The anatomy of political scandals in Washington DC, in particular, the ones that take hold versus the ones that rapidly fade are not necessarily predictable. The elements of outrage usually associated with the temperature of a scandal and therefore its longevity are fickle. One would assume the age old collection of cardinal or “deadly” sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, gluttony, lust, and envy- would be the fundamental constituents of actions considered scandalous from government officials by which the public could not abide, but the reality is that the daily function of large bureaucracies skirt these sins daily without any real concern about admonition. There are instead other sets of considerations that provide the right mix of fuel for a scandal that gives it legs, and these have proved often to be a reflection of their time and the way and by whom the story has been told. There is every indication that the collective colossus of “sins” present in the current Obama Administration maelstrom of a potential cover-up with Benghazi and abuse of power with the IRS and Associated Press actions have all the elements of the explosive scandals of the past. As usual, however, the end story will depend on the public’s perception of the extent of the problem, the likability of the culprit, and the media’s handling and interest in investigating of the incident, as to its epilogue and its place in history.
The Shifting Over Time of “Sin”
For the first 150 years of the American republic, the government was small and non-obtrusive and the private nation was vast and wild. Scandals were not so much about the private peccadilloes or affairs as they were about advantage- who in private society could win advantages government could provide to overwhelm their competitors. The crisis in government wasn’t the presence of private marauders like Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, or John Rockefeller. Everybody assumed that in the world of cutthroat capitalism, men would do what ever they could to gain advantage. No , the crisis came when government officials personally benefited from the manipulations of such men to gain advantage. Greed was an accepted sin of private men, not national public servants. When Jay Gould attempted in 1869 to corner the gold market by using his connections with Abel Corbin, President Grant’s father in law to attempt to influence the President, Grant was forever stained by the association despite history showing that once he recognized what was transpiring he interceded to stop any advantage Gould may have had. A more direct example was the infamous Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding Administration, in which the Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was eventually convicted of accepting large bribes to “smooth ” the process of private oil companies to gain oil concessions on public lands, the first cabinet official in American history to serve a prison sentence for official sins. It additionally may have been the first time Senate Committee hearings captured public attention by Senator Robert Lafollette’s Senate Committee on Public Lands driving the story through investigation. Both Presidents Grant and Harding had significant blows meted to their reputations though both used the defense of ignorance of the actions as to explanations as to why the processes continued for as long as they did.
By the 1950s greed was replaced by wrath and sloth, as the Administrations of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were accused by Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin of passively accepting and abiding the presence of individuals of Communist sympathies or formal Communist ties in the inner workings and strategy development of the United States at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The wrath of McCarthy and the Select Committee on Government Investigations slammed directly against the sloth of the federal bureaucracy. The obvious problem, described by foreign affairs specialist George Kennan, creator of the American Cold War Containment strategy, was that “the penetration of the American government from the 1930s onward by members or agents of the American Communist Party was not a figment of the imagination. It really existed, and assumed proportions that, while never overwhelming, were not trivial. Warnings which should have been heeded, too often fell upon deaf ears.” The McCarthy hearings became the first to have television take a roll and make the participants actors on the stage of public opinion. The bombastic McCarthy ever so sure of his righteous position played loose with facts and reputations and made himself an easy mark for character assassination as the villain, ‘ an alcoholic demagogue and destroyer of innocent lives’, and the harried government officials such as Alger Hiss and the legal counsel for the Secretary of the Army Joseph Welch as heroes who were standing up to the Bully’. McCarthy’s destruction was cemented by a new weapon, the television “expose” when reporter Edward R Murrow on the Sixty Minutes precursor See It Now, took it upon himself to selectively investigate McCarthy’s antics and profoundly destroy him in the court of public opinion. Murrow almost single handedly created the concept of “impartial” investigative reporter hero “above the fray”, who could voice selectively damaging opinions, because their very role as media crusaders could not be impugned. This model would evolve over the next generation into stratospheric levels with Walter Cronkite pontificating, “and that’s the way it is” at the conclusion of every nightly news broadcast and profoundly effecting Johnson and Nixon Administration actions in Vietnam, culminating in citadel of the reporter as “crusading valorous Knight” in the Washington Post reporters, through an unvetted source “Deep Throat”, taking down a President in the Watergate scandal.
