When we look at scandals involving public figures throughout American history, some interesting patterns emerge. Often members of one or both major political parties initially attributed partisan motives to the investigating committee. Those calling for an investigation were criticized for engaging in a partisan witch hunt for purely political purposes. Whistleblowers had their reputations attacked. The oversight committee was compared to a lynch mob and the appointed adjudicators described as just the latest “kangaroo court.” However, this knee-jerk reaction among politicians at attempting to protect their short-term interests has typically not kept the underlying truth from eventually coming to light. In some cases it is the mainstream media’s fervor in reporting on a scandal that largely determines whether the parties involved, as well as their associated interests, suffer negative political fallout from news reports.
For example, the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities investigating the Watergate burglary gathered evidence that was later used to convict and incarcerate over forty administration officials, including some of President Nixon’s aides, resulting in Articles of Impeachment being introduced in the House of Representatives. The counts ranged from perjury (lying under oath) and obstruction of justice (interfering with a federal investigation by pressuring prospective witnesses to lie or spoliation of evidence). The mainstream media at the time initially sought to downplay the story but many journalists, such as Woodward and Bernstein, kept digging. Enduring intimidation, the reporters were ultimately vindicated when the story blew up and leaks from the White House increased. Public opinion turned against Nixon and Senate Republicans indicated they would not save him if he was impeached. Nixon resigned and the rest is history.
Roughly 20 years later, President Bill Clinton also committed perjury and obstruction of justice. The mainstream press routinely criticized Republicans for the investigation and asserted they were targeting Bill’s character unfairly. Despite the reality that Bill’s Oval Office affair with a young intern rendered him seriously vulnerable to blackmail, journalists still questioned whether the incident merited an investigation. Many reporters and network broadcasters painted Bill as a sympathetic figure. Ironically, his public approval rating increased during the scandal. The narrative of partisan overreach stuck to Congressional Republicans far more than Democrats, who essentially circled the wagons in the Senate after Clinton was impeached by the Republican-controlled House. One can draw a loose parallel between Bill’s infamous apology on live television in 1998 and Alexander Hamilton’s own public admission of an affair in the 1790’s (Hamilton was effectively blackmailed as Secretary of Treasury). In both cases, the candor was prompted by political pressure or motivations rather than the official simply choosing to come clean on his own accord. Both men denied any public corruption resulting from the conduct but admitted the affairs themselves.
Damage control efforts can sometimes make a bad situation worse. The Benghazi attack marked the first time a US ambassador had been murdered in thirty years. For weeks afterwards, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama blamed the attack on a false narrative involving a YouTube video and misleadingly lumped it together with other spontaneous demonstrations in the region. The Libyan Prime Minister, the CIA and other evidence confirmed it had instead been a coordinated terrorist operation. Again, there was stonewalling of committee investigations relating to the incident, as well as retaliation against whistleblowers. But any success in obfuscation backfired. The investigation unearthed Hillary’s unethical and illicit email arrangement and merely delayed the political fallout until her own 2016 Presidential run. Scandal appeared to beget scandal, and each bit of new data (trivial or not) led to another headline, keeping these original events fresh in the public consciousness.
A disgraced official who suffers legal and political consequences from a scandal may be able to rehabilitate and salvage his or her reputation to some extent. The Chappaquiddick incident overshadowed Ted Kennedy’s Presidential ambitions, yet he was able to remain a “liberal lion” in the Senate. However, General David Petraeus’s prospects at becoming Secretary of State were likely doomed by the similarity of his offense (unlawfully sharing classified info with his lover) and Hillary Clinton’s unsecured email arrangement during her tenure heading the State Department. Former Democrat Congressman Anthony Weiner’s own misconduct (repeatedly exchanging lewd photos with underage girls) handicapped his later efforts running for Mayor of New York, even affecting Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid.
Politicians also attempt to use another person’s past scandals to defend against or neutralize character attacks. Donald Trump was facing controversy over comments where he boasted about sexually harassing women. He and his advisors anticipated that it would be used to tarnish him at the second Presidential debate. Trump shrewdly insulated himself from attacks by bringing as his guests other women who had made harassment claims against Bill Clinton. By tagging Hillary as an enabler of her husband’s conduct, Trump was able to make Bill’s misconduct a liability for her. He diluted public discourse over his own controversy and undermined the personal attacks against him.
If these episodes demonstrate anything, it is that human nature has not changed in over 200 years. Any damage control effort contains its own inherent risks. Just because an investigation is politically motivated does not mean the resulting evidence is not credible. Expedient short-term fixes to mitigate harm can still lead to worse long-term problems for the politicians involved. The past is a shadow – it’s always behind them.
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