Ranking Modern Political Scandals

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By Chris Cillizza

(Washington Post) The arrest of Rod Blagojevich has sparked a furious debate on the Fix about where the Illinois governor’s blatant attempt to sell a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder ranks in the annals of modern political scandals.

In order to determine Blagojevich’s place in this (un)distinguished lineage, we thought it necessary to identify the critical elements that go into any political scandal.

The cornerstone of every major scandal in recent political memory is either money, sex or abuse of power — or, in particularly juicy scandals, a little of all three. Without money, sex, or abuse of power it’s hard for a scandal to be worthy of its name. Imagine Bill without Monica, Nixon without CREEP or Gary Hart without ” Monkey Business.”

Once a scandal has one of those three elements, the rest is gravy — although there are a number of other variables that differentiate the merely pedestrian political scandal from the truly great.

The more high profile the politician, the better the scandal. Scandals like Watergate that reached directly into the office of the president are hard to top. The fact that Elliot Spitzer was the governor of New York made the revelation that he had frequented a high-end escort service more shocking. Scandals centered on an individual member of Congress — Bill Jefferson, Duke Cunningham, Vito Fossella — are simply less eye-catching to the general public.

Turnabout or an absolute contradiction of expectations can really amp up the quality of a scandal. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s strong social conservatism added to the intrigue when his name turned up on the D.C. Madam’s list; New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey’s admission that not only had he had an extramarital affair but also that he was gay packed a double whammy.

A particularly outrageous detail also has the potential to take a scandal to a whole new level. Jefferson’s alleged acceptance of bribes was good but the fact that the feds found $90,000 stored in his freezer (cold hard cash — heyooooo!) was better. Cunningham’s willingness to sell his office for gifts as good, that one of the gifts was an antique toilet was better. And so on.

Context matters. That Blagojevich came up through the “Chicago Machine” means that a slew of stories can (and will) be written about the long history of corrupt politicians in the Windy City. Ditto Vitter and Jefferson in Louisiana, and Sen. Bob Torricelli in New Jersey. Context is why former Sen. John Edwards’s admission of an extramarital affair was such a major scandal; his wife, Elizabeth, was a central part of his presidential campaign in 2008 and her struggles against cancer made her a nationally-known figure in her own right.

All of these elements have to be considered when trying to compare the political scandals of modern vintage (for our purposes that’s from Watergate forward) against one another. It’s a tough task but someone has to do it, so below you’ll find our top ten political scandals beginning with Watergate and continuing through “Pay-Rod.” The number one ranked scandal is the one that offers the best combination of the most elements we laid out above — making it the best/biggest political scandal in recent political history.

It’s impossible to do a list like this and not forget one (or several) amazing political scandals. Given that, we apologize in advance if your personal favorite didn’t make the top 10.

As always, the Line is meant as a conversation starter. Feel free to agree or disagree with our picks in the comments section below.

To the Line!

  • #10. James Traficant: A sentimental pick for the Fix who, as a cub reporter, watched and listened as Damon Chappie, Roll Call’s investigative mastermind, bird-dogged the Ohio Democrat for years. Traficant, one of the strangest members of Congress in recent memory (and that’s saying something), insisted he was wrongly accused of bribery and racketeering and chose to represent himself at the trial. He was ultimately convicted although by the spring (after eight years in jail), Traficant will move to a halfway house to complete his sentence. (Damon, a friend and mentor to many of the best young journalists in Washington including The Fix, passed away in 2004.)
  • #9. House Bank: This early 1990s scandal was wide-reaching — hundreds of members of Congress were found to have overdrawn the funds available in their House bank accounts. Most received a slap on the wrist. Roughly two dozen were singled out for scorn by the House Ethics Committee, and a handful eventually faced criminal charges. The suspicion toward Washington caused by the House bank scandal is credited by many political observers as providing the spark for the 1994 Republican wave election that put the GOP back in charge of the House after 40 years in the wilderness.
  • #8. Elliot Spitzer: Yes, we know this was just a sex scandal but the audacity of it (meetings at the Mayflower Hotel with an escort!) and the political potential of Spitzer (widely seen to be a presidential candidate in the future) gives this one a special place in our heart. And, because it all happened in New York, it allowed the world to see the genius of the headline writers for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
  • #7. “Pay-Rod”: Maybe it’s just because the decline and fall of Blagojevich is so fresh on our mind. Maybe it’s becauseFixistas think it is the best political scandal in recent memory. Maybe it’s the  78-page criminal complaint against Blagojevich in which he reveals the deepness of his delusion (a run for president in 2016!). Whatever the reason, it’s hard not to put the selling off the Senate seat being vacated by the President-elect pretty high on the Line.
  • #6. Keating Five: A long-forgotten scandal reemerged during the 2008 campaign when Barack Obama’s campaign sought to remind voters about John McCain’s involvement with developer Charles Keating. McCain, in truth, was a sidelight (at best) in the Keating Five but it nonetheless impacted his career in national politics. (He has cited the Keating Five as his impetus for seeking to reform the campaign finance system.) Of the other four members of the “Five,” Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Don Riegle (R-Mich.) retired at the end of their terms. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) served until retiring in 1998.
  • #5. Iran Contra: Any scandal that can be summed up in three words — “money for guns” — has to have a place in the top 10. This scandal had the potential to be among the biggest of all time, but President Ronald Reagan was never found guilty of anything other than a dangerous distance from the everyday affairs of the office. The Iran-Contra scandal also brought Oliver North into the national spotlight, setting the stage for his disastrous/captivating 1994 Senate race against Democrat Chuck Robb.
  • #4. Jack Abramoff: Lobbying was never the same after Abramoff’s massive pay-to-play approach to influencing elected officials was revealed. The casualty list from those with ties to Abramoff is impressive; Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Tom DeLay (R-Texas), John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) lost, resigned or were jailed as a direct result of their ties to Abramoff. People like former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) and Ralph Reed (R-Ga.) lost bids for higher office due in varying degrees to links to Black Jack.
  • #3. ABSCAM: Forgotten amid the panoply of scandals that have followed it, Abscam — a sting operation organized by the FBI targeting elected officials in the late 1970s and early 1980s — started the aggressive approach by the feds to corruption among politicians. All told, six members of Congress — including recently deceased Rep. Raymond Lederer (D-Pa.) and Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams (D-N.J.) were convicted on bribery charges.
  • #2. Monica Lewinsky/Impeachment: Whether you think this was a wildly overblown scandal between a president with bad judgment and a White House intern or a deep corruption of government with President Bill Clinton at the heart of it, it’s hard to argue that the entire sordid saga didn’t influence politics in a fundamental way. Democrats’ electoral gains in 1998 were widely ascribed to voter reaction to the overreach of congressional Republicans while former Vice President Al Gore’s decision to keep Clinton at a distance in 2000 was the direct result of the Lewinsky scandal. Oh yeah, and it led to only the second presidential impeachment ever.
  • #1. Watergate: After more than three decades, the Watergate break-in — and all that came after it — is still the granddaddy of all political scandals. It fundamentally reshaped politics (ethics reform, increased transparency) and journalism, and captivated a country (eventually). It also happened to lead to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Hard to top that

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