If you were setting out to provoke the scandal machine that has bedeviled every recent second-term president, having the IRS conduct audits using such key words as “Tea Party” and “We the People” is sure to get it going. The revelations about the IRS, coming on the heels of the controversy over Benghazi, has Republicans and some Democrats asking those familiar questions, what did the president know and when did he know it? The media see blood in the water, another phrase that conjures up Watergate, the scandal that forced President Nixon’s resignation and is remembered in Washington as a high point for American journalism.
Reached by phone on the West Coast and asked if the events unfolding in Washington were giving him déjà vu, John Dean, who testified before Congress about “the cancer” on the Nixon presidency, told The Daily Beast, “No, not yet, it’s not even close to Watergate at this point.” The former White House counsel dismissed the flap over Benghazi as “loose charges” in search of a scandal, and the battle over the talking points “a CYA [cover your ass] operation between two different agencies,” with the State Department and the CIA seeking to shift blame for the security lapses that led to the deaths of four Americans.
“When you have a good scandal, one that has legs, you know what the underlying problem is,” Dean said. Benghazi fails that test, “and with no clear charge, the public is confused and bored and not terribly interested,” he says, a judgment that is borne out by a Pew survey that finds fewer than half of Americans, 44 percent, say they are following the hearings in Congress very or fairly closely.
The IRS is another matter, says Dean, and it will capture the public’s interest, though he adds the facts bear no resemblance to what he saw when he was in the Nixon White House. At a news conference Monday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama said he first learned from news reports Friday that the IRS was improperly targeting conservative groups, a procedure that began in 2010 when the agency was headed by a Bush appointee. Speculation that the scrutiny of Tea Party groups might have been directed out of the White House is “baloney,” says Dean. “If that were the case, it wouldn’t have come out this way [disclosed by the IRS itself].”
Nixon’s infamous enemies list targeted political opponents and journalists for audits, working directly with a person in the IRS whom the White House had planted there, says Dean. “He fed [John] Ehrlichman information when asked, and sometimes when not asked.” Nixon was irate when he discovered that an IRS list of people scheduled for audits included Billy Graham and John Wayne. “Why are our friends getting audited?” he demanded. This was personal. He had been audited when he was out of office, and now he had no compunction about using his power as president.
It’s a different era today, in large part because of Nixon’s abuses, and if it’s any solace to the Obama White House, what they’re experiencing is nowhere near the magnitude of what other second-term administrations have faced. But the way the media works, with cable news round the clock and bloggers at the ready, there’s nothing like scandal to hype interest. And with Republicans looking for something they can agree on and that can rally their base, the confluence of Benghazi, the IRS, and a third pseudo-scandal bubbling to the surface, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius rattling a tin cup to suggest donations from corporate interests to help implement Obamacare, it’s suddenly scandal heaven in Washington again.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is comparing Sebelius’s activity to the Iran-Contra scandal, where President Reagan sold arms to Iran to generate money for the Nicaraguan contras, circumventing Congress. A senior administration official points out that during the Bush and Clinton administrations, officials sought private-sector funds to implement prescription-drug coverage for seniors and health insurance for children, which he says is permitted under the Public Health Service Act.
“It’s what we had to face but on steroids,” says Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House. “The smallest issue can now rocket around and become much bigger, which makes it all the more important to have a disciplined approach at the White House.”
The Obama team has been slow to respond, unable to keep up with the flurry of allegations and letting its opponents frame the debate. “It’s not as though they’re dealing with an impartial judge and jury on the other side,” says Lehane. A string of emails the White House shared with Congress on March 19, and about which House Speaker John Boehner, “for the two months after, he didn’t make a peep,” had suddenly become “bigger than Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Teapot Dome combined,” says a senior administration official.
The administration’s confusion and caution in the immediate aftermath of the attack in Benghazi left it open to the charge it was misleading the American people. “It is an example of the fog of crisis hitting the fever of a campaign,” says Lehane, and the questions will likely never fully be put to rest. The question then is how much damage Obama will sustain. Lehane says not much: “People trust him—or they certainly trust him more than they trust the Republicans, and I don’t think any of this stuff is going to change that.”
None of the scandals, real or imagined, swirling around Obama lead directly to him, but there is what you might call an opportunity cost. “The reality of this day and age, you have to manage this process,” says Lehane. “This is the second-term presidential equivalent of Benjamin Button. You have to work your way backward, and you only have a limited amount of time, and if this takes weeks and months, that’s time you never get back.”