Honest presidents and their scandals

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Scandals. They come to all presidents. Even to the honest presidents, they come. George Washington had a scandal or two. So did Thomas Jefferson.

Not all presidential scandals are equal, though, not in their impropriety nor in their impact. Some are illegal, some are immoral and some are just gossip. All have political implications — and it’s just there that we, the American people, have to be most careful. Politicians will try to exploit a scandal, and the media sensationalize it. We, the people, must put things in perspective.

Scandal makes outrage fashionable, but outrage, like fashion, has its seasons. In August of 1914, President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife died. The next spring, Wilson met Edith Galt and by May they were engaged. At the time, it caused quite a scandal; rumors, even of murder, multiplied. Today, it’s not an affair to remember.

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Sometimes a scandal deserves our wrath. When the scandal involves corruption or abuse of power, we rightly expect our leaders and representatives to be nonpartisan. Such, for example, was the case in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which staggered the Warren G. Harding administration. Republican Sen. Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Thomas J. Walsh of Montana both were involved in exposing and investigating the scandal.

Sometimes scandal touches the honest man, like mud splattered by a passing car. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, both honest men, faced major scandals. Several of Truman’s cabinet officials had accepted deep freezers and mink coats from lobbyists. Also, more than 150 IRS employees were fired or had to resign over tax-fixing and bribery charges. Those controversial scandals, historians acknowledge, did not involve Truman or taint his honesty.

Eisenhower’s Department of Agriculture paid nearly a half-billion dollars in subsidies to rich farmers to buy their surplus wheat. His agriculture secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, was a John Bircher who thought Civil Rights a communist conspiracy. Even more telling, Sherman Adams, Ike’s chief of staff, refused to answer questions about an oriental rug and a vicuna coat he had accepted from a lobbyist for whom he’d intervened. Cited for contempt of Congress, Adams had to resign. Yet Ike rightfully remained respected, his political integrity unquestioned.

Dear Reader, if I have focused on scandals that occurred before most of us were born, or at least when we were very young, it’s because I want us, together, to consider today’s scandals in the proper perspective. Let us step away from the media circus. Let us turn a deaf ear to the pandering “I’m shocked, shocked!” hypocrisy. Let us, rather, ask the questions that need to be asked and demand the actions that need to be taken.

We’ve learned recently that civil service employees of a small agency, the General Services Administration, blew more than $800,000 of taxpayer money on entertainment for its Las Vegas learning retreat. Yet the GSA is the watchdog on federal spending.

More serious, several Secret Service agents (as well as members of the military) procured prostitutes prior to President Obama’s visit to Colombia. We are all rightfully appalled that those who would literally take a bullet for the president, who thus accept the highest personal standards to become an agent, not only succumbed to their human frailties, but put so much at risk by doing so.

In light of these two scandals, let us ask who “guards the guardians”? The answer: We do, but only by the questions we ask and the questions we demand that the media and our representatives ask.

As taxpayers and as citizens, we should be concerned that some will use these two scandals for a false narrative that the government consists mainly of self-serving individuals, not servants of the common good.

We must demand — no matter who occupies the White House or Congress or our courts — honest governing. I’m concerned these two scandals will be exploited by the self-serving to smear good, honest, hardworking Americans — those who protect our president, and the public servants who assist those protecting our borders, our food and water supplies and much, much more.

After the investigations are completed, President Obama must hold those responsible accountable for their irresponsible behavior or actions. If some need to be fired, fire them. This should not descend into the realm of partisanship to anyone seeking to score political points.

After all, both the GSA and Secret Service are deliberately divorced from partisan control. But we are in the silly season — a presidential election year — and some of the president’s persistent critics see a possible “I’m shocked, shocked!” scene-stealer.

Thus, they go off an an erotic fishing expedition, with GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa wondering how many of the White House staff were scheduling prostitutes. None. Just sayin’. The cluck-clucking of the special interest media reminds me of the elderly lady who called the police to complain about the obscene caller who didn’t hang up for over an hour.

Every administration has a scandal of some sort. What matters, what we must demand, is a prompt, fair, rigorous investigation and a correction of any wrongdoings. Let us be fair, as we expect an honest president to be fair: Investigate thoroughly, determine the facts, then, if warranted by the evidence, clean house — fairly, for the public good. But don’t sacrifice good public service employees for political purposes.

(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine.)