut a deal. Paul Manefort may not be so lucky.
Former Trump Campaign Chairman Manefort and one of his former business associates were indicted on several counts, including: felony charges of conspiracy against the United States; conspiracy to launder money; acting as an unregistered foreign agent; making false statements; and several charges related to failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts. If convicted, sentencing could include millions in fines and decades in prison.
None of this is directly related to Donald Trump as of yet. The indictment does not reference the Trump campaign or assert coordination between presidential aides and the Kremlin designed to influence the election in Trump’s favor. However, the indictment does claim that a criminal conspiracy was ongoing all the way through February, 2017, ie. after Trump had taken office.
That’s it for now. More shoes are almost certain to drop.
It would be petty partisanship to point out that Harding, Nixon, and Trump were all Republicans, as was the godfather of corrupt presidential administrations, Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77). After all, there has been no shortage of scandals among Democrats over the years. One William Jefferson Clinton recently used his position as her boss and as the world’s most powerful man to seduce a 22 year old intern, and then perjured himself on the matter, leading to his eventual impeachment; we should not so soon forget his crime, even if he committed it to coverup his personal shortcomings and does not speak to political corruption. And of course politicians from both parties have engaged in so much fraudulent and criminal activity at the local and state levels that it would require volumes of paper to detail it all.
But it’s different when corruption starts at the top. In that case, it tests the people’s faith in their government and demands serious action. The government’s willingness to recognize and address corruption within its highest ranks is what differentiates a functioning republic from an oligarchy or a kleptocracy.
Warren Harding died before he could atone for his presidency’s crimes. Richard Nixon was hounded out of office like a diseased animal.
Donald J. Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016. He was sworn into office on January 20, 2017. But today, October 30, 2017 marks his and the nation’s latest day of reckoning.