As we near the end of the Bush administration, I thought it might be interesting to examine this era which many view as the most scandalous and evil in this century and perhaps in our entire history, in the larger context of the history of government scandal and abuse of power.
Any president who surrounds himself with liars, criminals and dastards, has to be tainted by that association, and will rightfully go down in history for his failure in leadership. In this context Bush is often compared to past presidents whose administrations were plagued by scandal, particularly Richard Nixon, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, James Buchannan and Warren G. Harding, though always by saying how much worse he is than these disreputable leaders. There was even a survey of historians who rated Bush’s failure relative to various other bad presidents. 46% of them rated him the worst president ever.
Even many conservatives are dismayed with Bush and feel that he has besmirched the renewed positive reputation of the Republican Party which came out of the Reagan era. Reagan was such a good leader and his policies were so successful that Bush, coming only a few years later, looks particularly bad by comparison. Reagan is most often praised for his leadership and the aura of honesty, integrity and incorruptibility which surrounded him. Reagan was a great guy. Everyone loved him, even his political enemies. The Wall Street Journal poll of historians consistently rates him as one of our 10 best presidents, and polls of the public rate him much higher, often first or second.
Yet the truth is that if you compare the number and magnitude of scandals surrounding the Bush and Reagan administrations or look at their history of violence and abuse of power, it is impossible to reach any conclusion but that Reagan tolerated far more corruption and abusive behavior and had an administration which was enormously more scandal plagued than Bush or just about any other president. Reagan overwhelmingly leads the pack in the number of major administration figures and political appointees who were indicted or forced to resign in shame because of their activities, often on behalf of the administration.
Every administration loses some appointees because they do something illegal. Appointees get indicted are forced to resign and get convicted of crimes from time to time. It’s inevitable. In the worst administrations the crimes they get in trouble for are done on behalf of their leaders.
To date only a handful of Bush administration officials have been forced to resign or faced any kind of criminal prosecution, and many of those got in trouble for actions which had nothing to do with their jobs. Typical examples are people like Brian Doyle who was convicted as an online child predator and Claude Allen who was convicted of shoplifting. A couple of others were convicted in association with the Abramoff scandal. The most significant conviction and the highest ranking person to be brought down by scandal is Scooter Libby, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff whose sentence for perjury was ultimately commuted by President Bush. The criminals and the scandals in the Bush administration are few and far between by any standard and especially when compared with prior administrations.
In comparison, during the Reagan administration more than a dozen top-level appointees plus hundreds of lower level bureaucrats were forced to resign and many ultimately convicted of serious crimes committed while in office or after leaving office, committed directly in relation to their job with the administration. Minimum security jails were filled with Reagan administration officials in the early 90s.
Reagan holds the distinction of being the only president to have three cabinet-level appointees convicted of crimes while he was in office. Other bad presidents have traditionally limited themselves to one top-level criminal. Secretary of the Interior James Watt was indicted on 41 counts of influence peddling and got 5 years probation. National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane was convicted of four misdemeanors associated with the coverup of the Sewergate Scandal. His successor, National Security Advisor John Poindexter was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury and fraud in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal. Other notable criminals from the Reagan years include: Michael Deaver, the Deputy Whitehouse Chief of Staff who was convicted of perjury, Deputy Secretary of State Elliott Abrams who was convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal, Thomas Demery who was Undersecretary of HUD and convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks, Whitehouse Press Secretary Lyn Nofziger who was convicted of influence peddling in the WedTech scandal, and of course Oliver North who was convicted on three felony counts as the central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Many of the Reagan officials who were convicted of crimes did so in connection with specific administration programs which were considered illegal like Iran-Contra, or for influence peddling with the administration after they left office. During the Reagan years it became common practice for former appointees to leave their jobs and then return as lobbyists using their connections inside the administration to obtain questionable and illegal benefits for business associates and clients. That is a practice which is illegal under current lobbying laws. Ironically most of those convicted in connection with Reagan-era scandals were quickly pardonned by President George H. W. Bush.
