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“I am not a Crook”

A colleague notes on his FB page this morning that today is the anniversary of Nixon’s famous pronouncement:  “people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”

Here’s the video:

It got me to thinking:  while there have been any number of scandals in DC since Watergate (the most recent being the ongoing Petraeus mess), has there been a scandal as perfidious as Nixon’s since that time?  By this I mean a clear abuse of power for personal political gain in an attempt to influence the outcome of an election?

In terms of potential consequences, the Lewinsky scandal comes the closest (i.e., Clinton was impeached, and Nixon would have been).  However, regardless of the sanction, there is hardly a comparison in terms of actual behavior and goals of the two men.

Iran-Contra in the Reagan administration was pretty serious, and arguments could be made that circumventing congress on the international stage was worse than the break in and coverup during Watergate, but there is the lack of abuse of power for personal gain.

The question of the potency and depth of scandal is a relevant one in contemporary politics, since many have likened (I noted a few here) Watergate to the current discussion over Benghazi.  I would suggest that this is something that only those who don’t know their history make (but, of course, there have been those who certainly should know better who have made the comparison).

So here’s the question:  what scandal do you think since Watergate is actually worse than Watergate, or do you think that Watergate is still the top of the leaderboard?

Note:  there have been legitimate policies that have been worse than Watergate in effects, to be sure, but that’s not the question.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    As Watergate was a deliberate attempt to subvert the function of our democracy and sieze power at the expense of the citizenry, I can’t really think of anything worse. From a certain point of view it could be likened to an attempted coup, could it not?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    From a certain point of view it could be likened to an attempted coup, could it not?

    So could Iran-Contra.

    Iran-Contra in the Reagan administration was pretty serious, and arguments could be made that circumventing congress on the international stage was worse than the break in and coverup during Watergate, but there is the lack of abuse of power for personal gain.

    Steven, do you really think they did it because they thought the Contras were just such a nice bunch of guys? I am certain there would have been some personal gain for the perpetrators even if I can’t know what it would have been. Altruism lost it’s place in the halls of power a long time ago.

    So no, I did not buy their propaganda that they were just a bunch of Patriots, even if they did buy their own lies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. @OzarkHillbilly: I meant the personal gain of the President.

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  4. Modulo Myself says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I’m not sure if Nixon was crazy enough to believe that he was bugging the DNC offices for the country’s benefit, but I’m sure he really tried to believe that he was.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I meant the personal gain of the President.

    Ah.

    You know, I always thought the line about Reagan not knowing made it all even worse. I mean, he was the President for God’s sake.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. @OzarkHillbilly: Let me be clear: I am not defending Reagan here. I am asking about a comparison. Now, if you think that Iran-Contra was worse than Watergate, let’s talk about why.

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  7. rudderpedals says:

    The 2000 election coup d’etat not only had a sprinkling of Watergate-era personalities in high positions but it was IMO far more serious than Watergate. It’ll probably be another 12 years before the full extent of the corruption is known.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  8. Whitfield says:

    I remember that President Nixon had been talking about having an investigation of the oil companies, since that was the time when suddenly there was a “gas shortage” with long lines and increasing prices that no one could give a logical, believable explanation for. Next thing we knew, that Watergate thing blows up and Nixon was out!
    After that all of the gas stations were closed down and converted to convenience stores. After that, plenty of gas!

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    No one has touched Watergate yet. But had the Republican effort to suppress the vote resulted in Mr. Romney being elected, that would have been as bad or worse.

    I played a minuscule role in Watergate myself. The law firm where I was a law library grunt defended Time Magazine against a suit by Spiro Agnew. One of the lawyers needed a precedent from English law which, for that era, was written in French. (Normans, Billy the Conk and all that.) I was semi-fluent so I was tossed into the bowels of the GW University law library from whence I emerged with just the thing. Agnew resigned next day, then NIxon, and Democracy was saved. (You see how I imply cause and effect there?)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  10. mattb says:

    I’m hard pressed to think of another case that rises to these criteria. And the fact that it’s become the norm to add the “-gate” suffix on to any perceived scandal only goes to cement Watergate’s role as “the big one.”

    A different question, what was the previous top political scandal in the minds of the public/popular culture before Watergate?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. @mattb: Teapot Dome?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Modulo Myself says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Ronald Reagan was a guy who thought he was present at the liberation of a concentration camp because he made a movie about it. His entire vision of America was based on turning greed, fantasy, and militarism into ideals. Whatever he didn’t want to hear, he chose not to believe.

    He was an awful president with terrible ideas. Iran-Contra should have been the explanation of what he was as president. Double-dealer, supporter of death squads, liar, lawbreaker, moron. But instead, it exists as some weird conundrum that does nothing to break the Reagan myth.

