Connecting History

Connecting History logo

Milestones

Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

A Dirty–and Deadly–Trick

by Andrew M. Schocket on Oct 14, 2003

Andrew M. Schocket

This summer, apparently out of political motives, high Bush administration officials exposed the name of a CIA agent to columnist Robert Novak. For more than two months, the president did nothing to investigate or even denounce this serious breach of national security.

In the long list of presidential misdeeds and scandals, this one stands out. It’s the first time a president has possibly connived at what was essentially an act of treason.

Not that there’s been a shortage of past Oval Office shenanigans. Presidents and their underlings have committed numerous immoral, illegal or dodgy acts. They’ve defied the Supreme Court, lied to Congress and spied on their political enemies.

Rascals they may have been, but no former administration betrayed national security and put the lives of American agents in danger for the sake of politics. Bush set the tone for his staff by keeping silent until the Justice Department began its investigation into the matter last month.

The current affair began when two senior Bush administration officials revealed the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame, married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, IV. The Bush administration sent him to Niger last fall to learn whether Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from that African country. Revealing her identity was a clumsy attempt to retaliate for Wilson’s criticism of Bush’s claims concerning Iraq’s efforts to gain nuclear weapons.

Plame formerly worked undercover in a CIA’s unit on weapons of mass destruction. Not only did the leakers endanger her life and the lives of people she had contacted abroad, but it placed in jeopardy initiatives undertaken in the nation’s war on terrorism. Such a betrayal is no different from having wartime American public officials announce publicly the locations of American ships, planes or troops.

This scandal is unique in that it is the first time that members of a presidential administration have sought political gain through an illegal breach of national security.

The least damaging but most sensational presidential scandals have been about — what else? — sex. Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton, dated a married woman, and married her soon after her husband’s death. The resulting outcry, including accusations that Peggy Eaton was a prostitute, ended with the resignation of most of Jackson’s cabinet in 1831.

Grover Cleveland raised eyebrows in 1886 when he married 21-year-old Frances Folsom. Bill Clinton’s peccadillo with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent train of implausible denials and cagey admissions led to his impeachment. None of these scandals, though, put the United States or Americans at risk.

Rather than presidential lust, the greed of presidents’ associates generated other scandals. Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president, Schuyler Colfax, accepted corporate stocks for supporting federal land giveaways to railroad companies in 1873. Warren G. Harding’s secretary of the interior pocketed $300,000 in 1921 in exchange for giving two shady oil men access to national petroleum reserves. And Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency in 1973 under the cloud of a criminal investigation. These men cost the republic money, but they never risked shedding American blood.

Then there’s Andrew Johnson’s 1867 political miscalculation, which was more farcical than treasonable. By firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act — a law Republican legislators passed daring Johnson to dismiss congressional favorite Stanton. Johnson was impeached and came within one vote of being removed from office, because he broke a law that was later declared unconstitutional.

Unlike members of the Bush administration, Johnson harmed no one except himself. The two scandals that come closest to rivaling the current one’s gravity occurred under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. In the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, White House operatives defied Congress’s prohibition against funding Nicaraguan Contra rebels and Reagan’s policy forbidding negotiations with terrorists. Hoping to gain leverage with terrorist groups, Reagan officials secretly sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to buy guns for the Contras. In the ensuing mess, several administration members lied to Congress. Their actions were stupid and illegal, but not dangerous to American lives.

Pure politics plunged Nixon into machinations potentially undermining the nation’s political system. In 1972, Nixon’s political operatives broke into Democratic national headquarters, in the Watergate Hotel, thus giving us an enduring political term. They subsequently lied about it, and Nixon resisted a judge’s order and congressional inquiries before resigning to avoid impeachment.

In this litany of presidential scandals, the Bush administration’s crime is the most damaging. When campaigning for president, Bush promised to restore honor to the Oval Office. But by allowing members of his administration to pursue petty political ends while endangering the nation, he has sullied the presidency more than any of his predecessors.


Andrew M. Schocket is author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” and director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.