Presidential Scandals, Coverage of

Maurine H Beasley. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications. 2009.

Every American President has been subjected to some form of scandalous comment, either about his personal life or political activities, spread by whispering campaigns and, frequently, by the news media. Some scandalous charges have been relatively unimportant and are easily traced to venomous attacks by political opponents. For example, historians today totally discount charges made by opposition newspapers that George Washington (1789-97) wished to be a monarch and behaved like one. Other scandals have changed the course of American history. The degree to which the news media reports on presidential scandals has differed with changes in social mores, media technology, and ideas of what is appropriate for discussion in a public forum. Major scandals marked by allegations of disgraceful conduct have emerged in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The Watergate scandal of the 1970s led to the resignation of Republican Richard M. Nixon (1969-74). Lying about his dalliance with a former White House intern led to the impeachment of Democrat Bill Clinton (1993-2001) in 1998, although he was acquitted. Although there is no clear-cut definition of scandal in the context of the presidency, the term generally refers to incidents of dishonesty or other actions that violate accepted standards of conduct either in private or public life. It does not include ineptitude or failures of performance unless they also involve elements of gross impropriety.

Early Scandals

The role of news media in publicizing scandals is part of the political process in a democracy. Although the news media profit commercially from scandals—people do buy newspapers and listen to television to learn shocking details—journalists defend reporting scandal as crucial to their responsibility as civic watchdogs. Affected public figures and their supporters generally charge the news media with irresponsibility and crass motivations. Today Presidents make extensive use of both political consultants and public relations experts to minimize damage from charges of wrongdoing.

Accusations of scandalous conduct were hurled at early Presidents—for instance, reports that Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) had fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings, were published in the partisan press of his day (and proven correct thanks to DNA tests two centuries later). For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, news media were reluctant to report on the private failings of Presidents. They drew a line between public and private behavior that concealed the infidelities of John F. Kennedy (1961-63), for example, until after his death. By contrast, rumors of Clinton’s affair with the ex-intern spread rapidly via the Internet. Those reports led to official investigations related to a sexual harassment lawsuit and spurred media dissemination of other accounts of Clinton’s sexual relations. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who earlier acknowledged difficulties in their marriage, appeared on television and accused “a vast right-wing conspiracy” of plotting to discredit the President.

In addition to Watergate in the 1970s, the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, and the Clinton affair a decade later, historians list a variety of scandals as particularly noteworthy—the XYZ affair, Credit Mobilier, and Teapot Dome, for example. Each of these was an outgrowth of its period and prominently covered by contemporary media. While partisanship was a factor in publicizing each of these events, the magnitude of the offenses went far beyond the scope of customary political infighting and raised questions of illegal, as well as unethical, activity.

The XYZ affair, a major foreign policy imbroglio, emerged during the John Adams (1797-1801) administration late in the eighteenth century. Adams, like George Washington, was a Federalist who sought a strong central government in contrast to the states’ rights orientation of the Democratic-Republican party headed by Jefferson. Each party controlled newspapers that attacked the other in a tense atmosphere stemming from warfare between England and France following the 1789 French Revolution. When Adams pursued a policy of neutrality, Jefferson accused the Federalists of turning their backs on France, which had supported the colonists in the American Revolution against England.

After the French licensed raids against American merchant ships, Adams sent a delegation to Paris in 1797. French representatives asked for a bribe to begin negotiations. Adams refused to pay, ordered his envoys home, and called for the ships to be armed. He did not inform Congress of the bribe attempt until forced to do so by Jefferson’s supporters who erroneously concluded Adams wanted to fight France. In response, Adams released documents that referred to the bribe-seekers as “X, Y, and Z.” Rather than expressing outrage over the French demand, the Jeffersonian press, however, contended that those seeking the bribe had been impostors, not actual diplomats.

The Federalists retaliated by pushing for passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts aimed at curbing the civil rights of French residents and curtailing the right of newspapers to make false statements about federal officials. Fourteen editors were indicted under the acts, which infuriated the Jeffersonians. They were a factor in the demise of the Federalist party and Jefferson’s election as President in 1800. The acts then died a quiet death, but arguments over the right of the news media to criticize government officials, particularly when national defense is at stake, have continued to the present.

