Teapot Dome vs. Watergate: Obama's scandals are more like Harding's than Nixon's
May 22, 2013 4:00 AM
Richard M. Nixon
Warren G. Harding
By John Dean
During President Barack Obama's May 16 news conference, a reporter asked as part of a question: "And, more broadly, how do you feel about comparisons by some of your critics of this week's scandals to those that happened under the Nixon administration?" The president responded, "I'll let you guys engage in those comparisons, and you can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions."
Actually, reading the history of President Richard Nixon and Watergate might not make much difference for a couple of reasons. Even those familiar with that history are still misusing it, but, more important, it's certainly not the only history relevant to presidential scandals.
Start with those playing the Nixon card who understand this history, yet don't seem to care that the situations aren't truly analogous.
For instance, The Washington Post's most celebrated Watergate reporter, Bob Woodward, knows better. On Nov. 18, 2012, Mr. Woodward appeared on "Fox News Sunday" to talk about "the Libyan scandal." At that time he dismissed the thought that a Watergate-style investigation was necessary. The only real question was "what did Susan Rice know and when did she know it," he said, referring to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who delivered the misleading statements about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Mr. Woodward didn't think the answer to that question ranked very high on the scale of what the public needed to know.
Yet on May 18, 2013, during a visit to MSNBC's "Morning Joe," after dismissing the IRS's scrutiny of Tea Party groups and The Associated Press phone-records situation as merely a "mess," Mr. Woodward did a 180-degree turn on Benghazi, saying it now brought to mind Nixon and Watergate.
Mr. Woodward focused on the interagency email trail of the edits to the "talking points" being prepared after the Benghazi attacks for members of Congress and administration officials, which the Obama White House publicly released after Republicans falsely characterized the e-mails to the news media.
Mr. Woodward said, "I have to go back 40 years to Watergate when Nixon put out his edited transcripts of the conversations and he personally went through them and said 'Let's not tell this; Let's not show this.' " Because Mr. Woodward thought the Obama White House editing process was similar to Nixon's Watergate actions, he added, "I would not dismiss Benghazi. It's a very serious issue. As people keep saying, four people were killed."
His comparison is absurd. Anyone who takes time to look at the redactions in the Benghazi emails and compares them with the deletions and distortions Nixon made with his taped conversations will discover that Mr. Woodward's contention is baseless.
First, the only redactions from the Benghazi emails are the names of CIA personnel and email addresses -- not the content of the exchanges. And with 100 pages of emails released, there is no evidence any are missing.
Second, there is no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Obama was personally involved in the release or redacting process. Mr. Woodward knows, as he wrote in his book "The Final Days," "Nixon spent hours reviewing the transcripts, often working late into the night. Almost immediately he began making deletions. Long passages were cut by bold slash marks from his pen."
I mention Mr. Woodward because those involved in scandal quickly discover -- and he can attest to this from his own mini-scandals -- nothing about them is fair or necessarily fully accurate. Scandals create their own climate, which persists as long as fuel exists to feed them. Presidents, however, are often in a unique position to reduce and eliminate such combustible material.
And that's where the history of other, more relevant scandals comes in. When I look at Mr. Obama's travails, he seems to be suffering less from a Nixon complex than a Harding syndrome, after the ill-fated Warren G. Harding.
I believe Harding is the most unfairly maligned president in American history. In 2004, I wrote a brief biography of Harding for Arthur Schlesinger's presidential series. Schlesinger called after he read my manuscript and told me he had always been very critical of Harding based on what he thought he knew of his presidency, but thanked me for changing his mind.
Harding has been blamed for an illegal kickback scheme at the Veterans Bureau and the infamous Teapot Dome scandal that sent his secretary of interior, Albert Fall, to prison. In fact, Harding was involved in no wrongdoing whatsoever regarding these scandals.
When Harding got the first whiffs of illicit activity, he was outraged and demanded answers. A trusting man, he took those involved at their word and proceeded to play his weekend golf games. Then he took a trip to Alaska, on which he died. Because he had failed to take more decisive action, history has blamed him for scandals that developed after his death. Harding's lack of action ruined his presidency.
In fact, the same can be said of every presidency that has been damaged by scandal. In varying degrees, all the scandals were ignored until it was too late. Nixon's failure to act let Watergate get out of hand. Ronald Reagan's lassitude allowed Iran-Contra to become a scandal. And Bill Clinton's indolence fueled the Lewinsky affair into his impeachment. The oxygen created by presidential inaction allows White House-related scandals to smolder and smoke, until they almost inevitably erupt.
In the tradition of Harding, Mr. Obama played golf this past weekend and instructed his staff to largely ignore the emerging scandals. Yet as many presidents discover to their chagrin, inattention won't end a scandal; it's more likely to do the opposite.
President Obama needs to read a bit of history to better understand the workings of scandals and to knock down those that are increasingly engulfing his presidency.
John Dean, a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, served as counsel to President Richard M. Nixon from July 1970 to April 1973. He wrote this for Bloomberg News.