Chris Bouton: Welcome to this week’s slack chat, where in honor of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, we’re going to discuss our favorite historical scandals.
I want to start with Bentley’s scandal because it’s just so absurd.
Here’s a man who is in his 2nd term as governor, has been married for 50 years, and gets in an affair with a staffer. Meanwhile his wife is reading all of the messages he’s exchanging with his mistress because he synced up his iPhone to the iPad he gave her. She downloaded all the messages, divorced him, and rejected all of his efforts to intimidate her and then forced him to resign.
Way to not put up with the bullshit.
Erin Bartram: The thing that elevates this scandal, and that might lead us into a broader discussion, is how these conversations also revealed that it was the staffer who came up with the idea of closing/reducing hours at DMVs in black areas specifically to suppress the black vote.
Chris: And that’s where it transitions from kind of fun petty scandal where an idiot adulterer got what was coming to him to something much more sinister.
Especially since one of the main goals of the Republican party has been to enact laws restricting the right to vote, especially for people who typically vote Democratic. That seems counter to the idea of a democracy doesn’t it?
Erin: I think we can put “sex scandals” in a particular category
Though there are important wrinkles within that
Chris: Yes, let’s being all historian-e and get some categorization going.
Erin: In Bentley’s case, as in many others, it’s the improper use of state resources to carry out the transgression that really cooked his goose
Chris: Yup, trying to use your bodyguard to intimidate your wife is a pretty dumb move.
And then you have the sex scandal version of “it’s not the crime it’s the coverup” – lying under oath about it
Yet even in the middle of the Clinton impeachment trials, one of the GOP leaders running the whole thing was forced out when it was discovered HE was messing around.
[If you’re annoyed that we are pretty much only talking about men, maybe we could elect more women and then some of them would have sex scandals too.]
Chris: Yeah, when we’ve had so few women elected to office, they haven’t had a fair shot.
To either make a positive impact or create their own scandals to rival Teapot Dome or Watergate.
Erin: Given the bar for women, and recent history, I think we can say that they wouldn’t have to do much for it to be a Teapot Dome-level offense.
Chris: Seriously, Hillary Clinton had a private email server and that’s apparently enough to throw her in jail.
Erin: “Calls for first female president’s impeachment grow after more shots emerge of poorly blended foundation along her jaw line”
Chris: We’ve struck upon something important here. That institutionalized sexism extends to political scandals, as well.
Last fall, I kept asking myself, what if Clinton had been caught doing half of the stuff Trump did or said? She would never have even got close to the Democratic nomination.
Chris: The way to judge if the response to a scandal involving a woman is to ask, if I reversed the gender of the person involved, would my response change? If it did, then hello sexism.
I think the thing that makes a scandal, in general is that there has to be some perception of hypocrisy.
Chris: That’s a good point.
Erin: You’re supposed to be a public servant but you’re in it for yourself
You advocate family values but you sleep with your staffer
You champion segregation but have a secret mixed-race child
You say being gay is a choice and an abominable one at that and you’re hooking up with men in bathrooms
Chris: It’s the hypocrisy and the intellectual inconsistency. You allow these actions for yourself, but not for others.
Erin: It’s interesting to think about the scandals that are outside of the usual frameworks of sex and bribery/corruption
Chris: Do you have one in mind?
Erin: Because I think we’d say things like Watergate and Iran-Contra were scandals
And both sort of share the element of hypocrisy
Chris: Government officials engaging in illegal activity, getting caught, and then lying to cover it up.
Chris: All in pursuit of some personal goal. Nixon wanted to win reelection and Reagan wanted to fund the Contras even though Congress wouldn’t let him. These scandals attempt to subvert the democratic process in some way.
Erin: But what if we think about earlier scandals – do they fit the same model or were 18th and 19th century scandals distinctly different?
Chris: Well, I know you’ve been itching to talk about Peggy Eaton.
I think that’s a good one to start with.
Erin: We can also talk Lord Cornbury or John Adams as a hermaphrodite (or was it TJ? I can’t remember!)
Chris: Adams was the hermaphrodite.
Or had a “hermaphroditic character” I think is the exact quote.
Erin: Maybe it’s just because one of my professors in grad school was writing on the Eaton scandal, but I’ve always found it a really fascinating look into what would be scandalous at that time.
Chris: Want to lay out the basic details of the Eaton affair? For those who don’t know what it was
Erin: Can do!
So this was a big drama that shook up President Andrew Jackson’s cabinet
It’s important to remember, for background, that he’s a bit rough around the edges
(The first president born in the trans-Appalachian west as well? If not, cut this line!)
His wife died before his inauguration, so he comes to Washington without her as First Lady, a role that’s filled by Emily Donelson, his wife’s niece
If you think Washington is clubby and insidery now, it was 10x more back then, and as Catherine Allgor and others have demonstrated, the political wives and female relatives of Washington were actively involved in making politics and political relationships happen
Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War, John Eaton, is married to a woman named Peggy. She grew up the daughter of a DC tavern owner, and was able and willing to talk about politics with the boys.
But she’s not “well-bred” and the other cabinet wives do not like her and will not socialize with her. They’re led in this by John C. Calhoun’s wife Floride.
Chris: Worth noting that Jackson blamed the death of his wife on his political opponents who accused her of being a polygamist because she had been married twice and hadn’t divorced the first husband before she married Jackson.
Erin: Emily Donelson also takes the side of those snubbing Peggy.
