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Weighing Presidential Scandals

March 09, 1997|FRED SMOLLER | Fred Smoller is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, where he teaches a course on Watergate

Anyone who lives in Southern California knows how important the Richter scale is. The Richter scale is an agreed-upon benchmark that allows the public to distinguish the seismic seriousness of events and to react accordingly.

We need something like a Richter scale for evaluating scandals so we can decide how much energy to devote to things like Watergate, Paula Jones and Bedgate. Here's a first cut:

Most White House scandals fall into one of five categories: personal shortcomings, protocol insensitivity, private venality, abuse of power and system destabilizing. They range from the least to most serious based on the amount of harm done and presidential intent.

Personal scandals result when information about the president or those close to him is revealed that is inherently embarrassing. Allegations of sexual misconduct (Jennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, the Dick Morris episode) or indiscretions (the revelation that Dan Quayle was a mediocre student, or that Bill Clinton smoked pot) are political rumors that usually pass.

Protocol insensitivity scandals occur when the president or those close to him behave in a way that is demeaning to the presidency or other things American people consider sacred. Many Americans found Richard Nixon's use of profane language in the Oval Office to be his most offensive Watergate crime. This president crossed the line when he personally decided to auction off the Lincoln Bedroom to raise campaign funds for Democrats.

The harm done in these types of scandals is largely self-inflicted. The next three are much more serious because they involve willful intent and cause widespread harm. This is why they deserve attention by the public and the press:

Private Venality involves actions in which individuals are able to gain privately at the public's expense. The Teapot Dome Scandal during the Harding administration is the classic example. Allegations regarding the Clintons' involvement in the shady investment scandal known as the Whitewater affair fall into this category.

Abuse of Power scandals like Nixon's Enemies List and Clinton's Filegate and Travelgate result when the White House attempts to use the presidency to triumph over its opponents (individuals, the bureaucracy, the press, the opposing party) in an illegal, unconstitutional, or unethical manner.

System Destabilization scandals are the most serious types because they cause sustained harm to the political system, as well as the president and those around him. Examples include Watergate and Iran-Contra. Both involved intentional illegal activity and unethical activity by the president and his aides which resulted in a constitutional crisis. The aftershocks are still being felt from these political earthquakes.

A public that is continually aroused soon burns out, and will fail to heed the press' warnings when the political ground begins to shake.

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