The scandal of the 1990’s flipped the abuse of power concept to the sin of “lust” and clouded further the difficulty of holding a “likable” official accountable for their actions. “Likability” in the Clinton scandals was not just personal likability but instead professional likability. As the perception of the official as good or bad, progressively developed over time to the media’s perception as to whether the official was “good” or “bad” on a politically conscious level, the argument seesawed around how the story would be framed to a national consensus and began to lead to huge hypocrisies. Feminists who had spent their lives arguing that sexual predatory behavior in the workplace was a crime at the level of rape and who had nearly destroyed the reputation and professional advancement of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court on the basis of alleged remarks in the office place, suddenly closed ranks around a President who stood for their ideals and supported their legislative agendas, while treating women in his workplace like dessert on the menu. Media that had spent a generation exposing the potential abuses of power by ideologically “bad” presidents like Nixon and Reagan, suddenly made concessions to Clinton as making poor decisions or showing bad behavior as if he was a mischievous school boy rather than the chief executive, chief law enforcement official, and commander in chief of the country who had sworn fealty to the Constitution. It was left to a new phenomena, the “new” media, a character described as wearing pajamas and providing ‘sourceless’ information, the internet investigator epitomized by someone named Drudge, that stunned the established media and congress into finally performing some semblance of their supposed responsibilities.
The last absurd attempt by the traditional media to be the supreme judge and jury as to impartial investigation was destroyed forever by this new media in 2004, when Dan Rather of CBS News attempted to influence an election by reporting supposed factual documents showing President Bush attempted to use family influence to avoid Vietnam service and get out of National Guard service requirements early, proved by the internet media to be crude fakes within 48 hours. The obliviousness of the traditional media to their developed bias regarding ideologically “good” versus”bad” Presidents was confirmed in Rather’s stunning cluelessness in later remarks that, although the documents upon which his whole story was based may have been faked, the implications of the story itself were irrefutable.
We are perhaps in the final stage of the development of what stands for the concept of a government scandal in the actions of the Obama Administration. All the elements of previous scandals are there to be noted. The use of government finances to influence who will be the winners in private economic markets in the auto industry bailouts and the Solyndra payouts. The active avoidance of law enforcement responsibilities in current immigrant laws or border security. The use of cover-up to hide gross negligence in the international theater highlighted by the Benghazi buildup, incident, and aftermath. The dramatic abuse of power in utilizing the IRS to target conservative groups and individuals to intimidate sufficiently to dis-empower and help swing an election. The attack on the First Amendment rights to free speech and the Second Amendment on the right to bear arms. The strong-arming of healthcare industries to “donate” to the government to underwrite the horrendous economic consequences of Obamacare.
We see in this final stage the absurd, oxymoronic argument by the officials of this administration that although an ever growing government is the best vehicle to run impartially all facets of American life, that individual leaders of that government have no knowledge of and are innocent of any wrong doing because the government is too vast for effective management. We see a media whose credibility has been crushed by several generations of progressive partiality, being forced against their will to shine a light on their political champion from the simple overwhelming evidence of directed malfeasance. In this President, we have the perfect final stage of scandal, promoted as intellectually brilliant yet apparently ignorant of all the malfeasance beneath him. The perfect executive who can be trusted with complete control of his society yet who apparently finds out about his administration’s missteps only with the rest of us when reported in the newspapers. The hands on Commander in Chief who has returned sanity to American foreign policy, only to be an unapologetic no show when a crisis erupts in Benghazi and lives are at stake, chemical weapons are used in Syria crossing the very line he stated was uncrossable, and the people of Iran rise against their dictators in response to his demagogic statements, only to find his support to be thrown to the very dictators he had opined against.
Has the government grown to the point where even sin and morality are passé and marginalized? We are about to find out.