The 6 Worst Attempts at Damage Control in Political Scandals
So you're a politician, and sooner or later you inevitably get caught engaging in some errant behavior. Whoops! Now you have a political scandal. What now? Most embattled politicians will either fess up and resign or deny and fight the charges. Some politicians, however, choose a different course.
Hot alleged 19th century adultery.
The "petticoat affair" of 1830-31 was the 19th century equivalent of tweeting a picture of your dick, by which we mean it was as ridiculously hilarious as it was politically disastrous.
Here's what went down: Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale was a socialite in Washington, D.C. At 17, she married 39-year-old naval officer John B. Timberlake. Unfortunately, only a few years into their marriage, Timberlake went away on a ship, never to return, taking "sexy" with him.
Until decades later, when it was famously retrieved by a distant relative.
Enter Senator John Eaton. He was a friend of both Timberlake and Peggy, and after John was out of the picture, Eaton fell in love with the lady and they were quickly married. The union even had the sanctioning of President Andrew Jackson, Cracked's favorite non-Rooseveltian presidential badass. Sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, some people thought they should have waited a little longer (where "some people" in this case means "absolutely everyone"). The resulting social-scene uproar threw Washington, D.C. into chaos: Everybody who was anybody had an opinion on the marriage. At one point, the cabinet secretaries' wives got together and plotted to ostracize Peggy, in true Mean Girls fashion, and stirred up numerous rumors relative to Peggy's chastity and/or extreme lack of it.
"Judging by those rosy cheeks, she's either an embalmed corpse or a total slut."
Since John Eaton was just Jackson's friend and not an actual member of the administration, Jackson really didn't need to do much at all. Why touch this tawdry mess unless you're looking for trouble? Jackson getting involved would be like President Obama getting involved in Anthony Weiner's "Weinergate" scandal of 2011.
"You know what I found inappropriate? He didn't text me anything."
How He Handled the Scandal:
Almost completely out of spite, Jackson inserted himself directly into the middle of the controversy by very publicly siding with Eaton and nominating him to be the secretary of war. Foolproof, right?
Having lived through seeing his own wife slandered in a similarly public manner, the paranoid and defensive Jackson vigorously defended the Eatons against the accusations of the rest of his Cabinet. Eventually, Jackson became convinced that the whole thing had been the work of his political detractors to try to destroy his presidency (he was crazy, you see). The more the press raged against the Eatons, the more paranoid Jackson got. Not wanting to look weak by asking Eaton to resign from the Cabinet, but also not wanting to get eaten alive in the press anymore, Jackson finally asked for the resignation of the entire Cabinet, figuring that he could just start over again fresh after the next election.
"Maybe I'll fire the whole fucking country. I'll start over with a NEW America. Test me on this."
After the mass resignation, Samuel Ingham, the former secretary of the treasury, was pretty pissed at Eaton and sent him snarky letters. Eaton challenged Ingham to a duel, and when Ingham refused, Jackson offered Eaton the sensible and not at all insane advice, "If he won't fight, you must kill him."
Thus, on the advice of the president of the United States, Eaton got a bunch of his buddies together to hunt down the former treasury secretary, who managed to escape town with his own band of merry men. There was a presidentially sanctioned manhunt because of a scandal that was barely a scandal to begin with. Man, people were bored before television.
Fraud, espionage, corrupt business practices.
John Stonehouse was a Labour minister of the British Parliament in the 1970s that MI5 (the British CIA) suspected of being a spy while falsifying financial records. With an investigation and criminal case in his future, Stonehouse was starting to get nervous.
And there's a limit to the smoke you can blow up your boss' ass when your boss is Harold Wilson.
How He Handled the Scandal:
Stonehouse was so worried about getting caught that he faked his own death in 1974. (As a general rule of thumb, if your grand scheme was used as the plot of a Simpsons episode, maybe think up a new plan.) To be fair, he did think about killing himself, but that's hard, so he decided to fake it, a "suicide equivalent" in everything except for actually committing suicide.
He flew to Miami, went straight to the beach and announced that he was going for a swim, and he never returned. Conveniently, he left behind a pile of clothes with proper identifying information in the pockets, so it was easy for the police department to declare him missing and presumed dead.
In actuality, he'd fled to Australia, which, if you're looking for a place to hide out, certainly gives off a "This is a quiet bar where no one will ask you a lot of questions" vibe, as far as continents go. Leaving his old life of fraud and espionage behind -- and also his wife, because, what the hell -- he settled in with his mistress Down Under. To compound this dick move, he used the pseudonym of a constituent's dead husband, which didn't really take much getting used to because he'd been using this identity for months. For fun. He found pretending to be a dead person was more relaxing than being himself and easier than just not being an asshole anymore.
"You're only happy when you can decide what's real. My unicorn agrees with me."
