9 Sensational, Sorry, Stupid and Sordid Political Scandals

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A Brief History

On October 10, 1973, Spiro Agnew, former Governor of Maryland and current Vice President of the United States, resigned his office following criminal charges.  Agnew’s crimes and subsequent resignation constituted one of the worst political scandals in U.S. history, as he was only the second U.S. vice president to resign and the only one to resign because of crimes.  Just like other people, politicians sometimes do the wrong thing, however when they do, and it becomes public knowledge, a scandal often ensues.  Here 9 such scandals are listed.  For similar stories, please also read the History and Headlines articles: “10 U.S. Politicians Who Have Done or Said Racist Things;” and “10 Famous Politicians and Their Salacious Sex Scandals.”  Special thanks to Joe McCarthy, the one-man political scandal, for providing so much material.

Digging Deeper

9. Judge Samuel B. Kent, Sexual Harassment, 2009.

As a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Samuel B. Kent should have known better than to sexually harass someone and then to lie about it.  He was sentenced to 33 months in a federal prison as a result.  Before entering prison, he attempted to retire due to disability but was forced by irate members of the House Judiciary Committee to resign instead so that he would not collect a lifetime pension of 100% of his salary.  In another scam effort to retain his lucrative pension, he then tendered a resignation that would not be effective for another year.  This, however, was rebuffed by the House of Representatives that then voted to impeach him, at which time he finally resigned for good.  He pled guilty to 1 count of obstruction of justice.

8. ABSCAM, Government Bribery Sting, 1978-1980.

ABSCAM was the name of an investigation in the late 70s and early 80s when the FBI ran a sting on politicians by setting up fake Arab oil executives to bribe susceptible government employees and office holders.  Dozens were investigated, and convictions came for 1 U.S. Senator, 6 U.S. Congressmen, the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, a New Jersey State Senator, a Philadelphia councilman and several other civil servants.  Numerous other representatives and senators were also involved, and some of them only narrowly avoided prosecution.

7. The Spiegel Affair (West Germany), 1962.

The Spiegel Affair was a scandal that involved the leading German news and political magazine Der Spiegel and the West German Minister of Defense Franz Strauss.  Spiegel had run stories investigating the possibility of bribery in the Defense Ministry and alluding to West German lack of military preparedness, infuriating Strauss who in turn had the author of an article and the editors arrested.  Police occupied Der Spiegel’s offices, and riots over the arrests which had been conducted without the participation of the Justice Ministry broke out.  This was the first episode of mass public dissent since World War II.  The end result was Der Spiegel-1, Strauss-0, and although Strauss’ political career was damaged, he was neither fired nor prosecuted, as he claimed he thought he was acting legally.

6. Jesse Louis Jackson, Jr., Resignation and Felony Conviction, 2012-2013.

The son of prominent civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Junior was a congressman who represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives when he was accused of fiscal irregularities and the misuse of campaign funds.  He resigned his seat and pled guilty to 1 count of mail and wire fraud and received a 30-month sentence.  He had been a member of Congress since 1995 and even served as the co-chairman of Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign.  When he resigned, he revealed that he had been suffering from clinical depression, bi-polar disorder and abdominal problems (probably a result of being investigated).

5-3. “Tail gunner Joe” McCarthy, Numerous Items, 1947-1957.

Before entering politics, McCarthy had been a tail gunner on an American bomber during World War II and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.  It was afterwards that he became one of the biggest jerks in U.S. political history.  His time as a U.S. senator from Wisconsin was marred by several shameful episodes, largely having to do with laying false accusations on a number of different people and groups.

First, he angered many fellow veterans by lobbying for the commutation of sentences for the German SS murderers who had massacred U.S. POWs at Malmedy, France in 1944; he had accused the U.S. Army of torturing the defendants and otherwise improper handling of the case but never provided a shred of evidence to support this.

His lack of evidence (basically he kept lying) became his hallmark as he accused government employees and private citizens of being communists (or sympathizers) or homosexuals.

Finally, McCarthy was accused by the U.S. Army of trying to force them to give his friend, a soldier named G. David Shine, special treatment.  Meanwhile, McCarthy was making false accusations about Army personnel being communists or spies.  The back and forth with the Army in Congress was televised, and the desperate McCarthy came across as a nut to Congress and the American public.  In the words of Joseph N. Welch, counsel to the Army, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last…?” He was finally censured by the Senate in 1954 and died (possibly of alcoholism) before he could serve another term.  He continued his anti-communist rants almost to his death.

History and Headlines Trivia: McCarthy also accused General MacArthur’s enemies of getting President Truman liquored up in order to get MacArthur fired.

2. Vice President Agnew, Various Crimes and Resignation, 1973.

During his second term as vice president, Spiro Agnew was charged with extortion, tax evasion, over $100,000’s worth of bribery and conspiracy for incidents both before and after becoming vice president.  Part of the plea deal was that he resign, which he did.  Members of the press were somewhat smug about Agnew’s downfall as he had been particularly hard and demeaning to them.

1. President Nixon, Watergate and Resignation, 1972-1974.

The grand-prize winner of scandalous politicians, Richard Nixon is the only U.S. president to resign, which he did in 1974 to avoid impeachment and certain conviction.  Nixon’s reelection campaign had burglarized the rooms of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Complex in Washington, D.C. prior to the 1972 presidential election, and the burglars were caught.  Investigation eventually led right to President Nixon who had not authorized the burglary but had tried to illegally cover it up.  Members of Nixon’s staff were also implicated and some of them were convicted.

Question for students (and subscribers): Can politicians ever be trusted?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cockburn, Alexander.  A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture.  Verso, 2014.

Long, Kim.  The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals, and Dirty Politics.  Delacorte Press, 2008.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.