Ironic, that a Republican threatened to kill all the elephants. This was in 1920, when Harry Daugherty, a fixer for presidential candidate Warren Harding, wanted to meet with a potential backer, a big-time Oklahoman oil tycoon. The meet-up would be brokered by a mutual friend: circus impresario John Ringling. But Ringling left them dangling. Daugherty warned that if things didn’t move faster, he’d sneak into the big tent, one night, and off the whole herd.
Who knows how Robert Mueller’s investigation will stomp on the Trump administration? But while we wait, it may be valuable, even darkly entertaining, to revisit past White House outrages. I started with the mess I least understood: “The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country” (Random House, 2008) by Laton McCartney. Teapot Dome was a federal oil field in Wyoming, so named for its thus-shaped rock formation. The “handle” disappeared in 1930 and the “spout” in 1962, but handlers will always spout promises, and Daugherty served up Harding with a spoon: Help elect this handsome cipher, and oilmen would get access to black gold reserved for the US Navy.
The main corruption gusher was the Department of the Interior. Once the scandal broke, Harding scapegoated his department secretary, the delectably named Albert Fall, whom McCartney calls, yes, the “fall guy.” Ringling couldn’t have presented a better circus: When one of Daugherty’s shady aides dies shadily, Alice Roosevelt Longworth says it was due to “Harding of the arteries.” After Carl Magee, a crusading Albuquerque muckraker, scoops the story, oilmen simply buy his newspaper and fire him. My own amuse bouche: Henry Ford Sinclair of Sinclair Oil is accused of funneling a $68,000 kickback via Fall’s ranch manager, but the manager says he was misheard. What he really said was “six or eight cows.”
Easy to laugh with distance. But I just felt queasy reading about shameful events within my own lifetime. And so to “Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power” (University Press of Kansas, 2014). The great investigative reporter Seymour Hersh blurbs that author Malcolm Byrne tells it in “brilliant fashion.” Indeed. Relying on new sources, Byrne recounts how in the 1980s the White House secretly sold arms to Iran — on paper our enemy — so that theocracy would help free our hostages in Beirut. The snag? Iran used its profits to finance Nicaragua’s Contras, ignoring that Congress had banned relations. You think that’s bad? Try three months of televised hearings! Remember Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North with his chest candy and cloying insincerity? “The diversion itself was a diversion,” speculates Byrne of this reality show. Just so: If North went south, Reagan could still lead the West.
Byrne concedes that our 40th president’s behavior was incompetent but probably not impeachable. Same goes for our 17th, according to “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy” (Simon and Schuster, 2009). Author and attorney David O. Stewart says the 11 impeachment articles against this Tennessee not-titan (Johnson was flat out drunk when he gave his inaugural speech) “were impenetrable, even for a lawyer,” with the Senate’s rulings “incoherent.”
Undone by Johnson — for imploding Reconstruction, pardoning 7,000 Confederates, vetoing a civil rights bill, and bringing the country this close to a second civil war — the opposition tried to undo him. There were three separate attempts, the last painting Johnson in violation of the Tenure of Office Act for trying to fire Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s holdover secretary of war. Johnson skirted conviction by one vote.
“The futility of the endless searches for criminals in the White House only spurred the zeal of the pursuers,” writes Jeffrey Toobin in “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President” (Random House, 1999). Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, nothing could kill Bill. But when Clinton’s pattern of reckless sexual behavior was unveiled, it showed him at his worst, full of “the dishonesty and self-pity that are among the touchstones of his character.”
I’ll reveal my bias here and say that, ever since I caught Monica Lewinsky’s insightful TED talk, I find Toobin’s snide take on her odious (let’s not forget the power discrepancy between president and intern). But I also admire his fresh reportage: how three secret Clinton hounders each took the alias “Bubba,” how the publishing industry’s craze for tell-alls framed how it all played out. Oh, and how the role of an independent counsel remains, still tracking the worser angels of our nature, here under the dome of heaven.
A final word: After six years, some 150 columns, and 800 books, this is my last “Four Takes.” Other obligations call. Thank you — so much — for coming along for the read.Katharine Whittemore is senior writer at Amherst College. She can be reached at Katharine.firstname.lastname@example.org.