Presidential scandals: Obama to Jefferson

By MSN News Reuters: Larry Downing
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Scandals from the highest office

Barack Obama may be battling scandals, but he's hardly the first president to face controversy. Here's a list of other presidential scandals and their fallout. See gallery

Obama's scandals come in threes

First, Republicans held congressional hearings over accusations that President Barack Obama's administration tried to "cover up" details about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Then news broke that the IRS had improperly targeted conservative political groups for added tax scrutiny. Just days after the IRS story came out, a new controversy erupted when The Associated Press revealed that the Department of Justice had obtained phone records for dozens of reporters in an attempt to track the source of several high-profile leaks. Just when the embers were cooling on those scandals, along came the acknowledgement by the Obama administration that four American citizens had been killed by drone strikes since 2009. Despite all these scandals, however, Obama appears to have weathered the storms so far, with new poll figures finding his popular support remaining unchanged.

Get the latest on scandals at the White House

 

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Valerie Plame outing shakes up Bush administration

President George W. Bush was no stranger to scandals, but perhaps the incident with the most lasting legal consequences was the Valerie Plame affair. In 2003, Washington Post writer Robert Novak revealed Plame was an undercover CIA agent, instantly blowing her cover and ending her career. The leak to Novak was eventually traced back to Vice President Dick Cheney's office, and his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was convicted of felony obstruction of justice and sentenced to prison (though Bush later commuted part of the sentence). The incident was a major embarrassment for the Bush administration and is said to have led to a disintegration of trust between the president and Cheney.

Video: Plame testifies before Congress

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Reuters: Win McNamee
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Monica Lewinsky affair plagues Clinton's second term

The Bill Clinton administration is often remembered for its surplus budgets, international peace and economic prosperity. It's also often remembered for the infamous sexual affair Clinton had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Initial denials of the affair by Clinton led to accusations of perjury, and in 1998 the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. Clinton's strategy of combating the scandal included a vigorous legal defense and some careful phrases by the president, including the famous  "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." For his own part, Clinton survived — saved from impeachment by the Senate — but the scandal is often cited as a liability for the Democratic Party in the 2000 election and is sometimes said to have cost Al Gore Clinton's home state of Arkansas and, therefore, the presidency.

Video: Clinton addresses Lewinsky scandal

 

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George H.W. Bush-appointed treasurer busted for tax evasion

George H.W. Bush ran a relatively tight ship during his four years in office, but one major controversy that tripped him up involved his appointment of Catalina Vasquez Villalpando as treasurer of the United States. Villalpando was found to have failed to disclose and pay taxes on a substantial amount of income and of lying to investigators and destroying evidence. In all, Villalpando pleaded guilty to three felonies, including tax evasion and obstruction of justice and became the only U.S. treasurer to be sent to prison. Bush did his best to insulate himself from the scandal, but Villalpando's long friendship with the president made for difficult questions for the administration.

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Bert Lance scandal erodes Carter's moral higher ground

Georgia native Bert Lance turned a successful career in banking into a top-level job in President Jimmy Carter's administration when he was appointed director of the Office of Management and Budget. Unfortunately, Lance's banking activities never quite ended, and when The New York Times revealed that those activities often included gross mismanagement and illegal deals, Lance resigned in disgrace. For Carter, who had campaigned on a platform of moral authority and squeaky-clean governance, the Lance scandal was a major blow and may have even contributed to his serving only one term.

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Getty Images: Universal History Archive
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Reagan administration trades arms for hostages

President Ronald Reagan's second term became mired in scandal in November 1986 when accusations began to fly that his administration had traded weapons to Iranian militants in exchange for American hostages. The money made in the deals was used to support anti-communist revolutionaries, or "contras," in Nicaragua. Such arms dealing and militant funding had been prohibited by Congress, and Reagan initially denied the charges. But in March 1987, the president gave a speech about the so-called Iran-contra affair, saying, "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

Video: Reagan admits involvement in Iran-contra affair

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Ford pardons Nixon; controversy ensues

Following President Richard Nixon's resignation during the Watergate scandal, Americans looked to new President Gerald Ford to clean up the misdeeds of the previous administration. But almost as soon as Ford took office, he found himself tied to the scandal surrounding his predecessor when he announced he would pardon Nixon, shielding him from any criminal charges stemming from Watergate. The pardon was highly controversial, and at least one high-level official resigned in protest. Despite Ford's best attempts to frame the pardon as in the "best interests of the country," he would go on to lose the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter.

