The Blog

Scandalology

A beginner's guide to the political scandal.

11:00 PM, Jan 31, 2006 • By DAN MCLAUGHLIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

LAST YEAR was a rough one for the GOP and the Bush administration, and from what we've seen so far, 2006 promises no fewer obstacles and controversies. One of the biggest--indeed, the centerpiece of Congressional Democrats' electoral strategy--will be scandal.

Democrats are rejoicing at the turnabout from the Clinton years, just as Republicans rejoiced when President Clinton became the target of many of the very same weapons--independent counsels, sexual harassment charges--deployed with great effect against Republicans and conservatives in the prior two administrations. To younger activists, the time is ripe for high dudgeon. To veterans of the process, the stories are too familiar, and only the names are new. Scandals, after all, are as old as Washington, even older, and to observers of national politics, they tend to settle themselves into familiar patterns.

Not all scandals are the same, of course. And some types of scandal are--properly--more serious and damaging to public officials than others. But a rough attempt at taxonomy reveals that there are 10 basic types of Washington scandals.

(1) The Vice Scandal: It's the media's favorite--drugs, sex, gambling, and once in a while even violence, whatever titillates, though it has no direct connection to the actual business of governing. Monica Lewinsky is the most famous of these, but Vice Scandals have long been a staple of D.C. politics: Chappaquiddick, Wilbur Mills, Gary Hart.

The arguments for why the Vice Scandal is relevant--not just entertaining and embarrassing--vary. If it's a high government official, opponents argue that the scandalous behavior shows that he or she has bad judgment or bad morals and can't be trusted with important responsibilities. If the target is involved in enforcing the law, opponents argue that you can't enforce a law you can't obey. If the target is a prominent spokesman on moral issues, the air fills with cries of hypocrisy.

The defense against a Vice Scandal is either to argue that it has nothing to do with the ability to govern or to retreat from public life and return after a spell proclaiming redemption (preferably with the involvement of Larry King). Either way, in our modern age, the Vice Scandal has proven surprisingly easy to survive.

Since the 2000 election, the Bush administration has been remarkably free of Vice Scandals, unless you count the president's daughters getting busted for underage drinking. Other elected Republicans have fared a bit worse, including South Dakota Congressman Bill Janklow (vehicular manslaughter) and Illinois Senate candidate Jack Ryan (taking his ex-wife to sex clubs), while California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger famously weathered allegations of groping a number of women during his Hollywood days.

(2) The Greed Scandal: The private sector produces plenty of Greed Scandals--think of Martha Stewart, or Ivan Boesky, or Enron--but unless an elected official is pursued by an overhanging investigation from his or her past, Greed Scandals are most likely to appear in tandem with their close cousin, the Graft Scandal (see #3 below).

The perfect Greed Scandal includes instances of outrageously conspicuous consumption or a memorable tag-line, such as Leona Helmsley's legendary remark that "only the little people pay taxes."

(3) The Graft Scandal: Graft is about the varied ways politicians find to move money into their pockets. It isn't always illegal, and in its smallest and pettiest manifestations it can seem embarrassingly tacky, from free meals and minor junkets to Sherman Adams's famous vicuna coat and the home-construction favors lavished on former Connecticut Governor John Rowland.

Politicians are often stunned to discover the public's outrage at this kind of graft, which shows how out of touch public office holders frequently become.

The Clinton years were awash in Graft Scandals, most prominently the various gifts bestowed on Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. For the most part, once again, the Bush administration has steered clear of significant Graft Scandals--just as an ever-growing case involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens a number of members of Congress. The defendants are trotting out the usual litany of excuses: everybody does it; the favors weren't that big; there's no connection to any official activity (unless there was); I didn't know he was a bad guy; etc. Graft scandals generally aren't enough, on their own, to bring down a strong and popular politician, but for someone with a lot of enemies and a other problems, they can be fatal.