Of course, they eventually found him in Australia, because everything about this screamed "most obvious fake suicide of all time." The Melbourne police shipped him off to the U.K., where he likely had several awkward conversations upon arrival. His explanation for his behavior was "a brainstorm," which of course makes no sense, but this is a guy who faked his own death we're talking about. Perhaps if he'd actually "brainstormed" this plan with other people he would have come up with a better one.
Still, though now a criminal suspect, he could not resign because it is technically illegal to do so in Britain -- your responsibility to your constituents is sacrosanct. However, after being convicted of fraud, forgery and forcing a false police investigation (whoops!), he decided he should probably just resign and go to jail anyway.
"So I should just get back on the plane to Australia, right? Because we definitely still do that."
Political corruption, shady business practices, sex parties.
Silvio Berlusconi, the recently resigned prime minister of Italy, was well-known for having a penchant for political corruption, shady business practices and "bunga bunga" parties (the explanation is long and boring, but the short version is "bunga bunga" means "sex party"). Also, when people saw him they thought he was always traveling via twin hippity hops; that's how big his balls were.
So this is what it's like being a political satirist. Huh.
When Berlusconi's underage Moroccan belly-dancing mistress had been thrown in jail, he called the jail up and explained that there had been a terrible misunderstanding and that they had arrested the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Yes, that Hosni Mubarak.
Hot damn, it's a human rights issue, she doesn't live in the U-- ooh, we've lost our satirist job, haven't we?
The Italian police apparently had no way of verifying this, so, perhaps hoping they'd get invited to a bunga bunga party, they trusted Berlusconi and released her.
Unfortunately, Berlusconi didn't get the dancer freed before she had a chance to admit to the authorities that Berlusconi had a taste for prostitutes and orgies. The prosecutors who had been out to get Berlusconi throughout his entire career made this testimony part of their case, claiming that he had constructed a "vast pimping network," which, yes, also sounds like it could be the tagline to a dating website created by Ludacris.
It makes you wonder why Berlusconi managed Italy's economy so poorly. Eventually, other allegations continued to pile up. If Berlusconi wanted to save his illustrious career, he'd have to come up with an entirely new line of counterattack to dispel this silly distraction.
How He Handled the Scandal:
Berlusconi laughed off the scandal (good idea) by attacking all gay people (terrible idea).
"Hey, at least I'm honest. I'm clearly the better man here."
In a surprising move, Berlusconi explained that it was really "better to have passion for beautiful women than to be gay." Since really, why not? This is likely before he went back into his mansion to dress as Moammar Gadhafi before doing a line of coke with an Algerian snake charmer.
In Europe, which is normally really laid back about non-PC speech, this didn't go over well. Berlusconi took the response in stride, with maturity and restraint.
The Italian language has dozens of words for "corruption" but none for "restraint."
Despite his airtight defense, Berlusconi was forced to resign, but not before the entire Italian economy collapsed, helping push the European Union closer to the brink of catastrophe. Apparently being asleep at the wheel/constantly involved in orgies with prostitutes tends to do a number on your country.
Illegal political funding.
In 2003, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was under investigation by the parliament for a scandal involving political funding. He'd vetoed parliamentary attempts to name a special investigative counsel, claiming they just needed more time to figure things out.
But this isn't about him; this is about a hunger strike competition. In South Korea, hunger strikes used to be like the filibuster in the United States, except you didn't have to pee your pants quite as much. You actually ended up looking like Gandhi. During the years when South Korea was a military dictatorship, hunger strikes were actually an effective way to win public favor.
Which is why all their politicians were supermodels.
Unfortunately, hunger-striking South Korean politicians in modern times end up looking more like douches. This fact was lost on the head of South Korea's Grand National Party, Choe Byung-yol, who stopped eating as soon as the presidential veto came across the wires.
Enter Kim Young-dae, an up-and-coming MP and an ally of President Roh. He gets the news that Choe is going on a hunger strike. It should be noted that, when Kim gets the news, the story has absolutely nothing to do with him. He doesn't need to answer any questions or prove anything or get involved in any way. There's nothing to spin, because there's no scandal on his hands.
"But I want people to pat me on the back, too!"
How He Handled the Scandal:
Kim decided it was time to fight not eating with not eating. He told the press that he, too, was going to do a hunger strike, and that his would last one day longer than Choe's (thereby setting himself up for the worst victory lap of all time).
It's like when you're too polite to eat the last slice of cake, only you're slowly dying in a puddle of drool.
It's unclear who won the battle, but it is clear that neither ended up looking very Gandhi-esque -- especially Kim, who may have attempted to channel Gandhi by eating salt each day of his strike. We think it's likely Choe thought that was bullshit and backed out.
Because, seriously, that's bullshit.
Franz Josef Strauss
Ineptitude, bad home defense.
In 1962, West Germany was a bit of a hair-trigger place. Keeping watch against those dastardly communists was sort of important, because Ronald Reagan hadn't won the Cold War yet. It was especially tough to be Franz Josef Strauss, the defense minister, because you never knew if today was the day your country was going to turn into a nuclear hellscape because you screwed up.
