The Taxonomy of Scandals: Is Obama Nearing a Breaking Point?

From Iran-Contra to Charles Rangel, Americans can tolerate some of Washington’s transgressions. But the president’s cluster may signal more trouble to come. By Lloyd Green.

05.27.13 8:45 AM ET

Not every scandal is Watergate Redux. If the God-fearing voters of South Carolina could forgive Mark Sanford for his “hike” off the Appalachian Trail, then it may not come as a shock that Americans are cutting the president some slack over IRS overreach, a concerted Justice Department war on the press, and the deadly fiasco in Libya, followed by a bumbling attempt to get the story straight.

Even scandals have hierarchies. Nowadays, voters are prone to judge politicians less harshly when the alleged wrongdoings involve defending the country or sins of the flesh. Avarice will likely bring a politician down, unless the pol can be portrayed as a champion of the little guy or a cause. However, when the scandal is hatched in the White House, and is a raw abuse of power for its own sake, all bets are off.

National security? Think back to the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration traded arms for hostages with Iran and used the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Newspapers howled, Congress investigated, and the “I” word, impeachment, was bandied about. In the end, however, Ronald Reagan served his two full terms, and Vice President George H.W. Bush won the 1988 presidential election going away.

Sex? Louisiana gave Senator David Vitter a pass, just as Sanford’s constituents did this month. By contrast, New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner resigned in disgrace because their proclivities struck too many as just too odd.

Greed? It ranks in the upper tier of the scandal scale. Unless the accused can garner sympathy, the pol is usually finished. In the last decade, Representatives Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, William Jefferson—a diverse lot—took bribes and went to prison. Nobody shed a tear.

But, if a politician can transform financial irregularities into something bigger than himself, he can grow up to be president. Take Richard Nixon, who as a senator in the early 1950s, was aided by a donor-funded campaign slush fund. After having been tapped by Dwight Eisenhower to be his running mate on the 1952 Republican presidential ticket, Nixon’s salary supplement came to light.

Invoking his daughters’ dog and his wife’s cloth coat, Nixon delivered his infamous Checkers Speech.The speech riffed off Nixon’s own class resentments, and played to the GOP’s Main Street base. Ike, the five-star general, had been outflanked.

More than a decade later, when faced with an investigation and expulsion from Congress for misusing congressional funds, Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell told his supporters to “keep the faith,” and for a while they did. After he was expelled from the House, Powell’s constituents reelected him, until he was defeated in the 1970 Democratic primary by a former federal prosecutor named Charles Rangel.

History can repeat itself. Rangel, after having been censured by the House in late 2010 for a litany of abuses, survived reelection.

Watergate? It remains the gold standard of scandal.  Nixon harnessed his own personal demons to the presidency, orchestrated a criminal conspiracy from the White House, subverted the FBI, and, yes, unleashed the IRS upon his political enemies. A broad bipartisan House Judiciary Committee majority found his sins to rise to the level of impeachable offenses. The late New York Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr., personally took Nixon to task for failing to supervise his subordinates.  According to Fish, “the size and complexity” of the Executive Branch did not excuse the president from lax or nonexistent oversight.

So where does today’s scandal cluster leave President Obama? In a recent CNN poll, a majority said the wave of scandals raises important issues, and that Congress isn’t overreacting. Nearly three in four told Washington Post pollsters the IRS acted inappropriately. Six of 10 told a Fox News survey that the administration went too far in seizing Associated Press phone records. As for the IRS, its reputation has taken a beating. 

Still, the public’s view is nuanced, buffeted by the competing concerns of free expression and national security, a tension alluded to by Obama during his speech at the National Defense University on Thursday. If Iran-Contra teaches us anything, it is that Americans will live with a modicum of Executive Branch law-breaking if it is the price for keeping our enemies at bay.

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This is not to say that people shouldn’t be outraged by the IRS’s antics and the DOJ’s intimidation. Indeed, they should be. A government agency targeted opponents of the president while they exercised their constitutional rights. A Cabinet department sought to intimidate—incriminate, more likely—the press, and it wasn’t only the AP: the administration has clashed with Fox News since Day One and may have retaliated against CBS News for its reporting on the “Fast and Furious” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms debacle. [] In all fairness, it also could have been the Chinese or others with a gripe with the Tiffany Network.

Yet the scandal fair has led to an air of a government run amok. Lois Lerner, who headed the tax-exempt-organizations division of the IRS, has now been placed on administrative leave after she invoked the Fifth Amendment before Congress. Like New York City schoolteachers consigned to the “rubber room,” Lerner cannot be easily dismissed

As for the DOJ, it remains in the news for charging Fox News Washington Bureau Chief James Rosen as an unindicted co-conspirator and reportedly seizing his parents’ phone records and those of other Fox News reporters. According to reports, Holder personally approved the seizure of Rosen’s email, after having recused himself in the AP investigation. [   ] For the record, Department of Justice and IRS employees collectively donated nearly $140,000 to Obama’s presidential campaigns. In contrast, Romney netted approximately $28,000 from both DOJ and IRS employees and McCain cobbled together little more a paltry $5,200.

Scandals, like other organisms, come with lives and taxonomies of their own. These days, the White House seems to be tangled in a growing web.