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November 1, 2005

Yet Another White House Scandal

Roy Meachum

Friday's indictment of the vice president's chief-of-staff probably could have been prophesized anytime after George W. Bush first planted his hand on the Bible and moved into the White House. Every modern presidency has been afflicted with some form of scandal.

What makes this one different comes later, but first the box score:

The dark spot on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's name answered to the charming name of "Lucy." And, supposedly, Mrs. Mercer responded anytime FDR called. She was with him at his "sudden" death in Warm Springs, GA, or so the story goes. Of course, while he lived, the redheaded lady remained a secret, protected by the media.

When Vice President Harry S Truman moved into the Oval Office, he brought along a whole lot of "baggage," including long and unsavory ties with Kansas City's corrupt Prendergast machine.

But he got into trouble on his own. Former Army buddy Harry Vaughn received a posh Pennsylvania Avenue office that enabled the National Guard general to solicit a deep freeze, in exchange for unsuitable interventions in government business. Mr. Vaughn went back to Missouri when the bribe surfaced.

Dwight Eisenhower's administration arrived in Washington on a wave of self-righteous indignation, fueled in no small part by Joe McCarthy's mucking and tarring all Democrats as soft on reds.

Senator McCarthy was gone before the war hero's second term ended and so was that generation's Karl Rove. Ike's chief of staff and chief confidant Sherman Adams slipped off to New Hampshire, presumably abandoning the lobbyist's vicuna coat that symbolized his downfall.

Jack Kennedy left a passel of moral wrongs that came out only after his assassination. Sexual liaisons abounded everywhere, including the White House itself. His favorite scene for staff encounters was supposedly the Lincoln Bedroom, according to a story widely circulated but not published at the time.

With Brother Bobby, the gentleman from Massachusetts engaged in backdoor skullduggery, stabbing and slicing opponents to a fare-the-well; but, as with his numerous acts of licentious adultery, none of them popped up on the nation's front pages.

The press's self-imposed constraint on reporting presidential misdeeds went out the window while Lyndon B. Johnson "ruled" Washington, sometimes supposedly from a "throne" in this bathroom.

The nation wallowed in that sort of personal detail from a corps of correspondents seemingly intent on making up for their predecessors' restraint.

Everything from the president's penchant for picking up dogs by their ears and his surgical scar to the shenanigans of his younger daughter became fair play for print.

The solitary scandal that comes to mind involved a high-ranking official who was caught soliciting in the local YMCA bathroom, which constituted a local misdemeanor not a federal crime that could be laid at Mr. Johnson's feet.

Successor Richard M. Nixon made up for the previous lacks, Republican and Democratic, being forced to announce at one point: "I am not a crook." He was.

Not in the sense of picking pockets. Worse. He and his minions treated the Constitution as trash; they attempted to eliminate any barriers that barred their exercise of total power into the future.

This attitude led to Watergate, which generated the lies and fraudulent claims that gave Mr. Nixon the singular honor of being the first president forced to resign. His administration also produced the spectacle of a vice president, Maryland's Spiro Agnew, removed because of bribery charges before coming to the White House.

Gerald Ford obviously presented such a decent image that attempts by his enemies - they're always there - totally failed to disgrace him by bringing up his wife's problems with alcohol and drug abuse. (She later turned her affliction into a noteworthy means of salvation for others by founding the famous clinic that bears her name.)

Not that Mr. Ford totally escaped a scandal that in all probability cost him four more years in the Oval Office.

On what must have seemed wise counsel, seeking to end the post-Watergate turmoil, he issued a weekend pardon to his predecessor, absolving Mr. Nixon of any and all crimes, minor and major, committed against the United States and its people.

His good intentions rode Gerald Ford out of town on a rail, which brought in the ever-smiling Jimmy Carter; whose single term became a nightmare. The ex-Georgia governor may have offended most by his bland attempts to present himself as a leader.

Notably, the media put forth for ridicule Mr. Carter's solemn pronouncement that the energy crisis was the moral equivalent of war, when everybody "knew" the situation was not that bad. It was, but it took years for the American public to discover that truth.

Meanwhile, everybody had a good time hooting about his peanut farm. His ne' er-well-to-do brother, Billy, provoked jokes that reached national hysteria over presidential claims to have escaped a "killer rabbit." The president's public admission about lusting in his heart, in the pages of Playboy magazine, did little to foster public respect.

Jimmy Carter narrowly dodged what would have deeply damaged his reputation, including his precious Nobel Prize for Peace. Fortunately for all involved, a faulty helicopter caused aborting of the ill-advised mission to rescue hostages held in the former American embassy in Iran.

Had the raid proceeded there was every prospect of heavy casualties, especially among the hostages and Iranian civilians.

Indeed, there was a very good chance the striking force could have been taken prisoner or wiped out in a culture where a sizable portion of the population remains always awake, obviating the possibility of the desperately needed element of surprise.

Ronald Reagan's charmed command of all the media he surveyed maintained his presence above the political turmoil and dirty tricks that accompanied his second term. The biggest scandal of his eight years touched not a single well-groomed hair of the president's image. He simply might not have known the Iran-contra sins committed in his name.

Oliver North was the most famous "victim," at least in the eyes of those who rigged a deal that supported Iran in its war against Iraq, in exchange for returning the embassy hostages leftover from Mr. Carter's administration.

In light of later evidence, it seems highly likely that Attorney General Ed Meese could have been at least indicted for falsely denying knowledge of the scheme to provide Teheran $60 billions in weapons, which were supposedly going to fight communists in Nicaragua.

At the same time, it should be noted Washington was playing "footsie" with Saddam Hussein, furnishing Baghdad's dictator with the means to punish Iran' s mullahs for their grievous insults to American dignity.

As I said, the rampant skullduggery boiled over without affecting Ronald Reagan at all. His hand-chosen successor also managed to dodge the scandal bullet.

George H. W. Bush, unlike his son, waved aside bad advice to invade Iraq after the U.S. military and allies chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. While saving hundreds of lives, Iraqi and American, his prudence contributed heavily to his loss after a single term. Within the GOP he was viewed as less than manly for refusing to squander American lives in a certain quagmire.

As for scandal, the elder Mr. Bush became the target for late night TV comedians with his "read my lips" pledge to refuse any tax raises. His choice for vice president certainly made no contribution to his leadership aura.

Former Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle suffered unfairly, but suffered nevertheless, aspersions cast on his literacy and intelligence to the point of sheer embarrassment, which impacted negatively on the Bush-Quayle ticket, enabling William Jefferson Clinton to sleep in the White House.

Before considering the lingering Washington mess, a breather seems to be in order. We'll continue tomorrow.

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