The presidential election is right around the corner. The only hope that the news will ever contain anything interesting from now until voting day is if something unplanned or off-message happens to the candidates, like if Joe Biden rolled his Trans Am or if Mitt Romney’s hair moved or if it’s revealed that Paul Ryan is actually two ten-year-olds standing on each others' shoulders. That kind of late-breaking surprise can change the course of governments during a single news cycle. Let's take a look back at ten of the most well-known election scandals.
1972: TOM EAGLETON’S SHOCKING SECRET
The 1972 presidential election was shaping up to be a lot more interesting than usual, with outspoken liberal Senator George McGovern winning a hard-fought Democrat primary with the support of blacks, youth, and self-described “hippie freaks” who felt they finally had a candidate they could respect and fight for. Conservative Dems were alarmed by McGovern’s victory, and when right-wing columnist Robert Novak phoned Democrats around the country he came back with a doozy of a slam from an anonymous Dem Senator that characterized McGovern as “the candidate of amnesty (for draft dodgers), abortion, and acid.”
While it was fair to say that a lot of the youth vote for McGovern considered those three things to be positive, the McGovern campaign was worried enough about their image to make their VP pick Senator Thomas Eagleton, a center-right Democrat from Missouri who would hopefully make the ticket appear more balanced. Unfortunately for McGovern, word soon got out that Eagleton had undergone several hospital stays and even electroshock therapy for severe chronic depression, a condition that doctors believed would endanger his ability to function as president.
Eagleton was hurriedly replaced by Kennedy scion Sargent Shriver, but the damage was done, the youth vote was disenchanted, and McGovern lost badly to Nixon. Ironically, after Eagleton’s death in 2007, Novak claimed that the senator had actually been the source of the infamous “amnesty, abortion, and acid” comment. Ouch!
1796: THE VERY FIRST NASTY CAMPAIGN
The 1789 election of George “Dolla Dolla Bill Y’all” Washington was the least controversial in American history (and the only election to take place in an odd-numbered year), receiving 100% of electoral votes and selecting John “Not Quincy” Adams as his VP based on popular vote.
But that was not the case as this was the first really nasty campaign in American political history. Throughout the lead up to election day Jefferson's supporters accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite, while Adams' supporters accused Jefferson of being the son of a half-breed Indian squaw and mulatto father. Democracy!
Washington was a reluctant but extremely capable leader, establishing agencies, departments, and presidential responsibilities with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of practicality, and after eight years as President he adamantly refused re-election, circumventing a Revolutionary hero-worship tradition that threatened to establish him as dictator and informally establishing the two-term Presidential limit.
While Washington rejected the idea of political parties, the obvious choice for his successor was outspoken Federalist leader and vice-president John Adams, generally assumed to be a shoo-in for the Presidency.
John Adams did indeed wrangle the position of Second President of the United States, but the peculiarities of the original American electoral system allowed his arch-enemy Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican party to win the role of vice-president. While today the VP is typically an echo chamber for the President’s position, as well as his cats-paw and tiebreaker in the Senate, back then the VP was more often than not the guy who placed second in the race for the presidency, who in this case was completely opposed to the elected President’s policies.
The next four years were basically a series of fights between Adams and Jefferson over every single minor detail of the freshly written Constitution, most of which were basically inconclusive as the two men couldn’t even agree on the most fundamental philosophical issues. After Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800 in another election that was ultimately decided by the House of Representatives, legislation (including the 12th Amendment) went into effect to prevent anything as weird and silly as the Adams-Jefferson administration from ever happening again.
1876: RUTHERFORD B. MISBEHAVIN’
Rutherford B. Hayes was by many measures an honest, ethical man: Nominated by the Republicans to run for the House of Representatives while serving as an officer in the Union Army, he refused to leave his post to campaign, instead writing letters to the voters explaining his belief that an "officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.”
He ended up winning by 2400 votes, and after the war he worked with other Republicans to try and establish adequate legal protections for free blacks. In 1867, he was asked by his party to run for the governor of Ohio, campaigning to support an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing black suffrage. Hayes won the race and served two terms, eventually managing to ratify the 15th Amendment in Ohio and retiring from politics a content man.
The Republicans weren’t done with Hayes yet, however, as they were facing a difficult election: Prior Republican president Ulysses S. Grant hadn’t accomplished much aside from watching most of his cabinet and administration members get locked up on corruption charges and drinking his way through the White House booze stocks, and the party needed someone who was a proven politician and well-known for honesty to set against popular New York Democrat Samuel Tilden.
