When power corrupts: 16 of the biggest political scandals of the last 50 years

Before email controversies, Benghazi, and lewd photos, scandals had always been part of American political history. The political game often involves horse-trading, power plays and schmoozing. But sometimes, politicians cross the line into gray areas or illegal activities. In this 2016 election year, we look back at 16 of the biggest political scandals of the last half-century:

 

Watergate

The scandal that all other scandals are measured against (what isn’t a “-gate” these days?) first made headlines as an odd break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters and eventually brought down a president. President Richard Nixon and his administration engaged in questionable activities to ensure his re-election in 1972. When those activities came to light, mostly through the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the administration engaged in a cover-up at the highest level. Facing the possibility of impeachment, Nixon became the first president to resign from office in August of 1974. 

 

Gary Hart

The Democratic senator from Colorado “was as close to a lock for the nomination — and likely the presidency — as any challenger of the modern era” in the 1988 election, wrote Matt Bai, who profiled Hart’s fall from grace in a recent book. But suspicions of Hart’s marital infidelity and an investigation by the Miami Herald led to the media frenzy. Hart withdrew from the race. A few months later, he re-entered the campaign to “let the people decide.” But after three months, he quit again.  

 

The Eagleton Affair

Hart was the campaign manager for eventual 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. But McGovern's status as nominee going into the party’s convention was uncertain, so the campaign did not undertake an exhaustive search for a running mate. When the time came, McGovern’s campaign quickly selected Sen. Thomas Eagleton to run on the ticket. However, Eagleton withdrew from the race after only 18 days when it was revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression and received electroshock treatments in the past. McGovern lost to Nixon in a landslide.

 

Bill Clinton, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky

During his 1992 run for president, Clinton was dogged by past rumors of extramarital affairs.  Those rumors hit the tabloids when Flowers, an Arkansas state employee, alleged that she and Clinton carried on a 12-year fling. Both Bill and Hillary denied the affair. But Flowers later declared under oath that the affair took place. Six years later, during a court case about another alleged Clinton affair, America learned about Monica Lewinsky and her claims of a sexual encounter with the president. At first, President Clinton denied the affair, but later admitted to the country that he had “a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.”  Questions over whether the president perjured himself led to his impeachment trial in the Senate, the first in over 130 years. The Senate voted to acquit President Clinton, ending one of the most tumultuous episodes in the nation’s history. In the 2016 race for president, Donald Trump said the Lewinsky episode is “fair game” against Hillary Clinton. 

 

Iran-Contra Affair

The quest to free American hostages in Lebanon ensnared the Reagan White House in a scandal that nearly ended the president’s second term. The U.S. enlisted the help of Iran by selling them arms; it then used the money from those sales to support the Nicaraguan Contras, a rebel group attempting to overthrow the communist Sandinista government in that country. Those transactions violated both American policy (don’t negotiate with hostage-takers, don’t pay ransoms) and law – Congress passed legislation barring U.S. aid to the Contras. An investigation by the attorney general led to the removal of the National Security Council’s John Poindexter and Oliver North and intense congressional hearings. While President Reagan’s role in the scandal was unclear, he told the nation in a televised address from the Oval Office that the buck “stops with me. I am the one who is ultimately accountable to the American people.”  

 

Jack Abramoff

Gifts for favors – that’s the easiest way to describe the scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was known as the “Man Who Bought Washington.” His massive web of political corruption involved his clients, millions of dollars, free meals, tickets, trips to famous golf courses and members of Congress. Digging by the Washington Post eventually led to an inquiry by the Justice Department. Abramoff and others, including the then-chair of the powerful House Administration Committee, went to prison. After Abramoff left prison, he wrote a book about the scandal. 

 

Tom DeLay

One of the lawmakers caught in the Abramoff web was former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Indictments over alleged money laundering, combined with his ties to the Abramoff scandal, led DeLay to leave Congress in 2005. Grand juries alleged that a PAC set up by DeLay skirted Texas campaign finance laws in an effort to elect state legislators who would vote for redistricting legislation supported by DeLay. A jury convicted the Republican from Texas in 2010 for money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. A Texas appeals court eventually threw out DeLay’s conviction.

