Hillary Clinton is a scandalous candidate for president of the United States. Most people acknowledge this, at least judging by her plummeting poll numbers. A raft of stories gives the distinct impression that she and her husband have been running an elaborate pay-to-play operation. Donations to the Clinton Foundation may have produced favorable State Department policies dealing with Russia-owned U.S. uranium deposits, Haitian relief efforts, and foreign banking interests. Her use of a personal email server while at the State Department, moreover, strongly suggests she has something to hide.
Yet she is still on track to win the Democratic nomination next year. That would be a unique achievement, twice over. She would be the first woman to win a major party nomination—and no major party nominee has ever misused his public authority more egregiously than she seems to have.
Of course, there have been scandal-ridden nominees before. The most infamous is James G. Blaine. One of the more prominent Republican orators of the Gilded Age, he was the frontrunner for the nomination in 1876 until his dubious ties to the railroads came to light. Blaine had pushed through Congress a land grant for the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, which in turn rewarded him with corporate bonds. When the company hit hard times, railroad tycoon Tom Scott bought the bonds back from him well above market value, prompting Blaine to push legislation that helped Scott’s Texas & Pacific Railroad. It didn’t keep Blaine from finally securing the nomination in 1884, however.
In 1952, vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon was embroiled in a scandal over a political fund established by wealthy supporters. The New York Post claimed it was a slush fund to subsidize Nixon’s lifestyle beyond his government salary. In response, Nixon gave his famed “Checkers speech,” denying any impropriety and claiming to live modestly. At the end, Nixon admitted receiving a dog as a gift. “And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” It was one of the most treacly moments in American politics, but it was a masterstroke.
The historical record is littered with dubious doings by eventual nominees. John Jacob Astor loaned James Monroe $5,000 during the War of 1812. As president, Monroe rescinded an order prohibiting foreigners from engaging in the fur trade, which helped Astor enormously. Andrew Jackson tipped off his friends to the invasion of Florida, signaling a potential investment opportunity. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and a slew of other politicians received money from the Second Bank in the 1820s. James Garfield was implicated in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. William McKinley and Benjamin Harrison were close to the Gilded Age’s worst political bosses. Alton B. Parker, Democratic nominee in 1904, was close to Tammany Hall. Woodrow Wilson allied with the New Jersey Democratic machine to win the governorship in 1910. Harry Truman was part of the Pendergast machine as a judge in Kansas City.
As in the Clinton scandals, it is tough to pin anything on any of these candidates definitively. That is typical of quid pro quo arrangements. The politician can always respond that the quo had nothing to do with the quid—that he acted as he did because of the merits of the case. Unless the FBI sets up an elaborate Abscam-style sting—in which the feds actually catch a politician on the record admitting he will change policies because of the payments being offered—it is tough to demonstrate guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even then, pols can slip loose. John Murtha was caught on tape in Abscam, and his seemingly ambiguous answers allowed him to get off scot-free.
But citizens need not be bound by the same constraints as jurors. The evidentiary standard in a criminal case is so high because the penalty is imprisonment. Here, the “penalty” is a denial of higher office, so our standards can adjust accordingly. And it is a fair bet that while some of the aforementioned candidates were innocent, just as many were guilty.