    So I think the outcome of Iran-Contra was worse than Watergate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  13. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Teapot Dome

    That’s my thought. Though the key difference is that the discovery and subsequent investigation of the scandal happened after Harding had left office. What adds to the legacy of Watergate was that the investigation unfolded while Nixon was still in office, and his tacit admission of guilt via the act of his resignation.

    It’s going to take a lot to top that. Hopefully it won’t happen any time soon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. al-Ameda says:

    The most prominent legacy of Watergate is now, every time some prominent politician or journalist doesn’t get an answer that he or she likes – it’s a cover-up, and it is christened [fill in the blank]-gate.

    McCain wants a watergate-style investigation of the administration’s handling of Benghazi because many Republicans want a pretext to initiate impeachment proceedings against Obama.

    Farfetched? Recent history tells us Republicans will impeach a popular Democratic president for whatever reason it deems sufficient. The votes are probably there in the House.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am not defending Reagan here.

    Oh I know you are not.

    As to Iran Contra being worse, in one way I do think it was as bad: When members of the Executive branch of govt’ flat out defy one of the other branches they are getting perilously close to a dictatorial mind set on the part of the actors. The fact that they did it in secret says they knew it was wrong and did it anyway. Those people should have been tried for far more serious crimes than they were, not lionized as Ollie North was, nor pardoned as Cap Weinberger was.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I was semi-fluent so I was tossed into the bowels of the GW University law library from whence I emerged with just the thing. Agnew resigned next day, then NIxon, and Democracy was saved. (You see how I imply cause and effect there?)

    HA! Kind of like the economy getting so much better the day after a Romney landslide? ;-)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Gustopher says:

    1. George W. Bush: the Brooks Brothers riots to intimidate vote counters in Florida, ultimately resulting in the sh.tty Supreme Court decision installing him as president.

    2. George W. Bush: Lying about weapons of mass destruction, to bring the country into a war with Iraq, before we were done with Afghanistan. (An immoral act, done stupidly)

    3. Reagan: Iran-Contra

    4. Clinton: Hillary Clinton shooting Vince Foster in a park

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Funny, all of us ignoring the elephant in the room: the GWOT. (Gus, you came close) Torture, indefinite detentions, sham trials, targeted killings, of Americans…

    The list grows longer every day.

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  19. I would argue that failed (or misguided, or whatever) policy is different than a specific scandal.

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  20. Jenos Idanian Who Has No Pony Tail says:

    I’ll toss out Fast & Furious as a potential rival. We don’t have the story yet, but one theory that seems to fit the facts involves officials at the highest levels of power (at least Holder, possibly Obama himself) ordering that Mexican drug cartels be supplied with weapons (an act of war against an allegedly friendly nation) in order to rally support for gun control here at home. And, as many here would like to forget, that scheme has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans and at least one American border officer.

    And wow… some people are still fixated on the 2000 elections. To coin a phrase, “get over it, losers.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 8

  21. @Jenos Idanian Who Has No Pony Tail:

    one theory that seems to fit the facts involves officials at the highest levels of power (at least Holder, possibly Obama himself) ordering that Mexican drug cartels be supplied with weapons (an act of war against an allegedly friendly nation) in order to rally support for gun control here at home.

    Are you trying to make us take you even less seriously?

    (However, you are certainly vindicating my view that there is a class of person so deeply influenced by rightwing media as to live in a fantasy world)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  22. mattb says:

    @Jenos Idanian Who Has No Pony Tail:

    one theory that seems to fit the facts involves officials at the highest levels of power (at least Holder, possibly Obama himself) ordering that Mexican drug cartels be supplied with weapons (an act of war against an allegedly friendly nation) in order to rally support for gun control here at home.

    Can you present a single bit of evidence that suggests that this theory has any basis in fact?

    Especially since the Inspector General’s report debunked the entire theory:

    On September 19,[107] the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz publicly released a 471-page report[24] detailing the results of the Justice Department’s own internal investigations. The Inspector General’s report, which had access to evidence and interviews with witnesses not permitted in previous Congressional reports, recommended 14 federal officials for disciplinary action, ranging from ATF agents to federal prosecutors involved in the Fast and Furious operation.[107] It found “no evidence” that Attorney General Holder knew about Fast and Furious before early 2011.[108] It found no evidence that previous Attorneys General had been advised about gunwalking in Operation Wide Receiver.[24]

    While the OIG report found no evidence that higher officials at the Justice Department in Washington had authorized or approved of the tactics used in the Fast and Furious investigations, it did fault 14 lower officials for related failures, including failures to take note of “red flags” uncovered by the investigation, as well as failures to follow up on information produced through Operation Fast and Furious and its predecessor, Operation Wide Receiver.[107]

    The report also noted ATF agents’ apparent frustrations over legal obstacles from the Phoenix Attorney’s Office to prosecuting suspected “straw-buyers,” while also criticizing the agents’ failure to quickly intervene and interdict weapons obtained by low-level suspects in the case.[107] The 14 Justice Department employees were referred for possible internal discipline. The Justice Department’s Criminal Division head Lanny Breuer, an Obama administration presidential appointee, was cited for not alerting his bosses in 2010 to the flaws of Operation Wide Receiver.[109]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ATF_gunwalking_scandal

    And as a reminder the DOJ Inspector General is an independent entity that is not controlled by the Head of the Justice Department.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Are you trying to make us take you even less seriously?