Hayes was in fact so honest that when Tilden emerged with a clear majority of the vote, Hayes publicly conceded the election until New York Times editor John Reid figured out that the Republicans could still win if they got the electoral votes of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina—or at least prevent them from reporting the electoral votes Tilden had won. Rutherford quickly un-conceded somehow and Republican party bosses in the “contested” states pulled all-nighters “correcting” the vote count, usually claiming that black voters (who were typically inclined to vote Republican) had been denied their voting rights.
After successfully out-bribing the local Democratic officials, the Republicans delivered the crucial 19 votes with remarkably straight faces. The Democrats were having none of that bull, and months of judicial, congressional and electoral wrangling finally resulted in the Compromise of 1877—Hayes would be president (the first one to lose the popular vote and “win” the electoral vote) and the Federal troops stationed in Southern towns to protect the rights of free blacks would be withdrawn. Without military protection, the invented stories of black voter suppression soon became all too real.
1988: GARY HART LOVES THE LADIES
While George McGovern never really recovered from his humiliating 1972 defeat, his young and highly skilled campaign manager Gary Hart managed to win an election for himself only two years later, defeating a Republican incumbent by a wide margin and becoming the junior senator for Colorado.
Hart was popular, well-spoken and photogenic enough that he ended up running for president twice—losing to Mondale in ’84, but rising to the position of de facto frontrunner in the Dem primaries in ’87. At around the same time, rumors began circulating that he was having an affair— rumors that Hart responded to by publicly daring the press corps to “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.”
Unfortunately for Hart, the media actually followed through on his dare, and the Miami Herald (who had already been investigating Hart) staked out his D.C. townhome and observed sexy 29-year-old Donna Rice entering and exiting at odd hours.
Hart blasted the story as unfounded and his wife publicly stated that she believed Gary’s relationship with Rice was innocent, which made them look very silly later on when Herald reporters obtained a photo of Hart and Rice hanging out sans wife on a yacht named (appropriately enough) "Monkey Business." Hart did a fair amount of whining about getting caught, but soon enough dropped out of the race and, for the most part, out of the public eye.
2006: MARK FOLEY LOVES THE… BOYS
A ten-year veteran of the House of Representatives, Mark Foley and his weirdly intense stare were on track to become an important part of the GOP’s congressional presence. Although a moderate Republican on some issues, Foley served as deputy whip (one who enforces party unity and discipline among his fellows) during the 2006 congressional season, and having been re-elected six times (often with 60% or more of the vote) he seemed like a pretty solid politician, even though his 2003 candidacy for the Senate was shot down by oddly persistent rumors that he was gay. With a secure district and ten years of legislation behind him, it seemed obvious that Foley was destined for greater things.
What was less obvious to the GOP and Foley’s supporters was how much Foley loved emailing, IM-ing, and hanging out with the male under-18 congressional pages that were assigned to his and other Republican representatives’ offices.
Rep. Foley, who had earlier spearheaded legislative efforts to prosecute pedophiles and shut down avenues of child pornography distribution, spent a lot more time than usual talking to handsome young boys who hadn’t yet graduated high school, in messages that many of these strapping young lads described as “creepy.” While "Feely" Mark Foley had been messaging (and in a few unproven cases, massaging) these foxy young men throughout much of his political career, the story finally broke during the 2006 congressional elections. Foley briefly contested the allegations before resigning, leaving the Florida GOP with no choice but to throw a fresh new candidate into the race for his representative seat who then lost to a Democrat. Today, Mark Foley is officially “out,” is no longer chasing teenagers around (for the last five years he has been in a relationship with a Palm Beach dermatologist) and is an AM talk radio host.
1884: GROVER CLEVELAND, FOUNDING BABY-DADDY
Running for president as a crusading opponent of corruption, Democrat Grover Cleveland’s public persona as an upstanding, moral citizen attracted support from both sides of the aisle, especially considering that Republican nominee James G. Blaine was already under fire for his role in legislation that benefitted railroad companies he owned stock in.
Republican strategists wondered to themselves, “How can we tear down this image of Cleveland as lawful and incorruptible?” The answer, as it turned out, was discovering his secret illegitimate child. That’ll probably do the trick, right?
Maria Crofts Halpin, a woman who had been seeing a number of men at Cleveland’s Buffalo law firm, had given birth to a child she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland (Oscar Folsom being Cleveland’s law partner and one of the several possible fathers of the child). Cleveland admitted paying Halpin to support the child, even though it couldn’t really be proven he was the father—some believe that Cleveland claimed responsibility because he was the only single man who’d had sex with Halpin and wanted to shield his partners’ reputations.
