Organized as the party of freedom in 1854, from the profiteering, graft and corruption of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Republican Party quickly became the party of wealth and privilege. Although the Washington, D.C., political scene is perpetually one of corruption and scandal no matter who controls the government, in our history we have experienced only four major political crises involving major corruption, events that rocked the very foundations of our republic.
The Credit Mobilier kickback deal that surfaced in the Post-Civil War Reconstruction period involved the Union Pacific Railroad, the Credit Mobilier Construction Company and 15 government officials. Included were Vice President Schuyler Colfax, the Treasury secretary, four senators, the Speaker of the House, James G. Blaine, and eight members of the House of Representatives.
The affair involved overcharges on transcontinental railroad construction contracts, with the overrun money being kicked back to politicians. The scandal details were exposed and brought to public attention in 1872 by a privately-initiated newspaper investigation.
In 1923 news broke concerning the Teapot Dome Affair that involved the fraudulent awarding of federal oil leases in Wyoming. This was the federal government’s worst financial scandal to date, and it resulted in the conviction and sentencing of President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Falls and the suicide of an Interior Department official.
The Watergate scandal uncovered during the second Nixon administration involved the criminal break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Washington, D. C., Watergate Office Complex. The exposure of the attempted cover-up resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency to avoid impeachment and sure conviction. But several of Nixon’s close associates were tried, convicted and sentenced.
And this all took place after Nixon’s first-term vice president Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace after being discovered receiving bribes. As were the two previously mentioned affairs, Watergate was uncovered through the efforts of two enterprising young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
The latest major scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair, took place in the mid-1980s. In a secret (and illegal) arms deal the Reagan administration sold missiles and other arms to Iran, supposedly to free American hostages held by Lebanon. But they also clandestinely used some of the profits to support the Contra forces in Nicaragua which they had been forbidden to do by the Boland Amendment.
Although anti-communist, the Contras were closely allied with and received much of their funding from the Central American drug cartels. President Reagan initially denied any knowledge of the affair, only to sheepishly retract his statements eight days later. He then inferred the whole thing was a mistake in judgment, rather than of the heart.
Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North admitted diverting funds to the Contras with the full knowledge of National Security Advisor John Poindexter. And he also felt sure President Reagan knew what was going on. In the end nobody served time and Oliver North eventually became a zealous radio spokesman for the political and religious right, the NRA and other similar causes.
Does anyone see a common thread running through these affairs? First, they were uncovered and aired, not by governmental self-investigation but by newspaper reporters investigating independently. And all four scandals took place under Republican administrations, supposedly the party of honesty, integrity and family values-whatever those are. Any conclusions?