Measuring Presidents' Misdeeds
During Watergate, historians helped catalogue accusations made against past Presidents; their findings may be useful again.
In May, 1974, John Doar, the special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, called the Yale historian C. Vann Woodward into his office and asked him to figure out just how badly Presidents had behaved in the past, and how they had answered accusations against them. A sense of scale seemed needed, a sense of magnitude. Doar gave Woodward until July to pull together a report, a catalogue of every charge of Presidential misconduct from 1789 to 1969. Was Richard Nixon worse than the worst? Or maybe not that bad? Historically speaking, what is "politics as usual," anyway?
It would be good to know the answers, with regard to the current occupant of the White House. The conviction of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign manager, tars him, and the guilty plea of Michael Cohen, his former attorney, implicates him. Cohen has pleaded guilty to violating federal law at Trump's direction, making the President an unindicted co-conspirator. If Trump were not President, he would very likely be charged with a crime. What else he has done, and what can be proved, and what Republicans are willing to do about it remain to be seen; meanwhile, Trump's entire Presidency, from his Cabinet appointments to his foreign policy, lies in a muddle of money-grubbing, kowtowing, and influence-peddling.
Is Trump more of a crook than Nixon was? That's not the right question, but it's the inevitable one. Asked to measure Nixon against every President from George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson, Woodward divided the work among fourteen historians. They were to exclude from consideration any allegations that appeared to be merely partisan or ideological, and confine themselves, as Woodward explained, to the "responses of the President, on his part or on the part of his subordinates, to charges of misconduct that was alleged to be illegal and for which offenders would be culpable."
They found rather a lot. Every President except William Henry Harrison, who died in office after only a month, had been accused of some form of misconduct. Most of it was petty, bumbling, and shabby: favoritism and graft, wheeling and dealing, mainly done not by the President but by the men around him, not least the notorious Grant staffer and Whiskey Ring swindler Orville Babcock, whom Grant could never bring himself to fire but instead rusticated by appointing him Inspector of Lighthouses. The Post Office (for a long time the largest part of the federal government) was quite often involved. James Monroe was twice embroiled in congressional investigations relating to the White House furniture. Andrew Jackson once accepted the gift of a lion from the Emperor of Morocco. (He sold it and gave the money to charity.) More grievously, James Buchanan appears to have had a hand in Democrats' attempts to rig the elections of 1856 and 1858; in 1860, after Republicans gained control of the House, they launched an investigation, and leaked its findings to the press, whereupon Buchanan called his accusers "parasites," said the testimony against him was "nothing but falsehoods," and complained that he was unable to fight back, since it was unbefitting of the President to divulge the nature of private conversations: "His lips are sealed."
It gets worse, if not by much. (And, of course, the historians didn't catch everything.) Three men appointed by Warren G. Harding went to jail, and his Attorney General, Harry M. Daugherty, who was also his former campaign manager, nearly did, and probably should have. Daugherty lived with a man named Jesse W. Smith, and gave him an office in the Justice Department, where, posing as a federal-government employee, he made business deals. Smith eventually killed himself.
The historians who undertook the project dropped everything to do it. "Found not much to tell on F.D.R.; quite a lot under Truman," James Boylan now recalls. James Banner, who as a young professor at Princeton wrote the reports on Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, said that he worked on them out of a sense of the "civic office of the historian." He came to see a pattern. Serious malfeasance really began with Jackson, reached a pitch with Buchanan, then quieted down until the Presidencies of Grant and Harding, but all these shenanigans, he thought, seemed quaint compared with what Nixon stood accused of.
These days, even Nixon's underhandedness begins to look upstanding. William McFeely, now eighty-seven, and retired from the University of Georgia, covered Andrew Johnson and Grant. "I think Nixon was pretty bad, but I think that even he had a respect for the Constitution, and for a constitutional sense of the value of the Presidency," McFeely says. "Trump trounces on those."
Woodward, reviewing the 1974 findings, made a list of never-befores: "Heretofore, no president has been proved to be the chief coordinator of the crime and misdemeanor charged against his own administration as a deliberate course of conduct or plan. Heretofore, no president has been held to be the chief personal beneficiary of misconduct in his administration or of measures taken to destroy or cover up evidence of it. Heretofore, the malfeasance and misdemeanor have had no confessed ideological purposes, no constitutionally subversive ends. Heretofore, no president has been accused of extensively subverting and secretly using established government agencies to defame or discredit political opponents and critics, to obstruct justice, to conceal misconduct and protect criminals, or to deprive citizens of their rights and liberties."
Those never-befores ought to have become never-agains. But they haven't. Trump has already done some of them—not secretly but publicly, gleefully, and without consequence—and is under investigation for more. William Leuchtenburg, ninety-five, supervised the work from T.R. to L.B.J. "However much Richard Nixon deserved impeachment and the end of his Presidency," he says, "what he did does not match the Trump Presidency in its malfeasance, and in the depth of his failure as President."
Woodward submitted the study on time, but, weeks later, Nixon resigned, and it was never printed. Woodward decided to have it published. "A whole book devoted exclusively to the misconduct of American presidents and their responses to charges of misconduct is without precedent," he wrote in the introduction. Almost no one reviewed the book, or read it. It has hardly ever been cited. A copy in Harvard's Widener Library has been checked out only twice since 1974. Banner says, "It might be time to bring it back into print." ♦
Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard University. Her latest book, "These Truths: A History of the United States," will come out in September.
"I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's."
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