    (However, you are certainly vindicating my view that there is a class of person so deeply influenced by rightwing media as to live in a fantasy world)

    It’s a totally crazy theory. The problem is, the official story is even crazier. Some rogue ATF agents decided, on their own, to run a gun-sting operation, but forgot to get permission or actually set up a way to track the guns — a stingless sting, as it were.

    That’s why I couched it in theoreticals and conditionals and speculatives.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  24. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @mattb: Can you present a single bit of evidence that suggests that this theory has any basis in fact?

    If there was concrete evidence, it would be more than just a theory.

    And that report simply doesn’t pass the smell test. Supplying guns to the Mexican cartels involved either co-opting or evading other federal agencies (ICE and State come to mind), and technically could be considered an act of war — the cartels are essentially at war with the Mexican government. The notion that it was some rogue low-level and mid-level officials who pulled this all off is simply inconceivable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  25. An Interested Party says:

    And wow… some people are still fixated on the 2000 elections. To coin a phrase, “get over it, losers.”

    Oh please…if all the roles had been reversed, Republicans and conservatives would have openly talked about waging a civil war or impeaching and removing an “illegitimate” president…hell, look at the reaction of many of them to the presidential election…talk about losers…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @An Interested Party: Keep projecting there. Whatever gets you through the night.

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  27. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    If there was concrete evidence, it would be more than just a theory.

    You mean ‘speculation,’ not theory. Many theories are supported by demonstrable evidence – e.g. Quantum Theory, the Theory of Relativity, and so forth.

    To be fair, all of that is in the area of science, and this is in the world of political science, where rampant speculation is often considered to be equivalent to fact.

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  28. @al-Ameda:

    To be fair, all of that is in the area of science, and this is in the world of political science, where rampant speculation is often considered to be equivalent to fact.

    No, not the realm of political science, the realm of politics in one of its cruder forms.

    I assure you: while political scientists lack the ability to perform the kinds of experiments that physicists and chemists do, we don’t honor rank speculation with the appellation “theory.”

    Please, please, please do not equate the rantings of Mssr. Jenos to political science :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  29. al-Ameda says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Please, please, please do not equate the rantings of Mssr. Jenos to political science :)

    My apologies Steven. I thought of that after I hit the “Post Comment” button.

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  30. @al-Ameda: :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. @al-Ameda: On a more serious note, you do get to something of significance: the fact that the word “theory” (or even “hypothesis”) is often misused in common parlance. Every wild ass guess or scenario that one can generate is not a theory.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. al-Ameda says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    …. the fact that the word “theory” (or even “hypothesis”) is often misused in common parlance. Every wild ass guess or scenario that one can generate is not a theory.

    Indeed, and you state it more artfully than I did.

    People now commonly use the word theory now in order to discredit an idea. The fact is, we live in a world where valid working theories – in science and social science – accurately describe many natural processes as well as individual and wider social behavior patterns.

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  33. @al-Ameda:

    People now commonly use the word theory now in order to discredit an idea.

    Indeed.

    I tell my students that theory is “an attempt to explain the complex reality around us” and that it has to be constructed from observations that lead to correlations and then hypotheses. All of these things require empirical evidence and sound reason.

    It is not just some guess (or, in the case of Jenos’ F&F scenario, some story we tell ourselves–that’s not theorizing, that’s fiction writing)..

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  34. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Fine, call it speculation if you like. But feel free to put forth a contrasting “speculation” that actually makes sense, and is consistent with what we know about the whole stupid mess.

    One point you really shouldn’t miss, though; there was never any kind of plan to track the guns past the US border or eventually recover them. The operation started with setting up straw buyers and ended with helping the guns get into Mexico. There were no tracking devices, no coordination with US officials in Mexico, no notification of Mexican officials — nothing that would actually act as a “sting” in the whole stupid mess.

    When you have professionals doing something this inexplicable, the only reasonable explanation is that they didn’t want to track the guns in Mexico or recover them before they were used in crimes.

    Fast & Furious wasn’t a “failed sting.” It never was any kind of a “sting” operation at all.

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