February 16, 2015 By integrate

Presidential PR Nightmares

Categorized in: ,

Aside from my life here at Integrate and working hard with the team to achieve game-changing results for our clients, I’m also a huge history buff and a bit of a political junkie. Combine these interests with my full-time job as a PR professional and it should come as no surprise that I’m fascinated by a good White House scandal.

Whether it’s a full-blown scandal, mild controversy or small gaffe, every administration deals with their fair share of PR nightmares. Call it an occupational hazard that comes with being the leader of the free world. We’re all familiar with these moments in recent history that have become ingrained in our minds thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and, most recently, the Twitterverse and blogosphere.

President Obama’s, “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” statements earned him the 2013 Lie of the Year award; President Bush’s premature declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in 2002 turned out to be one of the most poorly thought out photo ops in presidential history; and, of course, there’s President Clinton’s, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” moment. If you don’t read that with a thick Arkansas accent, you were either living under a rock in 1998 or not old enough to remember the seemingly endless loop of every news outlet playing the clip.

For me, the damage control and media hysteria that follows these events are often just as interesting as the initial cover-ups and crimes themselves, and I’ve often wondered how past presidential scandals would play out in today’s media landscape. With that being said, and, in celebration of President’s Day, I decided to look into some of the presidential scandals of yesteryear that may not be as easy recall. I’m talking way before Bill met Monica; before Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair; and even before Watergate brought down the Nixon administration and inspired the suffix now attached to every modern day pseudo-scandal (#deflategate, anyone).

After a bit of research, here are two presidential scandals of the 18th and early 19th century that, had they happened today, would have had serious break-the-internet potential.

Warren G. Harding and Teapot Dome

In the mid-late 1920’s Teapot Dome, had the printing presses running overtime and was considered the most sensational scandal in American politics (until Watergate). The controversy involved three things that are still at the center of American politics today: oil, money and bribery. In 1923, President Harding signed an executive order that transferred control of Naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming and Elk Hills, California from the Navy to the Department of Interior. Initially, the oil fields were supposed to be leased to companies after competitive bidding; however, then Secretary of Interior, Albert B. Fall had other plans.

He leased the lands to two of his buddies in the oil business at very low, non-competitive rates in exchange for “loans” and “gifts” worth about $6.7 million in today’s money. The leases themselves were completely legal and Fall probably would have gotten away with it had people not taken notice of the sudden flashy lifestyle he started living while still on a government salary.

As the saying goes, the Senate Committee on Public Lands followed the money and opened an investigation. In 1927, after a lengthy investigation and trial, Fall was found guilty of accepting brides and became the first presidential cabinet member to go to prison. As far as what Harding knew, and when he knew it, that remains unknown. He died of a heart attack in 1923, after only two years in office (some say his wife poisoned him, but that’s a story for the conspiracy books blogs).

Ulysses S. Grant and the Whiskey Ring

This scandal is similar to #TeapotGate (sorry, force of habit) in that it also involves abuse of power by high-powered government officials, shady business dealings and bribery; or maybe that’s just a day at the office for some on Capitol Hill. Anyway, replace oil with liquor and you essentially have the Whiskey Ring scandal. It involved high-ranking officials of the U.S. Treasury Department and whiskey distillers defrauding the federal government out of millions of dollars in liquor-tax revenue, which I find ironic.

How did this happen? In the early days of his administration, President Grant reduced the tax on liquor, which meant distillers were less inclined to avoid paying it. The Treasury Department officials involved saw this as a prime opportunity to commit fraud. At the time, the required tax on a gallon of liquor was 70 cents per gallon. For example, officials in St. Louis realized if 100 gallons of liquor were sold, they could report 75 and pocket the tax money on the other 25 gallons. Thus, the Whiskey Ring was born and quickly spread to Treasury Bureaus throughout the country.

Over a four-year period, the Whiskey Ring involved hundreds of government officials and liquor industry bigwigs. Some distillers willing participated in the fraud because it saved them money if revenue agents were willing to accept a bribe that was even less than taxes owed, and those that weren’t so keen to participate were pressured and threatened by officials.

The millions of dollars made were divided up among government officials and liquor distributors, and some of the money even found it’s way into President Grant’s re-election campaign coffers (big oops), leaving many to accuse the president of being involved in the scandal. Eventually, a new Treasury Secretary was appointed and opened an investigation into the missing funds, which brought the whole scheme to light.

President Grant called for swift punishment for everyone involved. While the president was never actually implicated in the scheme and it’s unknown how much he really knew, he did cause additional public outrage by attempting to protect his personal secretary who was accused of being involved. While the secretary was not convicted, the public backlash forced him to resign. All in all, indictments were served to 238 individuals and 110 people were eventually convicted. I’m sure the real-life President Grant would have liked to have Olivia Pope on speed dial.

Know of any other old-school presidential PR nightmares? Share with us on Facebook! 

Written by Ahna Gavrelos