During the nineteenth century new technologies greatly enhanced the ability of the news media. Invention of the telegraph and high-speed presses made newspapers, increasingly supported by advertising and circulation revenue rather than political party subsidies, a potent commercial force. The Credit Mobilier scandal became a synonym for political corruption during the two terms of President Ulysses S. Grant (1868-76), an era characterized by the term “Gilded Age” when large fortunes were acquired by often dubious means.

Credit Mobilier was a corporation established to accept large amounts of government money for the building of a transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific. Through bribes and corporate shenanigans, financiers helped themselves to millions in dollars and railroad stock, making shares of stock available to enrich members of Congress. The scandal was highlighted in 1872 during Grant’s re-election campaign with reports in the New York Sun and other newspapers of corruption that involved key officials. Among them were Vice President Schuyler Colfax and Oakes Ames, a congressman from Massa chusetts charged with making the actual payoffs.

While Grant himself was not accused of taking bribes, opponents blamed him for allowing the public trust to be violated. Although he easily won a second term, he dropped Colfax as his Vice President, ending his political career. A congressional investigation led to the censure of Ames and another Republican congressman, James Brooks.

Other scandals, including disclosures of improper contracts and unlawful sale of Indian trading posts by Grant appointees, continued to mar the administration. “Whiskey Ring” frauds involved bribes to federal officials to avoid the collection of taxes on some 15 million gallons of alcohol annually. Among those accused of profiting was Orville Babcock, Grant’s personal secretary, whom Grant kept from being convicted. The popular Grant maintained that he did not know what was going on, although some newspapers expressed disbelief. Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, outraged by speculation that Grant might seek a third term contrary to custom, coined a phrase that has lived on in politics, “Turn the rascals out!” Grant did not run again.

The first major presidential scandal of the twentieth century involved corruption in the lease of rights to drill for oil in government reserves including one at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. It occurred under the administration of President Warren G. Harding (1921-23). He died while on a crosscountry train to improve his image tarnished by reports of wrongdoing among political cronies whom he had appointed to high office. Harding’s death spared him the ignominy of witnessing lengthy investigations into the oil leases awarded by Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, who had received cash and gifts. Fall and a dozen other Harding associates eventually went to prison. Fall’s dishonesty obscured public debate on a central theme of the scandal: a major philosophical difference between developers who wished to exploit natural resources and conservationists who wanted to preserve them.

A small-town newspaper publisher from Ohio, the affable, poker-playing Harding enjoyed favorable press coverage from Washington correspondents. They initially believed that he had little knowledge of the misdeeds of those under him, although allegations of shady dealings by his friends in the Veterans’ Administration and elsewhere soon surfaced in news reports, stimulated by congressional investigations. When sordid details of his administration were revealed after his death, historians ranked Harding as the worst President. It was further tarnished when his mistress, Nan Britton, who said he had fathered her child, published a book in 1927. It recounted episodes of lovemaking with Harding in a White House closet while the Secret Service stood guard.

Two mid-century Presidents, Harry S. Truman (1945-53), a Democrat, and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61), a Republican, both were targets of allegations of scandal stemming from loyalty to trusted aides. Brigadier General Harry H. Vaughan, Truman’s personal friend and military aide, was accused of influence peddling by acting as a go-between for corporations seeking federal contracts. Vaughn asked a manufacturer to provide deep freeze refrigerators, then considered luxury items, for himself and the Truman home in Independence, Missouri. Although Vaughn was criticized by a congressional committee, Truman refused to remove him from the White House. The deep freezes became symbols of alleged corruption in the Truman administration as did a pastel mink coat given a White House secretary by a firm that received a government loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). A Senate investigation into the RFC, however, did not link Truman with any impropriety.

A fur coat also figured into charges of scandal in the Eisenhower administration when the President initially refused to take action against a top aide, Sherman Adams. A congressional investigation revealed that Adams had received a vicuna coat and many other gifts from Bernard Goldfine (dates unknown), an industrialist for whom Adams had secured favorable treatment by government agencies. Eisenhower expressed support for Adams, but Republican leaders considered him a political liability and insisted that he leave the White House. Adams eventually went to prison for tax violations.

Late Twentieth-Century Scandals

The Watergate scandal, which forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign in 1974 rather than face charges of impeachment, has frequently been linked in the public mind with the investigative reporting of two young journalists for The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The name Watergate referred to an apartment-hotel complex in Washington where the Democratic National Committee had its headquarters. An attempted burglary there on June 17, 1972, led to the arrest of five men carrying cash and bugging equipment. The Post, unlike other news media that virtually ignored the burglary when it occurred, determinedly pursued the relationship of the burglars to the White House, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for public service. The suffix –gate became a shorthand expression for political scandal and was widely used by news media to tag later scandals.

