Scandal a hallmark of modern presidents

The latest White House episode bears out cliche: It's not the crime

it's the cover-up

October 30, 2005|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

Let's start with a quiz: Match the quotation with the president or vice president.

1. "I am not a crook."

2. "The charges against me are, if you'll pardon the expression, damn lies."

3. "I did not have sex with that woman."

4. "I've never met Joe Wilson. I don't know who sent Joe Wilson."

5. "My God, this job is hell."

6. "We did not -- repeat did not -- trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we."

A. Spiro Agnew. B. Richard Nixon. C. Bill Clinton. D. Dick Cheney. E. Ronald Reagan. F. Warren Harding.

If you got them all right (1B, 2A, 3C, 4D, 5F, 6E) you are either over 50, a student of history or an ardent follower of White House scandals, in which case you know that it's not the original misdeed that brings the powerful down so often as the attempt to hide it.

When vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. was indicted Friday on five charges, none involved the leaking of a CIA agent's identity. All were related to his alleged behavior after the fact: perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice.

The cover-up, while rarely worse than the crime, is what led Nixon to resign and got Clinton impeached, and it was Agnew's failure to report bribes on his income-tax return -- as opposed to accepting them, as he was originally charged with doing -- that led to his conviction and resignation from the vice presidency.

While Reagan and Harding avoided being dragged down by the scandals in their administrations -- Reagan by virtue of his Teflonesque charm, Harding by virtue of dying -- history has shown that hiding a misdeed, albeit basic human nature, can get you in almost as much trouble, and sometimes even more than the misdeed itself.

Of course, coming clean is not the American way, especially when it comes to the fact-spinning, chest-thumping world of politics. Instead, we have leaks and exposes, innuendoes and investigations, and scandals that, convoluted as they often are, unravel at a tedious pace.

Eventually facts are gathered, indictments come down, deals are struck and the fall guy or guys serve light sentences before going on with life as talk-radio hosts, born-again religious zealots and authors.

First convict

One of the earliest White House fall guys -- the first Cabinet member in U.S. history to be convicted of a felony and sent to prison -- was, in fact, named Fall.

Albert B. Fall was sentenced to one year in prison for his involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal, named after the teapot-shaped rock atop the Wyoming oil beds that Fall, as Harding's interior secretary, leased to two oil company magnates in exchange for personal loans -- even though the reserves were to be used only in a national emergency.

Fall resigned from his post and in 1931 was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government.

Harding, meanwhile, whose administration is widely viewed as the most corrupt in history, died in office in 1923, before the Teapot Dome scandal built up a full head of steam.

Unlike more modern-day examples -- Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy, to name just two -- Fall made no post-scandal comeback. His ranch in New Mexico was foreclosed on by the same oil magnate who had supplied him a $100,000 loan, and Fall -- ill, disgraced and broke after his 10 months in prison -- died in El Paso, Texas, in 1944.

The prototype

Watergate, despite Oval Office hijinks that followed, remains the textbook White House scandal, and one of its first chapters deals with Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers -- government documents that showed the American public had been misled about the war in Vietnam.

Ellsberg, who passed through Baltimore this month for a speaking engagement, sees more than a few parallels between the scandal then and the scandal now.

"This is evolving almost like an exact replay of Nixon's White House `plumbers,'" he said in an interview. "In both cases you have a whistleblower who is giving lie to the administration's claims about a war, and the administration, to shore up its whole pattern of lies about the war, has to stop that whistleblower."

In Wilson's case, it was allegedly by leaking classified information about Wilson's wife's role at the CIA -- an attempt to discredit his report that labeled as "bogus" the Bush administration's claim that Niger provided uranium to Saddam Hussein.

In Ellsberg's case, it was by sending the "plumbers" -- a secret unit established by the Nixon White House in 1971 to stop leaks -- to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist to gain incriminating information against him.

Ellsberg began photocopying Pentagon records in 1969, and in 1971 delivered copies to The New York Times and other newspapers. He was accused of 12 felonies, but the charges were dismissed.

The "plumbers," meanwhile, would go on to break in and attempt to bug Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington's Watergate Hotel. In 1974, amid revelations about Nixon's role in covering up the break-in and other "dirty tricks," he resigned the presidency.

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