Great American Presidential election scandals

However hotly disputed, the election of 2000 was far from the most controversial of presidential contests. Two centuries of American democracy have witnessed vote-rigging, name-calling and dirty tricks on a monumental scale. Mike Dash tots up the hanging chads.

George W. Bush may well hold office today because someone in Florida couldn’t order voting machines capable of punching clean holes in thin pieces of paper. But Bush is far from the first American president to owe his job to an ability to survive scandals that might have ended the career of a lesser man. And the chances are that he won’t be the last.

In fact, no more than a handful of the three dozen presidential elections held since 1789 have been free from controversy. James Monroe – who in 1820 enjoyed the unique luxury of being selected as presidential candidate by the Democrats and the Republicans alike – carried his electoral college by an unarguable 231 votes to one. But a mere four years later, when none of the prospective presidents were able to secure an overall majority, the choice of Monroe’s successor fell to the House of Representatives. Speaker Henry Clay swung the election for John Quincy Adams, and was promptly rewarded with the post of Secretary of State. The scandal that ensued set the tone for much of what would follow over the next 180 years.

In the decades since Adams’s election, presidential candidates have lied, cheated, accepted illicit campaign contributions, burgled rivals’ offices and generally smeared each other in their desperation to fight their way into the White House. Some have simply made things up: Ronald Reagan swept to a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter alleging that Alaska had more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia (it didn’t), that it cost $3 to deliver $1 of benefits (it cost 12 cents) and that trees cause more pollution than industry. Others have stabbed their own friends in the back; George McGovern, the Democrat candidate in 1972, backed his photogenic young running mate Thomas Eagleton ‘1,000 percent’, only to dump him from the ticket less than a week later when it emerged that the would-be vice president had a history of psychiatric illnesses. A few have resorted to name-calling; John Kerry, so dogged by his former Swift Boat colleagues, no doubt empathises with his nineteenth century predecessor William Henry Harrison, who was disparaged as the ‘hard cider candidate’ after his supporters unwisely chose to portray him as a simple man most at home sipping home-made liquor in his log cabin. During the 1960 campaign, meanwhile, Richard Nixon’s camp spread rumours that John F. Kennedy – the first Catholic to run for the presidency – would take his orders from the Vatican. So many voters took fright that Kennedy’s eventual margin of victory was a shaky 0.3 percent.

American election scandals are certainly nothing new. As early as 1796, in the first election after Washington’s retirement, the Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton decided that his presidential candidate, John Adams, was too stubborn to be easily controlled. Under the electoral system in place at the time, voters cast ballots for whichever of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates they pleased; if a potential vice president polled more votes than his running mate, he would go to the White House in his colleague’s place. Hamilton plotted to have Adams’s name dropped from the ballot papers in South Carolina, gambling that so many of the state’s Federalist voters would plump for vice presidential candidate Thomas Pinckney that Pinckney would be propelled into the White House. When New England Federalists got wind of the plot and retaliated by removing Pinckney’s name from their own ballots, the double manipulation cost the party so many votes that Adams scraped to victory by only a narrow margin, while Pinckney was beaten to the vice presidency by the Republicans’ Thomas Jefferson.

Things did quieten down for a while in the middle of the nineteenth century as a succession of colourless presidential candidates followed each other into office. Even so, the twelfth president, a career army officer named Zachary Taylor, faced heavy criticism when it emerged that he claimed to despise all politicians on principle and had never cast a vote in his life. (The new president was also so miserly that he refused to accept his own letter of nomination when told that there was 10 cents’ postage due.) Taylor’s successor, ‘Handsome Franklin’ Pierce, was another nonentity, reluctantly nominated as a compromise candidate by a deadlocked Democratic convention after no fewer than 48 ballots had failed to produce a winner from among the existing candidates. ‘Hereafter,’ Senator Stephen Douglas joked, ‘no private citizen is safe.’

By the time the election of 1876 rolled around, though, everything had changed. In what was almost certainly the dirtiest presidential election of all time, the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, was propelled into the White House four months after he had actually conceded the election to his Democrat rival, Samuel Tilden. Tilden had emerged from polling day with a clear majority of votes. But James Reid, a staunch Republican and editor of the New York Times, calculated that Hayes could still win the presidency in the electoral college by securing the votes of three key states: Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina.

While Hayes slept that night, Reid and his cronies despatched urgent telegrams to Republican leaders in the South. ‘Can you hold your state?’ the cables read. ‘Answer at once.’ The state bosses replied in the affirmative, and Hayes – and America – awoke next morning to find the election still hanging in the balance. By alleging that black electors had been denied the right to vote in the three disputed territories, the Republicans succeeded in having the election results referred to Congress for adjudication.

