Ten Miles Square


May 16, 2013 5:41 PM Five Scandals Worse than Benghazi

By Devin Castles

After months of Republican pot-banging (and altering emails), conservatives have successfully turned the media’s eye back toward the Benghazi affair, forcing the Obama administration to answer a daily barrage of questions from the press corps about Benghazi talking points. And new revelations about inappropriate targeting by the IRS and the DOJ’s best Big Brother impression indicate Obama will not avoid the second term scandal jinx.

While there are legitimate issues to be addressed with the IRS and DOJ’s conduct, the Benghazi inquisition has gotten out of hand. According to a recent poll from Public Policy Polling, almost a quarter of Americans think Benghazi is the worst scandal in American history, and 74% of Republicans think Benghazi is worse than Watergate. Polls like this can be difficult, because partisans often reflexively respond to questions with whatever answer indicates the most displeasure with the opposing party, but that number is still astonishingly high. Here is a brief refresher on five of the many scandals in our history worse than Benghazi. Spoiler alert: Watergate is definitely one of them.

Iran-Contra (1985-1986)

This scandal can best be described as selling weapons to terrorists in one country to support terrorists in another. During the Gipper’s second term, the US government secretly violated an arms embargo to send weapons to Iran via Israel, in exchange for the release of American hostages. At the suggestion of future Fox News host Oliver North (pictured above), the government then sold arms directly to Iran in order to obtain funds to help aid the Contras in Nicaragua, who were fighting a guerrilla war to overthrow Nicaragua’s democratically-elected government. Despite efforts to destroy the evidence, a number of officials in the administration, including two of Reagan’s former National Security Advisors, were indicted and convicted for their involvement in the affair.

Teapot Dome (1920-1923)

This was a simple case of bribery, in which President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, took over $500,000 (which, adjusting for inflation, would be over 6 million today) in gifts and loans from oil companies in exchange for leasing them Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming. After the Wall Street Journal reported that the leases had been granted without competitive bidding, the Senate began to look into the matter. Senator Robert La Follette arranged for his committee to hold an investigation, and promptly discovered his senate office had been ransacked. This scandal marked the nadir of Harding’s brief and much-criticized presidency.

Whiskey Ring (1871-1875)

There is plenty of Reconstruction-era scandal and corruption to choose from during Grant’s two terms in office, but the Whiskey Ring is generally recognized as the worst, and is certainly the most famous. This scandal involved a large network of conspirators, including distillers, merchants and government officials, who used bribery and blackmail to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes on liquor. Some of that money was then used to fund campaigns for Republican politicians. When Grant’s personal secretary and former Civil War general Orville Babcock was indicted as one of the ringleaders, Grant personally defended him in a deposition before the Supreme Court.

Burr Conspiracy (1804-1806)

Some historians believe Aaron Burr, the same man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, conspired to steal the then-recently purchased Louisiana Territory to be turned into an independent empire. Together with corrupt general James Wilkinson, Burr developed a plan for secession, believing a small military force could take the Louisiana Territory. Burr convinced President Jefferson to appoint Wilkinson governor of the Louisiana Territory, but soon after, Wilkinson got cold feet, and sent a letter to Jefferson outlining the conspiracy. Burr was eventually tried for treason and acquitted, but the trial really put a damper on his future political prospects.

Watergate (1972 - 1974)

Readers are probably most familiar with this scandal, so I won’t go into the nickel summary, but one sign that Watergate was a bigger deal than Benghazi is that fact that all scandals since have been compared to Watergate, and we have affixed a “gate” to the end of their names. Irangate, Monicagate, etc. But if that doesn’t convince you, Eric Alterman goes through some of the “lowlights,” including wiretapping DNC headquarters, a slush fund to pay the burglars, using the CIA to thwart investigations into the break-in, and paranoid surveillance of perceived enemies of the administration.

Devin Castles is an intern at the Washington Monthly.


  • Jeff Johnson on May 18, 2013 2:08 PM:

    I don't like the headline on this piece. One could be forgiven for thinking it means that Benghazi is a scandal, but not quite as big as these. As far as I can see, Benghazi was a tragedy, but the only scandal I see is the GOP attempts to dishonestly create the impression of scandal.

    The title of this piece should be: "Five Scandals to Remind Us What a Real Scandal Looks Like".

  • Russell Sadler on May 18, 2013 2:42 PM:

    It's a nice, pithy little historical round up, Mr. Castle. Hope you stay hangin' put in those archives.

  • philat on May 18, 2013 4:25 PM:

    Agree with Jeff Johnson's comment. Benghazi was no scandal. Better security might have helped, but recall that the host country is responsible for the personal security of other nation's diplomatic posts. Furthermore, State was likely relying on the security available at the CIA base, the so-called annex, a mile away. The talking points kerfuffle was an attempt, primarily by the CIA, to provide little specific information on who was responsible--although the probable group had been identified--in the hope that the group/individuals involved would keep communicating, thus allowing more information to be obtained on the individuals and their whereabouts....

  • democracy on May 19, 2013 7:07 AM:

    Sorry, Devin.

    Benghazi is not a "scandal."

    Benghazi is virtually all conservative hype and tripe.

    There is simply no way that Benghazi has can be compare to or place with Iran-Contra, or Watergate, or any of the other scandals or conspiracies cited in this piece.

    The editors af The Washington Monthly should be embarrassed for allowing this into print. So should you.

  • democracy on May 19, 2013 7:09 AM:

    oops....compareD to or placeD with....

  • Mark-NC on May 19, 2013 8:47 AM:

    Ditto: Jeff Johnson on May 18, 2013 2:08 PM:

    When you see "liberal" sites promoting the BS that this is anything but scandal mongering, then the Republican crap machine has met it's goals.

    Sad! Some other themes that they were successful promoting are: Bush was framed over AWOL documents (actually, he was AWOL and the documents were a distraction), Gore was a serial liar, Kerry was a coward who lied to get Purple Hearts.

    And WORST OF ALL, this Benghazi crap is being used to diminish the meaning of the word scandal. When it is cheapened by comparisons like the above, people will believe that the others a BS too.

  • bughunter on May 21, 2013 8:03 PM:

    Agree with Jeff, et al.

    Also, neither is IRS, really. IRS agents request additional information to the applications for tax exempt status of new and suddenly well funded groups who have been very well-coordinated and primarily active in politics by a) identifying them by name, and b) sending them questionnaires!

    The horror!