The pattern of scandal in American political life

With debate gaining momentum around Eric Holder and Operation Fast and Furious, it's worth looking at the pattern of scandal in American political life

Can Obama learn from the Lewinsky affair?
Dr. James Boys
On 20 June 2012 10:01

There is a line in the 1994 adaptation of Clear and Present Danger when a character is asked what the President wants. “He wants what every first term administration wants…a second term.” And here in lies the rub: What are administrations prepared to do to secure re-election and is it worth it?

There is an interesting and rarely considered phenomenon in American politics that relates directly to scandal and timing. Consider three such cases: Watergate, Iran-Contra and the events that led to the impeachment of President Clinton. Three events unrelated by party, timing or policy and yet all three follow a pattern. In all three cases the incident at the heart of the proceedings occurred in the first term and was associated with efforts to secure re-election. The event was known to a small, select number of people prior to the subsequent election and then exploded to dominate the second term, derailing much if not all that the second term had hoped to achieve.

Lest there be any doubt, consider the facts:


The White House Plumbers and the wonderfully named CREP (Campaign to Re-Elect the President) had been running a variety of operations designed to darken the name of opponents in the lead up to the 1972 election. This included a break in to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, discussing the firebombing of the Brookings Institute and of planting Democratic Party material in the home of Arthur Bremer, George Wallace’s would–be assassin. The penetration of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex was merely the latest in a string of events designed to ensure Richard Nixon a second term in office.

When the results were announced in November 1972 one wondered why they bothered. Nixon won the election in a landslide of historic proportions, crushing George McGovern in the process. But the deed had been done. In order to secure a second term the president and his associates had created the circumstances that would lead to their downfall in a ruined second term and to Nixon’s removal from office.


One of the clear lessons from the 1980 election was not to run for re-election when Americans are held hostage in the Middle East. In an attempt to ensure that this was not the case in 1984 the Reagan Administration initiated a perfectly orchestrated effort to aid rebels in Nicaragua and get hostages released from Beirut. Alas, these efforts were also perfectly illegal. The administration’s funding for the Contra Rebels in Nicaragua had been prevented by the Boland Amendment so it sought to establish its own source of funding by selling arms at inflated prices to Iran to be used in its struggle against Iraq (which the U.S. was also arming). It did so in the expectation that the Mullahs would arrange for Hezbollah to release their American captives and enable the administration to say that this had been done without negations or compromise. The funds raised were then channelled directly to the Contra Rebels in Nicaragua in a violation of the Constitution.

As with Watergate the events occurred in the first term in an attempt to secure re-election and again the results raise questions as to the necessity of such actions, as Reagan crushed Walter Mondale only for the Iran-Contra Scandal to emerge and lay siege to his second term. 


The Clinton Administration decided that its route to victory in 1996 lay in a confrontation with the Republican Congress over the budget, leading to a shut down of the government and the lay-off of non-essential employees. Due to this, interns were given free range of the White House, which brought Monica Lewinsky into the orbit of the president. The stand off worked to the administration’s advantage and Clinton was re-elected handsomely, only for the events that occurred in the securing of his victory to return to ruin his second term and eventually to impeachment hearings.


So why am I dwelling on scandals from the past on this beautiful June morning? Well for one thing it is the fortieth anniversary of the Watergate events that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon over a ‘third rate burglary’.

But more importantly there is a situation brewing in the United States right now that has the potential, (nothing more at this stage) to be added to this list. The debate surrounding Operation Fast and Furious is looking ever more likely to bring down the Attorney General, Eric Holder. The hearings and the administration’s refusal to turn over documentation relating to the gunrunning exercise that inadvertently placed guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels that were subsequently used to kill a U.S. boarder agent, threaten to drag on through the November election.

As of June 2012 the Attorney General is facing the threat of contempt of Congress for his refusal to surrender documentation. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess, but that is the final unifying element of the issues addressed herein. At the time no one had any idea that they would lead to the paralysis of government and to the point of oblivion for the administrations in question. That is, until it was discovered that the activity and related attempts at a cover-up reached into the Oval Office.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from these incidents it is that it is rarely the initial incident that brings down officials or administrations, but the ensuing cover up.

It’s the lie that gets them.

If the Obama Administration has anything to fear from the Fast and Furious hearings moving forward, it would be well advised to cut its losses and deal with it now, without delay. If this means losing Attorney General Eric Holder, (who is unlikely to return in any Obama second term) then it should be done at once, followed by the issuing of a full, unequivocal presidential statement that will bring closure to the situation. To do otherwise risks hearings stretching into the election and beyond, enabling a shadow to grow over the White Hose and its occupant.

It won’t be the gunrunning that brings ‘em down…It will be the cover up. It always is.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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