 

The "Keating Five"

The Senate investigated five U.S. senators in the late 1980s and early 1990s for improperly interfering in the investigation of a savings and loan company. The five senators, of whom John McCain is the only one still serving, asked a federal agency not to pursue charges against Lincoln Savings and Loan Association for engaging heavily in risky investments. Charles Keating, who owned the company, was a contributor to each of the senators’ campaigns. Lincoln later collapsed and required a taxpayer bailout of over $3 billion. While all five senators denied any misconduct, they faced a two-year investigation. Only one senator received a formal reprimand from the Senate. John McCain faced attacks about the scandal during his 2008 run for president.

 

Jim Traficant

The colorful congressman from Ohio had served 17 years before he was thrown out of office by the House of Representatives in July of 2002. A few months earlier, he had been convicted of bribery, racketeering and corruption. “It was only the second time since the Civil War and fifth time in its 213-year history that the House chose to impose the ultimate penalty for unethical conduct and strip a member of office,” the New York Times reported. Traficant was famous for using “Star Trek” references during his floor speeches, such as, “Beam me up!” He served seven years in prison and died in 2014

 

Spiro Agnew

Richard Nixon’s first vice president became the second in American history to resign after accusations of tax evasion and bribery. Despite declaring in September 1973 that he “will not resign if indicted,” Agnew resigned in October in exchange for a plea bargain that kept him out of jail. Nixon appointed House Minority Leader Gerald Ford as Agnew’s replacement, and the rest is history

 

Fanne Foxe and Wilbur Mills

Mix “a striptease dancer” and a powerful member of Congress and you get the makings of a juicy political sex scandal. Rep. Wilbur Mills, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was found drunk in a car at the Tidal Basin in October of 1974. Also in the car: Annabell Battistella, a stripper who went by the stage name Fanne Foxe. After visiting Foxe during one of her performances later that year, members of Congress pressured Mills to leave his post as Ways and Means chairman. He left Congress in 1976. 

 

John Edwards

The charismatic senator from North Carolina was a rising star in Democratic Party after running on John Kerry’s presidential ticket in 2004. During his presidential run four years later, Edwards faced tabloid allegations of an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker hired to work on his campaign. He later admitted that the allegations were true and that he fathered a child with Hunter. Three years later, Edwards faced a federal grand jury on charges of using campaign money to hide his affair. He was acquitted on one count and received a mistrial on the others. 

 

Scooter Libby and Valerie Plame Wilson

After former Ambassador Joe Wilson published a 2003 op-ed questioning the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq, his wife and her role as an undercover CIA spy were exposed in a newspaper column. Did the Bush White House out her in retaliation for her husband’s views? That was the question in the federal investigation that followed. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, was convicted of lying to the FBI, perjury and obstructing the investigation into the leak.  President George W. Bush later commuted Libby’s prison sentence to 30 months. 

 

"D.C. Madam"

An escort service run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey catered to high-profile customers throughout the nation’s capital, including Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana. A jury in federal court convicted Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” in 2008 for running a prostitution service. Vitter repeatedly apologized, calling the incident “a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible.”  But the issue turned up again during his failed 2015 run for governor. Meanwhile, the lawyer who represented Palfrey is attempted to get her escort service’s records unsealed, claiming that they “may contain information relevant to the upcoming presidential election.” He has begun to release the names of some of the businesses that called the escort service. 

 

House post office and banking scandals

Hundreds of congressmen and members of President George H.W. Bush's cabinet faced scrutiny when it was discovered that the House Bank allowed members Of Congress to overdraft on their bank accounts without facing a penalty. Meanwhile, another scandal was brewing at the House post office, where members of Congress and office employees allegedly engaged in embezzlement and misuse of public funds. The scandal effectively ended the career of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He eventually served prison time for his role in the House post office scandal. President Clinton pardoned him in 2000.

 

David Petraeus

Petraeus, a four-star general and the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, had a bright future ahead after his career in the armed services. He was nearly a year into his new job as CIA director when FBI investigators came knocking. They wanted to know if he shared any classified materials over the course of his extramarital affair with his biographer. Petraeus denied the charge, but the affair cost him his job in 2012. During the course of the investigation, authorities found classified information at Petraeus’s home. He pled guilty last year to mishandling classified materials. Similarly, on the 2016 campaign trail, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is facing questions about her handling of government information on a private email server while she was secretary of state.