It should hardly come as a surprise that the Obama White House has been rocked by a veritable plethora of alleged scandals in the past couple of weeks. It would be even more impressive if any of them even came close to approaching those of the other twice-elected presidents of the last fifty years.
Richard Nixon presided over the granddaddy of all scandals shortly after he was re-elected in 1973. It got the name Watergate, because the story that broke the scandal occurred at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, where the Democratic headquarters were burglarized by members of Nixon’s “plumbers unit” (so named because they were responsible for fixing leaks among other things). Nixon would have been convicted of high crimes and kicked out of office for his part in the cover-up (if not the planning) of the entire affair, but he resigned before he could be impeached.
Ronald Reagan presided over the scandal dubbed Iran-Contra in his second term. That one featured a rogue government dealing directly with the same terrorists who had kidnapped fifty-two Americans and held them for well over a year in Tehran, Iran. The deal was struck to get arms to the rebels fighting a duly elected government in El Salvador, which was a violation of U.S. law. For his part—or for being asleep at the switch (take your choice)—in the affair, Reagan was given a pass by kind-hearted Tip O’Neill (then Speaker of the House), who feared a loss of public confidence in the government if Reagan were to be subjected to impeachment proceedings. (Yes, O’Neill was a Democrat.)
Bill Clinton’s scandal was decidedly less of a threat to national security or to the integrity of the government. Instead, he got caught with his pants down for, well, for having his pants down. He was impeached, which ended up being more of an embarrassment to the Republicans in the House than to Mr. Clinton, who withstood the Senate trial and went on to complete two of the most successful terms a president has ever had.
George W. Bush didn’t have a true scandal. Instead, he just led one of the most incompetent administrations in the nation’s history, marked as it was by the Katrina disaster and the bungling of not one but two wars, one of which he started either by lying to the American people or by persuading his minions to trump up claims about Iraq that were completely unfounded.
And so, with every re-elected president in the last fifty years having had a scandal of one kind or another on his watch, why should Barack Obama be any different?
Okay, so let’s consider the Obama scandals and see if we can find anything that is really worth all the shouting on cable TV and talk radio. I count four claims, none of which are anything close to those of this president’s predecessors. Listing them in the order of apparent significance (based on depth of coverage by the media), they are the actions of the IRS office in Cleveland; the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; the tapping of the phones of the reporters for the Associated Press; and the continued allegations of sexual abuse in the U.S. military.
At the outset, let me make clear that none of these events are a bona fide scandal of the type that confronted Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. And none of them represent the kind of misfeasance that marked the administration of Bush. But we live in a different political era, one where the president is viewed as illegitimate by his most ardent political opponents. Thus what would have been properly attributed to lesser government offices in past times now gets the kind of scrutiny that made Woodward and Bernstein famous.
The IRS story is admittedly bizarre, but as more facts and details emerge, it looks less like a deliberate, ham-fisted effort to intimidate the various Tea Party organizations that were filing for tax exempt status and more like a sloppy effort to enforce the law that got stuck on one group (primarily because so many of them were filing at the same time). Yes, it was embarrassing and Congressional hearings should definitely be held to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again; but no, it isn’t in any way equivalent to the White House abuse of the IRS under Nixon, when an actual enemies list existed that the agency used to harass political opponents of the president.
The Benghazi attacks were a tragedy and an indication of poor management (by mid-level State Department bureaucrats and the CIA) and even poorer funding allocations (by Congress). To lose a U.S. ambassador to terrorist attacks is never acceptable. But claims that the White House orchestrated a massive cover-up of the true nature of the attacks are ridiculous, as the many e-mails between the State Department, the White House, and the CIA clearly establish. If the White House had any meaningful involvement at all in the post-Benghazi briefings and press releases, it was in trying to mediate between the two agencies.
The A.P. story is an outrage, but it is one that the Attorney General, not the President, must bear. Eric Holder has been under attack for any number of decisions during his tenure as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. This one isn’t easily ignored. It’s one thing to try to determine the source of leaks on matters of national security; it’s quite another when the actions you take put the viability of a free press at risk. Holder has not been well regarded by those within the Department of Justice. It may well be time for him to move back to the private practice of law.
And that leaves the claims of sexual abuse in the military, which are undoubtedly well founded, but, just like the other scandals in the news these days, come nowhere near the president in terms of complicity or responsibility.
To summarize, as scandals intended to bring down a president go, when compared to real ones that almost did, these won’t do.