Scandal-free Presidents?

Amidst all this partisan wrangling and mudslinging going on I’ve occasioned to hear, at great length no less, just how bad the Democrats and Republicans are. It seems that there are bad examples aplenty on both sides of the aisle, and I have started wondering about the good examples. What presidents have there been who have not had some scandal attached to their names? I’m not speaking of plausible deniability, like the Contra mess. I’m talking about administrations where no reasonable person would believe that the President was dirty dealing and/or tacitly approving of same. Which administrations, if any, have left us an untarnished leader? Carter? Ford? That was really before I paid much attention to politics so I can’t say. What I am sure of though, is that some of the history buffs here can probably answer this question.

Well, there’s the one who died after a month in office…

FDR stacked the court… Truman dropped the bomb…

maybe Eisenhower?

Kennedy, mistresses and questionable election, LBJ getting the dead vote in Texas, Nixon 'nuff said. Ford pardoned Nixon.

Maybe Carter?

Reagan and the Contras. Bush caught some shine off of that too. Clinton… 'nuff said again.

Back before FDR things seem brighter but that maybe just the polish of time.

“Back before FDR things seem brighter but that maybe just the polish of time.”

That’s definitely the polish of time. Look up “Teapot Dome Scandal” in a search engine and see what comes out.

The president who was one month in office was William Henry Harrison.

I would nominate Ruth Dreifuss, the first Jewish woman to be president of Switzerland (1999). Or are you restricting this to US presidents?

I remember Teapot Dome, but not exactly when. Was that really a presidential scandal?

Garfield was a nepot (is that a word?). Lincoln raised an army without the permission of congress (among other ruthless things). The guy on the $20 bill put all those Indians on a death march. Teddy R. sailed the Great White Fleet halfway around the world since he congress gave him only half the money he asked for and told congress if they wanted the fleet back to cough up the rest of the money (I think that was Teddy).

But from Garfield to FDR things were fairly quiet as best I can recall.

I forgot what I came in here to really say! I read a short article once on Rutherford B. Hayes, and here’s some of the things I remember:
In college, he was so serious that he once wrote in his diary that we would attempt to refrain from laughing.
After being elected to Congress, he refused to take his seat until the Civil War was over (he was a major).
His election was very contested (as has been mentioned in one of the numerous election threads), but I don’t think that’s his fault.
He fought against the spoils system (though I’m not sure what that is exactly except that it has something to do with corruption of public officials).
Finally, he had pledged not to run for a second term and he kept his promise.

So he personally sounds very ethical (especially the not laughing part) and the article didn’t mention any scandals during his presidency.

The “spoils system” was that nearly all federal employees were hired and fired based on party affiliation. I couldn’t think of the word just now when I mentioned Garfield – I was thinking nepotism for some reason – but after he was assassinated by a disgruntled (postal? nah…) worker that was fired because he wasn’t in the right party (although he was an anarchist too), the system, beyond the cabinet, was outlawed. IIRC!


Well, Carter did have the Iranian hostage problem, and the rescue helicopters BROKE DOWN halfway these to rescue them. He was thus seen as a very poor Commander-in-Chief. I don’t know if that is a scandal per se.

Kennedy had Bay of Pigs too. Except, didn’t Eisenhower plan it to being with?

What about Hoover? He was unable to stop the depression. Incompetant? Yes. Scandalous? I can’t recall.

I think Carter too. There was Billy and his alcoholism, but I don’t think that counts. He got very little respect from the military from the beginning, because he was a pacifist I think. He did believe that there were times when military action was unavaoidable, but that was not enough to gain him the respect of the military. I think his lack of effectiness as a military leader rooted in this problem.

I feel the urge to repeat my comment from the thread about, given the choices for president suck, who would you really like to vote for. I would like to see Carter back for four years. His actions since leaving office have gained him much more respect from America and I think that it would make him much more effective now.

Also, I was just saying last night that I would rather have Nixon back than Dubya. Not sure if I meant it. I’d have to do more research and think it through.

Let’s see- the scandals that plagued the Presidents (and I’ll keep it to what was considered a scandal at the time of their Presidency or candidacy, not what we’ve in recent years have decided was a retroactive scandal (Hiroshima, Trail of Tears, etc.); in addition, I’m trying to keep it to “scandals”, not “bad policy decisions that everyone hated”.

