Political scandals begin with various forms of wrongdoing by public officials. Money is often at the center of scandals in which politicians exploit their public office for private gain. Some scandals stem from acts of private misconduct, such as sexual misbehavior. Others involve abuses of government power that jeopardize people’s rights and (in America) violate the U.S. Constitution.
However, mere wrongdoing is not enough to create a scandal. Scandals require public outrage and reaction, which in turn requires public disclosure. This is why, as Robert Williams notes in his 1998 study Political Scandals in the USA, countries with totalitarian or authoritarian political systems do not have scandals. “If the public are not allowed to know about the behaviour of politicians and officials, if they have no opportunity of voicing their concerns . . . , it is hard to see how scandals can arise,” he argues. “Conversely, in a liberal political system with a free press, intense political competition, decentralized political authority and multiple access points, the opportunities and incentives for scandal to flourish are numerous.”
Given this connection between disclosure, democracy, and scandal, it is perhaps not surprising that political scandals have been a recurrent feature of the American political scene since the administration of George Washington. However, while scandals have long been a part of American history, they seemed to have taken on an even more prominent role in American politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Scandals have brought about the resignation and disgrace of numerous powerful government officials and now seem to shadow almost everyone in public life. “In the past decade” wrote political journalist Joe Klein in 1998, “scandals . . . have become the defining events of public life, often far more compelling and significant than elections.”
What accounts for the importance of scandals in current American politics? One possible answer is that the character of people in politics is worse than in earlier eras. However, many political observers believe that the current generation of leaders is no better or worse than previous generations; some, such as Klein, argue that Washington, D.C., is “far less corrupt than it has ever been.” They argue that it is public awareness of scandalous activities that has grown. Two reasons for this are the changing role of the press and increased partisanship in Congress and the rest of government. Both developments are part of what has often been called the “post-Watergate” era. To understand contemporary political scandals requires a very brief explanation of what the Watergate scandal was and how it changed American society.
In 1972 the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate hotel complex in Washington, D.C., was burglarized. Subsequent investigations revealed that the burglars were connected to a group working for the reelection of Republican President Richard Nixon, and that Nixon, contrary to his public statements, found out about their involvement shortly after the incident and attempted to orchestrate a cover-up. The burglary was one of a series of “dirty tricks” Nixon and his subordinates used against political opponents, including the bugging of the Democratic National Committee and the misuse of government institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Investigations also revealed that Nixon had solicited and received large secret cash contributions from individuals and corporations with a stake in government policies. Threatened with impeachment, Nixon resigned in 1974, the first and only U.S. president to do so.
Watergate had lasting ramifications on how politicians and scandals were treated by the press. The media—as well as the public—became more cynical about politicians and less willing to accept their statements at face value. The success and notoriety of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and James Woodward for their part in exposing the Watergate scandal encouraged a subsequent generation of reporters to be aggressive in covering political scandals. In addition, the rise of the Internet, radio talk shows, and twenty-four-hour news channels has increased demand for such stories. One result has been more media coverage of matters formally considered private, including politicians’ health, chemical abuse, and family issues. Incidents that would have remained gossip items among a few Washington journalists and insiders have now become grist for the media mill.
The political ramifications of Watergate—Nixon’s resignation and the election of large numbers of Democrats to Congress—also left a lasting legacy. In subsequent years accusations of corruption and scandalous behavior have often become the weapon of choice in partisan political conflict. Political combatants have relied on personal attacks and accusations of scandal rather than debating substantive issues in order to secure an advantage. This tendency has been reinforced by the fact that, since 1980, control of the nation’s government has been divided between political parties, with Republicans and Democrats alternating control of the presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives. Divided government has imparted a strong political tint to government investigations of scandal in the White House and in Congress.
The cases of Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton are indicative of how scandals, especially those focusing on a person’s character, can be interpreted as a byproduct of political infighting and media exposure. When Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1991 (to the consternation of many political liberals), his ratification hearings came to focus on accusations of sexual harassment from former employee Anita Hill. Sexual harassment was also at the center of a lawsuit filed against President Clinton (who was an anathema to many conservatives) in 1994 by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones. Clinton’s efforts to conceal a separate sexual affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, over the course of the Jones case formed the foundation of impeachment charges against him in 1998. In the cases of both Thomas and Clinton, lurid stories of sexual misconduct led to intense media scrutiny. Also in both cases, defenders of the two individuals argued that the accusations of scandal were being exploited for political reasons (the prevention of Thomas’s accession, the removal of Clinton) to the detriment of America’s system of government.
Whether the Thomas or the Clinton case will cause the public to seriously examine how scandals are viewed remains to be seen. The authors in Political Scandals: Opposing Viewpoints examine several key questions in the following chapters: How Serious Is the Problem of Political Scandals in America? How Relevant Is Private Morality to Public Office? Case Study: Was President Bill Clinton’s Impeachment Justified? What Reforms Can Prevent Political Corruption? The viewpoints will give the reader insight into the causes, ramifications, and possible solutions to the problem of political scandals in America.