Republican protestors soon took up the chant of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at Cleveland’s public appearances, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from becoming the first Democratic president after six terms of Republican leadership, allowing Democrats to respond, “Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
2000: HANGIN’ WITH CHAD: THE PALM BEACH REFORM PARTY VOTE
It’s likely that the last time you bothered to vote, you dealt with a sort of computer-looking thingie that had a touchscreen or buttons or a dial or some other sort of reassuringly technological way of entering a vote for your preferred candidate. While these systems have an honestly terrifying number of flaws, security holes, and poor design choices, they are leaps and bounds above the old-fashioned Votomatic punchcard system introduced in 1964.
Said punchcard ballots seemed like a logical solution to the problem of quickly and accurately counting American votes ... except that when the system came into widespread use, polling workers discovered that sometimes you could feed the same ballot card into the machine multiple times and come out with multiple different ballot selections.
The photoelectric Votomatic machines had a hard time telling the difference between a ballot selection that was left blank and a ballot selection that was not entirely punched through—especially if the voter left a little bit of paper in the punchhole, something that came to be known as the infamous “hanging chad”—and, as early as 1988, the National Institute of Standards and Technology was recommending that the punchcard ballot be eliminated in favor of more high-tech solutions or even simple pencil and paper arrangements. Twelve years later, many American counties had yet to round up the funds necessary to replace the Votomatic machines with superior systems, and among these counties was Palm Beach, Florida.
While the punchcard ballot was ridiculously outdated and inaccurate, “hanging chad” errors generally didn’t occur enough times to affect most elections. What may have well been a deciding factor in the Palm Beach voter turnout (and subsequently the rest of Florida and its electoral votes) was an atrociously bad and counterintuitive ballot design, where many voters punched the circle that seemed to be right next to the Gore/Lieberman Democrat ticket, but was actually a vote for the weirdo Reform Party led by rabid Christian fundamentalist Pat Buchanan.
The voters of Palm Beach—most of whom were elderly Jewish retirees and Holocaust survivors who tended to vote for progressive measures and were generally not likely to vote for Pat “The Holocaust probably didn’t happen” Buchanan—somehow ended up voting for the Reform Party in unprecedented numbers, but this ostensibly inexplicable irregularity was dismissed by the (Republican-controlled) Florida Elections Commission.
It’s entirely possible to argue that the 2000 elections were held as freely and fairly as any American election has ever been held, but there are still important questions about how those elections were carried out.
1828: WAR HERO/MASS MURDERER VS. DIPLOMAT/PIMP
The incredibly heated and angry rhetoric of the 1828 race between renowned senator Andrew Jackson and incumbent President John Quincy Adams doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you learn a bit about the election of 1824, which was a race between decorated general Andrew Jackson and celebrated Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.
The 1824 election was ultimately decided by the House of Representatives, and took place during the weird little part of American political history when there was only one party to vote for—the Democratic-Republicans, who had opposed the Federalists until that organization fell apart, and were now dealing with the fact that some of their members were more Democratic than Republican and vice versa.
Further confusing the 1824 election were the facts that some states didn’t consider the popular vote as a factor in deciding electoral votes, the Speaker of the House (Henry Clay of Kentucky) was one of the leading candidates for President and also personally despised Andrew Jackson, and a thousand and one weird little complications that arose from weird state-based variances in voting law, unresolved questions regarding the Constitution, and the difficulty of collecting votes from a newborn country that already spanned as much or more territory than England. After all sorts of weird bullcrap, John Q. Adams emerged as the person who most likely had won the Presidency.
Four years later, Andy Jackson was back on the scene and mad as hell. The political landscape had shifted in subtle and significant ways and now Adams could only rely on the traditional New England states for support, while Jackson had built a substantial power base in the Southern/Tidewater states and made significant inroads into the newly annexed American territories.
J-Quincy went negative almost immediately, attacking Jackson’s marriage (he wedded Rachel Robards in the mistaken belief that she had finalized her divorce from her husband) and more substantive issues (the so-called “Coffin Handbills” detailed AJ’s execution of deserters and his genocidal campaign against Native Americans).