Washington: No real scandal that I can think of.
Adams: The “Alien and Sedition Acts”, the “Midnight Judges”.
Jefferson: Sally Hemmings.
Madison: “Mr. Madison’s War”; many felt that the War of 1812 was an avoidable disaster.
Monroe: Scandal-free, if really dull, years.
John Quincy Adams: The entire “Corrupt Bargain” that gained him his Presidency.
Andrew Jackson: Bigamist, assassin, rube; he was coated in scandal before he came to office. Then came the Peggy Eaton scandal.
Van Buren: No real scandal that I can think of.
W.H. Harrison: One month of lingering death. Not much scandal.
John Tyler: The entire way he handled his ascenscion to the Presidency. Instigating Texas’ revolution against Mexico.
Polk: None, really.
Taylor: Again, none.
Fillmore: Rumors that he did in Taylor. General horror by Northerners that he- a good New Yorker- would sign the Compromise of 1850. Later joined the “Know-Nothings”, the hysterical anti-immigrant anti-Catholic party.
Pierce: Rumored to be a drunk.
Buchanan: Rumored to be gay.
Lincoln: Rumored to have fathered an illigitimate daughter. Was constantly assailed for his handling of the Civil War.
A. Johnson: Considered a drunkard and a Southern sympathizer.
Grant: The term “Grantism” was coined to describe elephantine corruption. The government was turned into a Byzantine labyrinth of nepotism and bribery. Yeah, definitely scandal.
Hayes: The process by which he was made President.
Garfield: Was called corrupt for having accepted $329 in stock from Credit Mobilier.
Arthur: Considered a major spoilsman, and was sacked by President Hayes for his rampant corruption; but as President, actually championed Civil Service Reform and ran an honest White House.
Cleveland: “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” Fathered an illegitimate child. While President, married his 22-year-old ward.
B. Harrison: Nothing of note.
McKinley: No real scandals.
T. Roosevelt: No real scandals.
Taft: No real scandals.
Wilson: Questions arose regarding his courtship of Edith Galt so quickly after his first wife died.
Harding: Teapot Dome. A mistress in every closet.
Coolidge: No scandals.
Hoover: No scandals.
F. Roosevelt: Constantly questioned during World War 2 regarding questionable outlays of military money (the “Fala” episode). Suspicions abounded that he allowed Pearl Harbor to occur to drag the US into the war.
Truman: Considered a machine politician and a corrupt hack; while he himself was never charged with corruption or impropriety, many of his Cabinet members and staff were found to have involved themselves in shady deals.
Eisenhower: No real scandal.
Kennedy: No real scandals. At least, not till after he was dead and we started getting the truth.
L. Johnson: Scandals regarding government handling of Vietnam, his own fortune possibly arising from favorable government contracts during the '50’s.
Nixon: Oh, come on.
Ford: The Pardon.
Carter: Scandal free.
Reagan: Iran-Contra.
Bush: Iran-Contra.
Clinton: Whitewater, Lewinksy, Jones.

Actually, I believe Hayes had become a Major General by the end of the war (he was on Grant’s staff, I believe.)

The “spoils system”, as inaugurated by Andrew Jackson in the 1820’s, was the policy of the new President firing all government workers and replacing them with his supporters. This was especially notorious in the Postal Service, where every Congressman could hire a few buddies/campaign workers/idiot nephews in order to give them a salary without actually expecting any work to get done.

Obviously, the reason to get rid of the system was to have- in theory- a government run by people who actually knew what the hell they were doing.

However, there were lots of pressures to keep the system. Being able to promise specific jobs to people was a great way of getting people to join your campaign, or to reward important supporters. Besides, some people felt it was better to have a government made of people who had actually supported you in the campaign rather than a neutral- and possibly appointed by the opposition- bureaucracy which might do its best to stymie your agenda.

The spoils system in the Federal government began in the Jackson administration, and didn’t see serious reform until the Arthur administration. The hybrid system we have now (where the most work is done by “neutral” bureaucrats, but the President appoints supporters to leadership or figurehead positions) developed mostly out of the Progressive movement of the early 20th Century and the Teddy Roosevelt administration.


