Political scandals are nothing new in the nation’s capital. You’ve probably heard of Watergate, but what about the Teapot Dome or the Ulysses S. Grant gold scandal? What’s fascinating is learning the motivations behind these scandals, which are as varied as the circumstances.
It is important not to sweep these scandals under the rug. They provide valuable information about the machinations of politics that are still relevant today. With that in mind, this guide focuses on several Washington, D.C.-related scandals and sites, including:
• Scandals involving Ulysses S. Grant
• Teapot Dome
• The Newseum
Scandals Involving Ulysses S. Grant
Though Ulysses S. Grant was undoubtedly one of America’s greatest military leaders, as a president, his legacy was more checkered. He came to the presidency at a very difficult time. His predecessor, Andrew Johnson, had been impeached due to conflicts over his cabinet appointees, and only escaped removal from office by one vote.
The Republican Party—the party of Grant, Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln—was sharply divided over how to handle Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War. The nation was also struggling under postwar debt. Ongoing conflicts between Native Americans and groups of settlers were turning the West into a powder keg. However, one of the biggest issues Grant faced as president was his own personality: He was honest and loyal to a fault.
In 1869, two stock market speculators who were friends of Grant’s brother-in-law worked their way into the president’s inner social circle. These men, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, slowly, carefully, and methodically manipulated Grant’s opinions on fiscal policy.
Grant’s treasury secretary had been regularly selling off gold from the treasury as a way to buy back Civil War bonds, reduce the national debt, and stabilize the economy. Gould and Fisk began buying up as much gold as they could, while simultaneously trying to convince Grant that the gold sales were bad for the economy.
Grant was skeptical at first, but eventually, and without warning, he halted gold sales. The price of gold shot up, and Gould and Fisk made a small fortune. That fortune only lasted a week. Other market speculators panicked and began selling gold, and the price dropped again. Gould and Fisk began hoarding gold, trying to drive the price higher. They also, very foolishly, sent a bribe to Grant in the form of $60,000 worth of art.
Grant now understood that he had been played. He ordered the treasury to release more gold, flooding the market and bankrupting Gould and Fisk. Unfortunately, the crash in the gold market also crashed the rest of the economy. Stocks dropped by 20 percent; some commodity values, like grains, dropped 30 or 40 percent.
When the smoke cleared, Congress set up an investigation. Grant was acquitted of any wrongdoing, but several members of Grant’s treasury department were convicted of taking bribes from Gould and Fisk in exchange for insider information. Ironically, Gould and Fisk escaped conviction.
By the end of Grant’s second term, his administration would be rocked by 11 more scandals. None of them implicated Grant directly, but all of them involved his cabinet members, or his political appointees. Because of this, historians often rank Grant as a mediocre president. However, he made some important strides, especially in the area of civil rights.
He was a terrible judge of character and his reputation suffered for it.
That is part of the reason it took so many years after the Civil War for the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial to be constructed on the National Mall. When it was constructed, it framed Grant as a general, not a president.
Grant’s memorial, completed in 1924, sits on the west front of the Capitol grounds, on the edge of the Capitol Reflecting Pool. It is the largest equestrian monument in the United States, depicting Grant on horseback. Existing as a complex of marble steps and pedestals supporting multiple bronze statues and relief sculptures, the memorial is 252 feet long, 71 feet wide, and 44 feet high.
Teapot Dome, involving the administration of President Warren Harding, was the biggest scandal and largest investigation into political misconduct in American history up to that time. In the case of Teapot Dome, the problem was Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall.
Teapot Dome was an oil field. In Harding’s day, it was one of three that the federal government set aside to produce its strategic oil reserve. Originally, the Department of the Navy managed the reserve. However, Fall convinced Harding to transfer the reserve to his department—the Department of the Interior.
Fall immediately sold drilling rights to two of the three oil fields to close, personal friends in sweetheart deals. These deals bypassed the competitive bidding process and drastically reduced the government’s share of the profits. Fall himself got a healthy kickback—an amount equal to about $5 or $6 million today.