And that Peggy’s first husband died at sea and she married Eaton a few months later and there were rumors swirling around their relationship that undoubtedly made Jackson even angrier.
Calhoun was the Vice President, so this is if Mrs. Pence and Ivanka refused to invite Sec. Mattis’ wife to anything and wouldn’t speak to her if they encountered her.
Jackson liked both Eatons, and their treatment infuriated him
Chris: So those tensions eventually boiled over.
Erin: The “winner” in all of this was Martin Van Buren, who was a cabinet member and also widowed so he had no wife in the fight.
He took the Eaton’s side, and then voluntarily resigned from the Cabinet which gave Jackson the opportunity to “reorganize” these other people out of their posts
MvB then became VP and succeeded Jackson to the presidency
Chris: So, to sum up, Jackson had to replace nearly his entire cabinet because the men’s wives could not get along.
And it likely cost John Calhoun his best shot at the presidency.
Erin: But this whole scandal was about so much more than women not getting along.
Chris: Right, I didn’t mean to minimize it.
Erin: I didn’t think you did.
Just…it helps us look at anxieties about social mobility in the period, about women in politics, and about the divisions that rent the Cabinet in this moment of one-party rule.
It’s so awesome!
It seems really different, in some way, from any of the other scandals we’re talking about, but maybe it’s not.
Chris: I think the great thing about looking at scandals (and I think we’ve been skirting around the issue) is that they’re reflective of the political environment at the time. What people view as scandalous reflects what they really care about.
It’s similar to my understanding of what prompts people to engage in violence.
Erin: (skirting the issue or petticoating the issue. my jokes only exist to please me)
Chris: Yeah, I realized that pun after I published the comment.
Erin: Absolutely. That’s why things like public corruption scandals, which you might thing were a universal, also change a lot over time.
Sure, some of it’s about transparency, but it’s also that people in the early decades of the republic thought differently about what we might now consider exploitation of one’s public position.
In a sense, our shock over rich people enriching them in government is more pronounced because we’ve more thoroughly drunk the kool-aid that says we’re a meritocracy and anyone can get rich in this country. That idea certainly hasn’t been present throughout the country’s history, and many wouldn’t have seen themselves creating that kind of society as a goal anyhow.
Chris: The other thing, I would point out about scandals in general, is that they take a long time to unfold.
Watergate, Iran-Contra, even the Eaton affair played over a series of years.
So anyone who thinks we’ll know everything about what’s going on with Russia soon is fooling themselves.
Erin: My students are often stunned that Nixon won in a landslide during what seems to them like “the middle of Watergate”
But no one knew it was “the middle” until the end
Chris: Exactly, and if you want to know what happened, get subpoena power.
I’d raise one other scandal. Preston Brooks assaulting Charles Sumner on the floor of the US senate.
Chris: That wasn’t about corruption. It was about Sumner verbally attacking a SC senator who was related to Brooks.
That’s a scandal that was shocking at the time and still is today when you discuss it in class.
Erin: It’s why I always sit in front of Sumner’s portrait when I work at MHS
Chris: Sumner was unable to return to the senate for 3 years
Erin: What my students find most shocking is how much approval Brooks has from his constituents, broadly speaking.
Chris: They sent him canes!
Erin: I think there’s one other thing here.
It’s worth thinking about the many “smaller” scandals that don’t endure in popular memory. I mean, the Eaton affair is not really remembered, despite it being very important AND being made into a movie in 1936 called That Gorgeous Hussy
Chris: I had no idea there was a movie about it.
Erin: We went deep in my Jacksonian America seminar in grad school.
But I think the ephemeral nature of so many scandals is important, because it really shapes teaching the past
Erin: My students often want to look at political cartoons, but they require knowledge of these fleeting scandals and the people involved, and are often more trouble than they’re worth.
Like, remember when Dick Cheney shot his friend in the face and then his friend apologized TO HIM or the Valerie Plame scandal.
Chris: Oh yes.
Erin: one silly, one serious
Chris: Well it was serious for the guy who got shot in the face (snark).
Erin: It was indeed!
Chris: I was looking at a list of scandals in preparation for this and it shocked me how many I’d forgot from the Bush years.
Erin: But we’ve forgotten the biggest scandal of our adult lives
in the Obama administration
Remember when he wore that tan suit one day!?
Chris: Or when he put his feet on the Resolute desk!
Erin: I think there’s a legitimate distinction to be drawn
And the Obama administration helps us see it clearly
There can be political crises that are not scandals.
Chris: For example, the whole thing about Kellyanne Conway with her feet on the couch in the Oval Office.
Erin: Like, the handling of the Deepwater Horizon leak was a disaster, but I don’t think it was a scandal.
Chris: Back to our gendered discussion from earlier. That was not a story, people just jumped on it because they don’t like her.
Erin: There are legitimate ways to screw up, and they’re separate from scandals
Chris: Yes, there has to be an intent to do something wrong.
Erin: I was more struck by the fact that they were having the only woman take the 2387th all-male photo of this administration.
Chris: Right, that’s the story. Or that photo of Pence and the Freedom Caucus talking about Health Care without a single woman in the room.
Nothing like a group of old white men sitting in a room debating women’s health issues to argue that we have a long way to go towards equality in this country.
Erin: You can really tell we’re 19th century scholars who grew up in the Clinton era
we mentioned Teapot Dome for .2 seconds
Chris: Seriously, our own biases are coming out big time.
I just learned what it was last week!