American political history is filled with instances of leaders facing scrutiny and criticism. Yet, some instances stand out due to the sheer magnitude of their impact, and these have gone down in history as major scandals. Here are 15 such political scandals that truly shook the nation:
1. Watergate Scandal (1972-1974)
Perhaps the most notorious political scandal in U.S. history, the Watergate scandal led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. It all started when five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C., eventually tying back to Nixon’s reelection committee. The subsequent cover-up effort and obstruction of justice exposed a level of corruption that shook the nation’s faith in the presidency.
2. Teapot Dome Scandal (1921-1922)
The Teapot Dome scandal rocked the presidency of Warren G. Harding. Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and two other locations in California to private oil companies without competitive bidding. Fall was later found guilty of accepting bribes from the oil companies, marking the first time a U.S. Cabinet member was convicted of a crime.
3. Iran-Contra Affair (1985-1987)
This scandal involved the Reagan administration secretly facilitating the sale of arms to Iran, which was then under an arms embargo. The administration hoped to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, despite Congress having prohibited this. When the scandal broke, it caused a significant dent in Reagan’s popularity and raised serious questions about his administration’s credibility.
4. Bill Clinton’s Impeachment (1998-1999)
Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal centered around a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee. During the deposition, Clinton denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. However, evidence contradicted his denial, leading to charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, and subsequently, his impeachment.
5. The Pentagon Papers (1971)
When the New York Times published classified documents about U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers scandal erupted. The papers revealed that the government had been systematically lying to the public about the Vietnam War. The fallout was a profound loss of faith in government transparency.
6. Abscam (1980)
Several members of Congress were convicted as a result of the Abscam scandal, an FBI sting. The operation involved FBI agents posing as sheiks from the Middle East and offering bribes to politicians. The corruption scandal revealed the depth of graft within Congress and led to significant reforms.
7. Whitewater Scandal (1992-2002)
An investigation into investments made by Hillary and Bill Clinton into the Whitewater Development Corporation led to the Whitewater scandal. While no charges were made against the Clintons for the real estate deals, the investigation ultimately led to the discovery of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky.
8. Chappaquiddick Incident (1969)
The Chappaquiddick incident involved Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, who drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign staffer. Kennedy did not immediately report the accident, leading to charges of leaving the scene and a scandal that would affect his political career for years to come.
9. Savings and Loan Scandal (1980s-1990s)
It involved more than 1,000 saving and loan institutions (S&Ls) that failed as a result of risky and even fraudulent practices. The crisis led to a $125 billion taxpayer-funded bailout and tarnished the reputation of several political figures, including the then-future senator John McCain.
10. The Valerie Plame Affair (2003)
As a result of President Bush’s claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger, Valerie Plame’s identity was leaked by an administration official. The leak was seen as political retribution, and the fallout from the scandal included the conviction of Scooter Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
11. The Keating Five (1989)
Five United States Senators were accused of corruption in this scandal for improperly intervening on behalf of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association Chairman Charles Keating. The scandal highlighted the influence of political donations and led to significant reform in campaign finance.
12. Trump Impeachment Scandals (2019, 2020)
Donald Trump was impeached twice during his presidency. The first impeachment followed allegations that he solicited Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections. The second impeachment came in the wake of the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, alleging that he incited the insurrection. Both times, he was acquitted by the Senate.
13. Profumo Affair (1963)
Although it’s a British scandal, the Profumo Affair had reverberations in the U.S. as well. John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War, had a brief affair with Christine Keeler, a woman also involved with a Soviet naval attaché. The subsequent reveal and Profumo’s resignation amid fears of a security risk contributed to the fall of the Conservative government in the UK.
14. Bonus Army March (1932)
The Bonus Army was a group of World War I veterans who marched on Washington D.C., demanding immediate payment of their service certificate bonuses. The Hoover administration’s response, involving U.S. Army intervention, led to a public relations disaster, exacerbating the public’s already negative perception of President Hoover’s handling of the Great Depression.
15. The Credit Mobilier Scandal (1872)
This scandal involved Union Pacific Railroad executives creating a fraudulent company, Credit Mobilier of America, to siphon off railroad profits. Several influential politicians were implicated in the scandal, including future President James Garfield, adding to public disillusionment with Reconstruction-era governance.
While these scandals vary in nature and scale, they all reflect moments when the integrity of American political leaders was called into question. These instances have not only shaken the nation but have also served as catalysts for change, driving reform and fueling a collective demand for greater transparency, accountability, and honesty in our political system. It’s clear that these scandals, as unsettling as they might be, have played a vital role in shaping America’s political landscape.