I would interject for Eisenhower that there was a scandal involving his Chief of Staff Sherman Adams who had to resign because he had received gifts from a lobbyist, in particular, a vicuna coat. Eisenhower also had Nixon as his VP and we can blame Ike for inflicting him upon the US.

As for Carter, he was very loyal to his friend Bert Lance, director of OMB, despite some very shady banking deals he had been involved in.

You have to define whether or not the scandal is something that the president has to be an active participant in or something that just happened during his administration.

Using the latter standard, nobody gets off easy, but then again, probably none of us on this board do either.

John Corrado wrote:

That whole impeachment thing didn’t help him, either.

Um, Eisenhower had the Suez Canal thing, didn’t he?
And the Gary Powers espionage episode, where he lied to the Soviet Union and totally embarassed the US.

I have a great source to help fill out John’s list:

Washington: almost beyond reproach. However, Alexander Hamilton was a total loose cannon. One of Hamilton’s subordinates was stone-cold busted doing insider trading through the Treasury Department; Hamilton resorted to confessing to adultery to avoid a similar charge. However, Washington was Teflon before it was invented. (Richard Shenkman, Presidential Ambition, p. 14)

Monroe: accepted a five thousand dollar bribe from John Jacob Astor while president. After leaving the White House, he submitted a ten-thousand dollar bill to Congress for the loss he took on the sale of his home in Paris while he was a diplomat, tacked on several decades of interest, and walked with a cool 20K in illegal claims. (p. 37)

Van Buren: “The Little Magician.” Disingenuously ran for governor of New York to seal the electoral victory for Jackson, then resigned to take a top spot in Jackson’s administration. Purveyor of so many dirty political tricks he makes modern politicians look squeaky clean, but no overt scandals. (p. 64-67)

W. Henry Harrison: didn’t have time to do anything wrong as president, but ran the first, now classic and hauntingly familiar “disinformation campaign.” Allowed lies to circulate about his humble, log-cabin background when he was in fact a Virginia Aristocrat. Refused to speak concretely on any issue. Disguised his frailty and poor health. Won on the issue of “integrity.” (pp. 61-68)

Polk: engineered a war so he could steel half of Mexico and lied about it to Congress and the public, all because he had cut a secret deal with party bosses that he wouldn’t seek reelection in return for the nomination in 1844. He needed a war, and territory (he snagged Oregon and Washington from the Brits by threatening war there as well) in order to get his name in the history books. (pp. 69-75)

B. Harrison: another “minority president” who got lucky in the electoral college. The fix was in by party bosses in New York and Pennsylvania, who kept Harrison unaware until after the election, when they sat him down and told him he couldn’t name his own cabinet. (n. p.210)


This is the kind of stuff I figured I would get: People float names and others shoot them down with near-forgotten scandals. Strangely enough, I have heard of many of the scandals, but often could not tell you which Prez it was attached to. It kind of throws what we have going on here into better perspective in a way. My personal take on what constitutes a scandal would be some illegality that the President himself was either involved with, approved of, or covered up. Extreme twisting and bending of laws to protect others or avoid trouble themselves would definitely apply as well.

I’m glad that there seems to be at least a few of them that weren’t scandalized by something, although it doesn’t seem that any of these were particularly great leaders. Interesting…

If you are looking for an illicit activity during Jefferson’s administration, you could pick on the Burr Conspiracy/Treason Trial.

Jefferson wanted Burr arrested and convicted at pretty much any cost. He offered immunity deals and rewards to anyone who would agree to testify against Burr. He also wanted to prosecute one of Burr’s attorneys as an accessory.

I feel pretty comfortable nominating Calvin Coolidge. . .and not anyone else.

Well, in addition to the Buchanan possibly being gay scandal that was mentioned, after the southern states seceeded, Buchanan’s secretary of war (Sec. Floyd, who was Georgian, I think) made sure that a lot of weapons got in Confederate hands. As you can imagine, when that came out, it was looked at as a big deal.

Ptahlis, remember, most scandals, except really big ones, tend to become forgotten. They’re big deals at the time…but one hundred years later, nobody cares that Grant’s friends and advisors got rich at government expense.
The sting is gone, so to speak.

As for Jackson and the Trail of Tears, if it wasn’t scandalous at the time, it was at least controversial…the president, in ordering the removal of the Cherokee, was defying a court order invalidating the treaty ceding the land to the government.