Fall was not very good at covering his tracks. A Senate investigation led by Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana uncovered evidence of bribery. Some of Fall’s associates, known as the Ohio Gang, resorted to perjury, forgery, threats, jury tampering, and blackmail to try to stop the investigation, but it was no use. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes and became the first presidential cabinet member in American history to go to prison.
The Ohio Gang
When representing the state of New Mexico in the U.S. Senate, Albert Fall became a member of what would later be called the Ohio Gang. The gang met in a house at 1625 K Street NW known as the Little Green House, which is no longer there. They would talk government business, but they also conspired with some unsavory characters, including bootleggers and liquor smugglers.
The Watergate scandal left an indelible mark on American history. Eventually, 69 people were indicted, and 48 of them were found guilty or pleaded guilty to crimes committed for the benefit of President Richard Nixon’s administration.
The name Watergate originally referred to six buildings constructed in the 1960s on 10 acres of Potomac River waterfront, just north of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The office building at 2600 Virginia Avenue NW is where the scandal’s famous break-ins at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters building took place.
The five conspirators actually broke in at least twice. The first break-in was on May 28, 1972, when the team planted listening devices, which they monitored from the motor lodge across the street. The second break-in was on June 17, 1972, when they broke in to repair some of the listening devices that had already broken. It was because of that June break-in that the conspirators were caught.
It seems that Nixon did not know about the break-in and bugging of the DNC Headquarters until after it happened. The president got in trouble for the attempted cover-up. Nixon ordered his chief of staff, R. Haldeman, to have the CIA prevent the FBI from investigating the break-in. He made a public statement denying administration involvement. However, the press was already making connections between the Watergate burglars, Nixon’s re-election campaign, and the administration.
It was two Washington Post reporters—Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—who kept the case in the public eye by continuing to investigate and write about ties between the burglars and various officials, not only in the White House but also within the Justice Department, and specifically the FBI.
Their main source was an informant they called Deep Throat. His real name was Mark Felt. He was a senior FBI official who Woodward had used as a source for other matters before investigating Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein protected his identity for more than 30 years, until when, at the end of his life, Felt chose to reveal his own identity.
With Felt’s help, Woodward and Bernstein discovered evidence that perfectly legal campaign contributions had been illegally funneled to the Watergate burglars. They published their evidence in The Washington Post on October 10, 1972, but this did not do much harm to Nixon’s campaign. He was re-elected less than a month later, on November 7.
However, this did not put an end to the story. In January 1973, the five Watergate burglars and the two administration officials who hired them were found guilty of conspiracy, burglary, and illegal surveillance. In February, four senior White House officials—including the chief of staff and the attorney general—resigned. In May, the Senate began hearings, and a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was appointed. In July, a former White House aide named Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of Nixon’s tapes—recordings the president made of nearly all his conversations in the Oval Office.
This revelation was the beginning of the end. The administration did everything it could to avoid releasing the recordings, but it was no use. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ordered President Nixon to hand over the original tapes. They revealed his knowledge of and involvement in the cover-up. Rather than face impeachment hearings, Nixon resigned 15 days later, on August 8.
Many of the sites mentioned in this guide are gone or difficult to visit. However, if you want to learn more about these or any of the other famous political scandals that have rocked the city of Washington, there is one site you should visit for yourself.
It is called the Newseum. This museum of media history is found on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, across the street from the National Gallery of Art and just a short walk from the National Archives and the Capitol Building.
The museum is operated by the Freedom Forum, a charitable foundation dedicated to promoting and preserving freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That is the museum’s goal: to celebrate the way these First Amendment freedoms have contributed to the history of the nation.
Opened in 1997 and moved to this location in 2008, it features more than 600,000 square feet of exhibitions. It is designed as an interactive experience, allowing visitors to experience both the history of American journalism and get hands-on experience with the technical aspects of print, radio, and television production.