The total casualty count connected with corruption and scandals in the Reagan administration has been placed as high as 225 people who were either forced to resign, indicted or convicted of crimes associated with their employment by the administration and that doesn’t include hundreds of more who were indicted outside the administration for bribing officials, receiving illegal government payments or various crimes associated with the S&L scandal.. There were so many major scandals that some of them have already been largely forgotten. Even the widespread problems with bribery and influence peddling pale in comparison with the major scandals of the era. Iran-Contra and the Savings and Loan scandal dwarf the other scandals and rank among the most serious government scandals in US history. The S&L scandal is the single most widespread and expensive scandal in US history, leading to more indictments and more cost to the government than any other.
Minor scandals like the Superfund/Sewergate scandal where funds from the EPA intended for cleaning up toxic waste sites were used to help finance the campaigns of Republican candidates are largely forgotten today, but they outstrip anything which has happened during the Bush administration both in terms of the number of people involved and indicted and the level of pure corruption. And small scandals like this went on continuously for 8 years while Reagan was in power, filling the pages of the newspapers when they weren’t dominated by huge scandals like Iran Contra and the S&L scandal.
Those who talk about assaults on the Constitution under Bush must have some sort of amnesia when it comes to Reagan and in particular Iran-Contra. It was a completely extra-legal operation carried on with misdirected funds and illegally obtained funds which involved overthrowing foreign governments, influencing a US election, gun running and a whole array of covert operations run directly out of the White House with no Congressional oversight and no Constitutional justification whatsoever. They didn’t even attempt to justify their activities, they just did what they wanted without worrying about the consequences. As a result of the activities we funded death squads in Central America, hundreds were murdered and tortured with an unparalleled legacy of blood and destruction. And that’s just one of Reagan’s imperialistic adventures. We also invaded Lebanon and Grenada, attacked Libya twice and mounted major covert offensives in Iran and Iraq.
The Reagan era is also the period when the War on Drugs began to come into its own, with the appointment of a Drug Czar, massive increases in spending on drug enforcement and interdiction and the first use of asset forfeiture and other draconian, civil-rights violating enforcement measures. As part of the War on Drugs Reagan also reinstated the federal death penalty, applying it for the first time for a lesser crime than murder or treason so that large scale drug dealers could be executed. Although passed under Carter, it was under Reagan that the now controversial FISA Act first got a real workout, with almost 4000 warrantless wiretaps issued under its authority. It was also under Reagan that the CIA is suspected of having smuggled drugs out of Afghanistan and Central America to fund off-the-books covert operations in those regions, a violation of so many laws that it boggles the mind.
Recently Bush has come under a lot of fire for problems in the economy and the bailout of Bear-Stearns and assistance offered to other troubled banks. Yet under Reagan we had the Savings and Loan crisis in which 747 banks failed mostly because of bad real estate loans. They were closed and then reopened under government supervision and there was a total bailout cost of $1.4 trillion. Along the way lots of insiders made fortunes buying and selling failing banks and getting government payoffs. Reagan’s banking crisis dwarfs Bush’s by two orders of magnitude.
Yet despite all of this, Reagan sailed through his presidency virtually untainted, while Bush whose administration looks mild and friendly by comparison – not just with Reagan, but with most presidencies – is rapidly becoming the most reviled president in US history. Some of this is certainly due to personal style and Reagan’s inexplicable ‘teflon’ factor, but there has to be more to it than that. Perhaps the partisan attack machine wasn’t quite as well developed back then, or the country was less divided. An awful lot of Democrats voted for Reagan not once, but twice. That suggests that he really was the uniter Bush has claimed unsuccessfully to be.
Or perhaps the sins of the Reagan era have faded with time. Revisionism is always a big factor in history. Yet aside from the far left, even while Reagan was in office with appointees going down in flames around him, he remained one of the most popular presidents of all time, with approval ratings constantly in the high 60s, and only a few low spikes through his 8 years. He invaded countries on a whim and carried on secret wars and no one batted an eye. He let the CIA run wild and made secret deals with dictators around the world and everyone just smiled and nodded.
I’m not saying ‘poor George, no one gives him a break’. Bush and anyone else who has committed a crime in his administration ought to be held accountable. But something is certainly askew. It makes me wonder if 20 years from now the administration which is so hated right now might be viewed very differently by historians and even all of us who lived through it. George Bush is certainly no Ronald Reagan – Reagan could get away with anything and Bush gets away with nothing. Yet considered objectively in the context of the circus of corruption and abuse of power which surrounded Reagan, Bush actually looks kind of good.