The Jackson campaign retaliated with claims that JQA had won important diplomatic concessions from Imperial Russia by essentially selling an American girl into sexual slavery, and the 1828 Presidential campaign is generally regarded as the dirtiest and meanest of all American elections. After all was said and done, Jackson won the Presidency, ushering in a number of significant changes in the definition of American presidential power and also murdering quite a lot of Native Americans.
1960: JFK, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF CHICAGOLAND
It’s difficult for us futuristic citizens of the 21st century to look back at the 1960 elections between John F. Kennedy (the handsome and noble super-president who took us to the moon and eliminated racism and invented all the good things about America) and Richard M. Nixon (the ugly and evil supervillain who did all the bad things in Vietnam and destroyed American democracy forever) and realize that the Kennedy/Nixon presidential race was decided on a razor-thin margin that boiled down to a number of recounts and vote fraud investigations which remain controversial and inconclusive even today.
Seriously, guys, JFK was a brilliant and wonderful and super-hot martyr for everything good about America, while Nixon was jowly and ugly and old and evil—how could anyone vote for Tricky Dick instead of Sexy Jack?
As it turned out, back in 1960 there were still a lot of voters who either hadn’t been able to watch JFK casually and handsomely demolish RMN on the very first televised debates or who had bizarrely decided that Nixon had somehow won the debates on the strength of his arguments despite being an ugly old man that nobody liked.
The ’60 elections boiled down to a battle over a few key “swing” states—JFK’s running mate Lyndon Johnson had sewn up the traditionally Republican state of Texas—that ultimately depended on Illinois. Most Illinois counties, both rural and urban, had reported their voting results relatively early on election day, but Cook County (home of the Chicago megalopolis, domain of the powerful Democratic Daley family and popularly assumed to be under the control of the Giancana crime syndicate) remained oddly quiet until the late hours of the campaign, when it suddenly exploded with enough Democrat votes to carry the entire state.
Subsequent challenges by the GOP found that Illinois would have ended up Democrat in spite of the suspiciously high Chicago turnout, but the Giancana connection and several other irregularities have made JFK’s ’60 victory somewhat dubious. At any rate, Jack Kennedy was able to force a number of important civil rights laws through Congress which were later expanded and reinforced by popular scapegoat LBJ, a huge and ugly man who nevertheless managed to enact historically significant legislation when he wasn’t busy setting fire to everyone and everything in Vietnam.
Next: Hilarious Dancing Faces
1972: WATERGATE—NOT JUST A SALAD ANYMORE
While everyone knows that Watergate was a huge scandal that finally accomplished the once-thought-impossible task of getting Richard Nixon to retire from politics forever, people can have trouble remembering exactly what happened or even why it’s called “Watergate” instead of something like “Dick Nixon Is An Asshole.”
The “real” Watergate was and is a gigantic hotel/office/apartment complex in downtown D.C. that in 1972 housed the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, which at the time was busy managing the ultimately doomed McGovern campaign, still smarting from the Tom Eagleton fiasco.
For Nixon, however, the McGovern campaign was still not nearly doomed enough for his liking, so he did the sort of thing any rational man in his position would do: order six men from his Committee for the Re-Election of the President (known to almost everyone except him by the acronym CREEP) and have them break into DNCHQ, rifle around for valuable information, and leave. A team led by G. Gordon Liddy was assembled and the CREEPs went to work.
Unfortunately for Nixon, Liddy and his men were not the sort of high-tech ninja cat burglars you would normally commission to break into one of the most expensive and thus high-security office buildings in the District. In fact, they were kind of crappy at it, twice failing to get into the offices and the third time getting caught red-handed by the police. Nixon’s press secretary was quick to declare the break-in a “third-rate burglary attempt” which obviously had no connection to the President, even though one burglar was a Republican security staffer whose bank account contained several checks that were clearly from the CREEP slush fund.
While this was revealed before the election, the media never really focused on Watergate until March 1973, when the cooperation of White House Counsel John Dean suddenly blew the case wide open. Nixon began severing every possible connection to anyone even vaguely involved in the case, as well as attempting to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had very publicly subpoenaed the tapes that Nixon used to record virtually all his interactions, including those with the conspirators.
Selectively edited transcripts of the tapes were eventually released, and while no incriminating evidence was found (although there were a number of suspicious gaps that had been “accidentally” erased) the transcripts did show what Nixon was like in private: mean, petty, crude, hateful and swearing more often during a typical conversation than most people drew breath. There was mounting pressure on Nixon from the GOP to resign, but Tricky Dick clung stubbornly to the presidency until it became likely that he would be indicted if he hung around much longer. Expletive deleted!