February 27, 2008

Politics and Scandal Go Hand in Hand

Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 24, 1952 (Newseum collection)
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Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 24, 1952 (Newseum collection)

The New York Times, May 8, 1987 (Newseum collection)
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The New York Times, May 8, 1987 (Newseum collection)

It was bound to happen: A candidate running for president is involved in a political scandal. This time, the candidate is Republican John McCain. His ties to a female Washington lobbyist during his 2000 presidential campaign have become an issue in the 2008 campaign.

Scandals, like negative ads, are staples of presidential campaigns. Sometimes the scandal is about money. Often it involves infidelity. And behind every big political scandal is a newspaper. In McCain's case, the newspaper of note is The New York Times. Depending on how candidates handle them, scandals can destroy or boost presidential hopes.

A look through the Newseum's exhibits and collection of historic front pages reveals the centuries-old relationship between the press and presidential candidates.

In 1884, four months before the presidential election, the Evening Telegraph in Buffalo, N.Y., printed an article about Grover Cleveland's affair with a young widow 10 years earlier that had resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son. Cleveland urged his advisers to "tell the truth" about the allegations. His response impressed the public, who judged him an honest civil servant. Cleveland won the election by a slim margin.

Reporters aided newspaper publisher Warren Harding's victory in the presidential election of 1920 by refusing to print stories about his extramarital relationships with several women. The stories, which included charges of an illegitimate child, became so widespread that a Republican political director gave one woman $25,000, a monthly stipend and an all-expenses paid trip to the Orient for the remainder of the campaign. A condition of the payments — which she accepted — was that she never discuss her long relationship with Harding.

In 1952, newspapers revealed that Richard Nixon, presidential nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower's pick for a running mate, enjoyed a "secret rich men's trust fund" that allowed him to live beyond his means. Eisenhower insisted that Nixon go on national TV to explain himself. In a speech dubbed the "Checkers speech," Nixon detailed everything he owned and admitted to accepting a dog as a gift: "It was a little cocker spaniel dog ... our little girl named it Checkers ... and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep him." When Nixon reached his next camp, Eisenhower was waiting for him. "You're my boy," he said.

Twenty years later in 1972, the publisher of New Hampshire's Union Leader alleged that Democratic presidential hopeful Edmund Muskie's wife was an alcoholic. Speaking before reporters in a snowstorm, Muskie passionately denied the allegations. A Washington Post reporter recalled "tears," instead of melting snow, "streaming down his face." Muskie's aides denied they were tears, but the damage was already done. Muskie dropped out of the race during the primaries.

The private lives of presidential candidates were never the same after 1988 Democratic candidate Gary Hart, responding to rumors of his womanizing, challenged reporters: "If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored." The Miami Herald took him up on the offer. In the spring of 1987 the Herald reported that Hart spent the night with a young woman. Stories of additional affairs began to circulate. Later, a photograph of Hart with the woman on a boat called "Monkey Business" surfaced. Hart dropped out of the race, complaining that the system "reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates being hunted."

In 1992, after the Star tabloid paid for and published a Little Rock woman's account of her 12-year affair with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the candidate's "war room" team responded immediately to the allegations. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, went on "60 Minutes" and acknowledged "wrongdoing" but refused to admit to the specific allegations. The offensive worked. Clinton was elected.

Eight months remain before the 2008 general election — plenty of time for another big controversy.

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