"How do I handle the pressure? A mix of meditation and hourly Thorazine enemas."
So when the magazine Der Spiegel published an article examining just how poor West German defenses were and explained in kind terms that Strauss sucked at his job, he was understandably upset. Knowing that a free press is one of the cornerstones of democracy, though, he would have to consider his response carefully. The smart move would have involved making a well-reasoned argument confirming that West German defenses were as strong as steel and would never be overcome.
How He Handled the Scandal:
Is there an opposite of "making a well-reasoned argument"? Is it "send the military over to shut down the magazine?" Because that is absolutely what Strauss did.
"Freedom of the press, meet diving through the windows!"
Der Spiegel had made Strauss out to be kind of a buffoon. In a private exchange with the Americans, who wanted to beef up West Germany's army with conventional weapons, they claimed he had basically insisted, "Naw, you should probably just give us nukes instead." Strauss needed some image rehabilitation, so he decided what would put him in the best light was arresting the whole magazine for treason.
With the blessing of a constitutional lawyer who also happened to be in the West German army, Strauss sent the military over to the offices of Der Spiegel, raided them and threw the editors, who were probably worried their magazine had been caught in a time warp from Red Alert, in jail. Strauss even personally secured the arrest of the piece's author, who was relaxing on a beach at the time.
"See, I'm not ineffectual, I'm an unhinged reactionary!"
Reaction was negative. Most notably, the interior minister described this course of action as "somewhat outside of legality," a very polite admonition that is rarely thrown around (shoplifters are never accused of being "somewhat outside of legality"). Public and political opinion turned against Strauss, and he was eventually dismissed, and the editors and author were eventually released. After 103 days.
"Thank goodness it wasn't 104, otherwise I'd think we lived in a police state or something."
The reaction to Strauss's power grab did much to further Germany's transition from an authoritarian Wagnerian dictatorship to the fun-loving Europop democracy it is today. Strauss, for what it's worth, ended up becoming president of Bavaria.
If there's a lesson here, it's lost on us.
Attempted defrauding of the federal government.
Meet William Langer, the Governor of North Dakota in 1934. Unlike the booming economic powerhouse that it is today (actually not a joke), North Dakota had a couple of problems back then, most of which involved everything being covered with dust. North Dakota was also getting the shit end of the Great Depression, the New Deal and the 1930s in general, so people were already a little pissy out there.
"Aw shucks, there goes the neighborhood."
At the time, it was totally commonplace to require state workers to "donate" part of their paycheck to the Governor's friends' newspaper. Whatever -- you kind of figured some of that was going on already. And Uncle Sam didn't really care -- until Langer tried to do the same thing to some highway department employees, who were technically part of the federal government. He was tried, found guilty and told to get the hell out of office.
Sadly for the state Supreme Court, they hadn't actually filed the court order -- they just issued the verdict. This meant Langer still had a day to do basically whatever the hell he wanted. He now faced a tough decision, with the welfare of the state and his own career on the line. The obvious choice is "Resign with dignity and appeal the sentence."
Hint: Cracked articles are never about dignity.
How He Handled the Scandal:
Look, this isn't an article about making obvious choices, and you know that. So you already probably know that, instead of resigning quietly, Langer seceded the state from the union.
Langer locked himself inside the governor's mansion, met with his biggest supporters and tried to figure out the best way to fight the charges. The one idea that apparently floated to the top was "secede from the union." A risky move, it hadn't been tried in 70 years, and a previous attempt had resulted in the Civil War. For reasons unknown, Langer and his men thought it might work this time.
Those who cannot remember history are doomed to wear silly costumes.
Unfortunately, this was technically illegal. And by now, groups of angry North Dakotans were descending on the state capitol of Bismarck with nothing but brouhaha on their minds -- that's what dropping the S-bomb on people will do. But Langer had it covered: He declared martial law throughout the entire state and called out the National Guard, which was actually not uncommon in North Dakota, since he'd already done this several times before.
Langer had no step two to this plan beyond waiting around for the Supreme Court to say, "You know what, we were wrong, this guy probably should actually be the governor." The Court did eventually meet with him, but instead of making him governor for life, they explained how idiotic his plan was, at which point Langer gave up and ceded power to the new governor, who promptly decided this secession business was all baloney.
"I mean, what flag would we use? This one is blatantly ridiculous."
Now, you'd think this would be the end for Langer. But "Fighting Bill" appealed the sentence and won, getting all the charges reversed and no new ones tacked on. Then he ran for his old office, ostensibly on a platform of not seceding this time. He won the election handily, served out another term and figured, "What the hell, I'll become a U.S. senator."
Which he did, for the next 19 years.
For more on entertaining politics, check out When Politicians Attack: The 17 Most Violent Political Brawls and 8 Hilariously Failed Attempts to Use CGI in Political Ads.
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn what Bill Clinton's brand of cigar is.
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