The electoral commission established to rule on the affair was carefully balanced: seven Republicans, the same number of Democrats, and a solitary independent chosen from among the Supreme Court justices. Before the Commission could rule, however, the independent judge mysteriously found himself nominated to the Senate, and the Republican majority in the Supreme Court meant that his replacement was sure to be a Hayes man.

The manoeuvre was decisive. The Commission vote was 8-7 in the Republicans’ favour, and all three disputed states were awarded to Hayes, who was adjudged to have beaten Tilden by the narrowest possible margin: 185 electoral college votes to 184. The new president served out his four-year term, stoically ignoring newspapers that persisted in dubbing him ‘His Fraudulency’.

Palm-dampeningly close elections proved to be a feature of the late nineteenth century political scene. James Garfield’s majority in1880 was a mere 10,000 votes of the nearly nine million cast. But that was nothing compared to the scandalous election of 1884, which saw Grover Cleveland enter the White House after a scandal-ridden contest in which a swing of a mere 528 votes in one state – New York – would have given victory to his opponent, James G. Blaine.

Both candidates began the campaign concealing secrets they feared could hand victory to their opponents, and the election turned into a test of voter morals. Blaine was accused of using his position in Congress to pass legislation for his own financial gain. Cleveland, meanwhile, was exposed as the father of an illegitimate son. In the social climate of the day, it was regarded as rather in Cleveland’s favour that he had put the boy up for adoption and had the child’s alcoholic mother confined in an insane asylum; on polling day public morals proved more of an issue than private morality, and the Democratic candidate narrowly defeated Blaine. But America’s new breed of muck-raking journalists were soon fanning the flames of an even more outlandish controversy when it was revealed that the 49-year-old president was to marry a 21-year-old named Frances Folsom. Not only was Cleveland old enough to be the girl’s father – he had been her legal guardian since she was 11. The press had enjoyed another field day when they discovered that ‘Uncle Cleve’ had bought his new wife her first pram, and the latter years of his presidency were disfigured by ugly rumours that the ‘Beast of Buffalo’ had taken to beating his beautiful young bride.

Some presidents have been luckier than others. Warren G. Harding, now generally regarded as one of the worst Chief Executives of all time, died in office unmarred by serious controversy. Only later did it emerge that members of his cabinet had taken huge bribes to lease government oil reserves to private investors. Nor were the disreputable details surrounding Harding’s election known at the time. It is doubtful that the American public would have voted the Republican into office had they known that – asked the guarantee his party grandees that there were no skeletons in his closet – he had requested a 10-minute adjournment before returning an affirmative answer. Historians now believe Harding used those minutes to ensure the silence of both his young mistress, Nan Brittan, who was at then living in Chicago with their illegitimate daughter, and an older lover, Mrs Carrie Phillips, who was the wife of his best friend. Mrs Phillips was already in possession of a cache of pornographic letters written by the future president, which still survive in a sealed collection in the Library of Congress. The contents are not due for release until 2014.

Harding was well-served by his long suffering wife, who after the president’s death spent no less than five weeks systematically burning a vast collection of his more incriminating papers. Richard Nixon was less successful in suppressing evidence of his own electoral wrongdoings. Not only was this most notorious of presidents heavily implicated in the infamous Watergate burglary of 1972 – an incident engineered by the so-called Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) – his own obsessive record-keeping meant that the evidence was there for all to hear. Even the president’s clumsy attempts at suppression rebounded on him. The infamous 18-minute gap that appeared on one of the hundreds of tapes that recorded every conversation in the Oval Office probably did more to secure his resignation than the formal charges brought against him.

Things have only got worse since then. Pervasive media coverage and primly moralistic commentators have ensured that American political scandals are now so common that no election seems complete without at least a couple of reputations being dragged through the mud. What’s most dispiriting – from the candidates’ perspective at least – is the insubstantiality of the allegations now required to wreck a career. Gary Hart may have brought his troubles on himself when he challenged reporters to follow him throughout an election campaign, only to be photographed with model Donna Rice in the stern of a yacht called Monkey Business. But Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman vice presidential candidate, was fatally wounded when the press dug up an ancient gambling scandal involving her father – a man who had died when she was eight years old.

Whether John Kerry’s actions 30 years ago, when faced with the split second decision of whether or not to shoot a Vietnamese boy, will affect his chances of victory in the presidential election of 2004 remains to be seen. So does the American voters’ reaction to the allegations swirling around George Bush’s National Guard service. But some things seems pre-ordained. If either Kerry or Bush are penning pornographic letters to a younger lover, or concealing a couple of mistresses and an illegitimate child, the chances are we’ll hear about it sooner rather than later.

First published in The Independent, November 2004