Ultimately the botched crime was linked to a multifaceted campaign of political corruption and spying on those considered enemies of the Nixon administration. After the failed break-in, Nixon and key associates, several of whom later went to jail, lied about their unconstitutional activities. These included illegal wiretapping for political gain, perjury, misuse of campaign funds, and efforts to pressure the media to stop unfavorable reporting by threats to their broadcasting licenses. In public Nixon maintained that the news media was hostile to him because of his support for the unpopular Vietnam War and famously insisted in 1973, “I am not a crook.” Sentiment turned against him when tapes of conversations in the Oval office were subpoenaed over his objections during grand jury and congressional investigations. They revealed that he personally had engaged in a cover-up of the burglary.

The drama culminated in Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, after being overwhelmingly re-elected in 1972. He was the first President to be forced to leave office. Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford (1974-77), pardoned him in an unpopular move believed to have kept Ford from winning the presidential election in 1976.

In comparison to Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal during the Ronald Reagan administration (1981-89), appeared relatively minor, stemming from the Republican President’s opposition to the spread of communism. In spite of a congressional ban against aid to the Contras (a resistance group in Nicaragua opposed to the Communist government there), White House aides, headed by Oliver North, concocted an elaborate plan directed by the CIA to assist the Contras. Weapons were sold to the Iranian government in hopes of gaining the release of American hostages in the Middle East; the proceeds were surreptitiously used to fund the Contras. When a supply plane linked to a CIA front was shot down over Nicaragua in 1986, the plot unraveled, particularly after a foreign magazine published details then picked up by American news media. A congressional investigation ensued, but it was never made clear whether Reagan knew the details of what had transpired. North and others were convicted on various charges involving lying to Congress. All were pardoned by President George H. W. Bush (1989-93), Reagan’s successor.

President Bill Clinton, survived an impeachment when the U.S. Senate voted on February 12, 1999, to acquit him on two charges brought by the House of Representatives. The only President before him to be impeached was Andrew Johnson who also was acquitted. Clinton was charged with perjuring himself before a federal grand jury and obstructing justice in an effort to hide his sexual relationship with a former White House intern. The vote, largely along party lines, failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to convict. Clinton supporters contended Clinton’s private actions were not impeachable offenses. The American public apparently agreed, since polls showed Clinton’s ratings remained high.

The charges stemmed from Clinton’s testimony in a suit brought by an Arkansas state employee, who alleged Clinton (while governor) had sexually harassed her. Kenneth Starr, an independent counsel who was investigating Clinton for his role in a failed land development project in Arkansas called Whitewater, broadened that inquiry to pursue these allegations. Starr learned of Clinton’s White House affair when another former White House employee gave him recordings of her conversations with the intern.

Starr subsequently sent members of the House of Representatives a lengthy report, which Congress made public, containing graphic references to oral sex in the Oval office. Available on the Internet and in newspapers, the report substantiated accusations first made in 1998 by Matt Drudge, an Internet gossip columnist. Mainstream news media jumped on the story, giving it saturation coverage that led to some criticism for publicizing lurid details. Clinton initially insisted, “I did not have sex that that woman,” but later confessed to “an inappropriate relationship.”


Presidential scandals, not surprisingly, have an adverse effect on administrations. Even though a President may remain personally popular during them, they divert attention from the main business of governing and weaken public support for the presidency itself. While the public may, as it did in the case of Clinton, distinguish between private and public acts, unseemly conduct diminishes the position of a President as a leader. Three Presidents whose administrations were mired in scandal, Grant, Harding, and Nixon, are given low rankings by historians. While the news media might be expected to gain respect as a result of reporting scandal, this often is not the case with journalists accused of being more interested in sensation than public service. Today it is inconceivable that reporters would close their eyes to presidential infidelities as they did during the Kennedy era. Competitive pressures to gain an audience compounded by the demands of a 24-hour news cycle mean that Presidents are subject to continual scrutiny. With the advent of bloggers, news organizations are far more likely to circulate reports of scandalous activity, whether verified or not, than in the pre-Internet days. Presidents always have been subjects of journalistic surveillance, but the present news media atmosphere makes it likely that attempts to ferret out scandal will become increasingly common in the years ahead.