Video: Ford announces pardon of Nixon

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Watergate washes away Nixon

In the pantheon of American political scandals, Watergate stands alone as the most iconic and likely the most devastating. It began on June 17, 1972, with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C. Through the intrepid reporting of Washington Post writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the burglary was linked to higher and higher levels of government figures, until eventually the scandal reached President Richard Nixon, who had ordered a cover-up. Beleaguered on all sides and facing all-but-certain impeachment, Nixon resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974, and remains the only president to step down from office.

Video: Nixon announces resignation

 

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Johnson survives Baker scandal

President Lyndon B. Johnson's close adviser and former Secretary of the Senate Bobby Baker is said to have had an uncanny knack for "reading" politicians and understanding their needs. He's also accused of indulging their vices: allegedly providing government contracts in exchange for money and sexual favors. Baker was forced to resign in 1963 amid widespread accusations, but despite rumors that John F. Kennedy — who was running for re-election at the time with Johnson as vice president — would drop Johnson from his ticket, the two weathered the scandal. Johnson assumed the presidency following Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in November 1963.

Video: Johnson opponent Barry Goldwater uses Baker in campaign ad

 

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Kennedy hurt by Bay of Pigs disaster

On the same day that President John F. Kennedy told the American people that "there will not, under any conditions, be an intervention in Cuba by United States armed forces," a secret force of U.S.-trained Cuban militants and covert American soldiers was preparing just such an intervention. So when the planned invasion, which centered on a landing in Cuba's Bay of Pigs, turned into a spectacular failure and U.S. involvement became known, Kennedy faced accusations of being both an incompetent military leader and a liar. The affair also alienated Kennedy and the CIA, which he blamed for intelligence failures while publicly accepting responsibility for the failed mission.

Video: The failed Bay of Pigs invasion

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Teapot Dome scandal scalds Harding

Before Watergate took down President Richard Nixon, the most damaging political scandal in American history arguably belonged to President Warren G. Harding in the form of the Teapot Dome affair. Harding's secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, had leased petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., and two locations in California to private oil companies at exceedingly low rates in exchange for a huge amount in kickbacks and bribes. In 1922 and 1923 the leases were investigated, and the resulting scandal sent Fall to prison and cost Harding his reputation, which might have otherwise rested on his efforts to improve the nation's unemployment and his support for African-Americans' rights.

Video: Documentary on the Teapot Dome scandal

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Crowd to Cleveland: 'Ma, Ma, where's my pa?'

When President Grover Cleveland won the presidency in 1885, he did so as a bachelor, eventually marrying Frances Folsom and becoming the only president to have a wedding in the White House. But while Cleveland didn't have a wife during the campaign, he did have a child. As his opponents discovered, Cleveland had fathered a child while he was a lawyer in Buffalo, N.Y., with a woman named Maria Crofts Halpin. Cleveland admitted he had an illegitimate child and said he had paid years of child support, but that didn't stop opposing crowds from chanting "Ma, Ma, where's my pa?" at rallies.

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Railroad scandal derails Grant

Famed Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant coasted to the presidency in 1868 on the strength of his military fame and nationwide name recognition. Unfortunately, his presidency was plagued with corruption. Perhaps the biggest controversy to rock the Grant administration was the Credit Mobilier scandal. Beginning in 1867, dozens of politicians, nearly all of whom were friends of Grant, were given steep discounts on stock of the Credit Mobilier of America company, which was involved in the funding and construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. The scandal was an embarrassment to the president, and while he was never personally implicated, it permanently tarnished Grant's legacy, along with other instances of graft.

 

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Jackson worn down by Petticoat Affair

In 1830s Washington, D.C., an enormous amount of gossip centered on Margaret O'Neill, the wife of a Navy purser and the hostess of a boarding house that attracted numerous prominent political figures. After O'Neill's husband died — some say he committed suicide — she quickly married President Andrew Jackson's secretary of war, John Henry Eaton. The marriage caused a scandal dubbed the Petticoat Affair and eventually led nearly everyone in Jackson's Cabinet to resign in protest. Jackson attempted to downplay the drama, but social conventions of the time worked against him and he spent much time patching up the damage that had been caused by a single marriage. 

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Jefferson and his supposed slave concubine

As one of the United States' Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is remembered as a pioneering president who helped shape early America. But before, during and for decades after his presidency, rumors abounded that he had fathered at least one child with his black slave Sally Hemings. The accusations against Jefferson dogged him throughout his presidency, but he brushed them off as shameless slander. In 1998, however, a group of historians performed DNA tests on relatives of Hemings and Jefferson and determined that the president had likely fathered several children with Hemings.

Video: Documentary on Hemings affair

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