Second terms come with instant historic legitimacy—and seemingly inevitable scandal.
Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Full Monica all started snowballing a year after strong second-term presidential wins. The defining domestic disaster of President Bush’s second term, the response to Hurricane Katrina, also fits the overall pattern of a tough repeat act—with the president rarely leaving office as a conquering hero.
So if history is any guide, President Obama should spend his political capital wisely, and now.
Obama is a writer and student of history and in his first post-election press conference, he set a goal for his second term that few before him have achieved: to be an even better president than in his first term. That he’s got more experience goes without saying—but it remains to be seen if his administration can escape the gravitational pull of second terms toward scandal.
His first term was remarkably free of self-inflicted scandals. Unlike Nixon or Clinton, he is not driven by his darker passions, nevermind the nightmare visions pushed by acute suffers from Obama Derangement Syndrome. As the first African-American to rise up the ladder so high, he has rarely risked recklessness as an adult. For all his faults, he is personally disciplined; self-protectively aloof rather than casually detached.
Yet the first scandal of his second term fell into his lap just days after his triumphant reelection. It came from the most unlikely of sources, CIA Director David Petraeus, but in the most likely of forms: sex.
Conspiracy theorists were quick to point out that this abrupt resignation came on the heels of the Benghazi attacks, which they are trying furious to prove was the subject of a nefarious cover-up.
But in terms of stepping on his triumphant election story, the Petraeus Affair seems more like Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s sordid attempt to sell Obama’s senate seat shortly after the 2008 election. After electoral rapture, the reality check of sleazy politics set in.
I’ve had scandals a lot on the brain lately, owing to a new book I co-edited called Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs.
Weigh the sheer tonnage of modern American political history and you’ll find that at least a quarter of the pages written have been about scandals.
Politicians in the past weren’t inherently more honest, but they were less likely to be publicly exposed thanks to a press restrained by old-boy rules and a lack of indelible evidence of most indiscretions—there’s no telling what Warren G. Harding would have done with a camera phone.
But beginning with Watergate, political scandals could no longer be ignored. Reading contemporary accounts—the justifiably legendary reporting of Woodward and Bernstein and also columns by Mary McGrory of The Washington Star—you got a sense of the corruption that seeped into men’s souls even at the heights of power.
In Stewart Alsop’s forgotten classic column, “The Phony Tough Meet the Crazy Brave,” he attempts to answer “the great unanswered question of the whole sordid business: How could people have been such goddam fools?”
He concludes it was the “phony-tough” culture of the Nixon White House: “The Watergate testimony abounds with examples of phony-tough talk. John Dean’s memorandum on how to ‘screw our enemies’; Chuck Colson’s memorandum on how he would “walk over my grandmother’ to reelect Nixon and his suggestion that someone (not Colson) blow up the Brookings Institution … John Ehrlichman’s proposal for poor Pat Gray, to ‘let him hang there, let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind’; and many more.”
Alsop concludes: “it seems reasonable to assume that a man who, like Nixon in his first term, surrounds himself with phony toughs may be a phony tough himself.
In the final courtroom of justice after literally years of hearings and courtroom dramas, Mary McGrory nonchalantly recorded the proceedings with her deft pen: “Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. The word stabbed the still, close air of the courtroom fifteen times, spoken mildly, noncommittally by the gray-haired clerk, James Capitanio, no one’s first choice for the voice of doom.”
After Nixon, the next two-term president was Reagan, also the recipient of a 49-state mandate. The Iran-Contra Affair was not in the same moral universe as Watergate, despite the best efforts of a special prosecutor and an enthusiastic press. The endless, mind-numbing nature of the scandal was best captured by Pulitzer-Prize winning humor columnist Dave Barry, who explained it in one undulating gossip-column style column called “A Bold-Faced Lie”:
“It all started when some Extremist Maniac Lunatics took some American Hostages, which upset Ronald Reagan, who to the best of his recollection was President Of The United States at the time, so he naturally sold Weapons to the Extremist Maniac Lunatics in exchange for Money, which was funneled, with the help of various Courageous Patriots who received nothing for their efforts except a Sense Of Satisfaction and Eight Million Dollars, to the crack Foreign-Policy Adventure Squad headed by Lt. Col. Oliver North (Secret Code Name “Manhood Testicle"), who, with his loyal staff, Fawn Hall, who has been offered $500,000 by Penthouse Magazine to pose Naked, occupied an office in the White House, but was in no way whatsoever connected with Anybody Higher Up, because of course it is a Common Practice for Totally Random Unofficial People such as Insurance Agents and Accordion Teachers to have White House Offices…”
For those of a certain age, it brings back memories—and certainly undermines the notion that the Reagan era was squeaky clean.
But as far a second-term presidential scandals go, sex gets a lot more attention than ordered break-ins or missing millions. And Monica-Gate inspired some great columns. The sarcastic classic came courtesy of the late Michael Kelly, who decided to lampoon the partisan instinct to defend the president despite a piling up of evidence. Kelly’s Washington Post column was titled “I Believe.”
“I’ve just finished reading the 600 pages of material released last Friday by Paula Jones’s lawyers, and I’ve just finished watching Kathleen Willey on 60 Minutes,” Kelly began. “And I still believe the president. Truly, madly, deeply, I believe. Also verily.”
Kelly proceeded to spend 783 words detailing all the allegations from multiple sources and increasingly ludicrous defenses and, adopting the willfully blind tone of the mindless partisan concluded: “I believe everybody is lying except my Bill.”
It is true that—as bumper-stickers remind us—that “When Bill Lied, Nobody Died.” But let’s hope we don’t see an equally sordid distraction from the White House in a long time, showing at least a glimpse of a learning curve from Oval Office occupants.
Sex will probably always get our attention more than professionally corrupt criminality. This is unfortunate but built into our DNA. Numbers are complicated; sex is easy to understand. Maybe that’s why the best commentary on the Petraeus affair came from The Onion: “Nation Horrified to Learn About War in Afghanistan While Reading Up on Petraeus Sex Scandal.”
Scandals will inevitably suck up a lot of oxygen in any news-cycle, and we’ll see what developments emerge that change the course of the second Obama term. My friend and Deadline Artist co-editor, Jesse Angelo, may have offered the best explanation for why that is in his introduction:
“The reason we love to read about scandals is because they ultimately reassure us of our own decency. Most of us work hard, play by the rules, and do our best to get ahead—so we are constantly delighted to learn that our suspicions were right all along about the politician who cheated the system or the televangelist caught with his pants down. Their very public human failings make us more proud of our own private victories.”