5 Bananas Forgotten Scandals From US Political History
Over the last few years, scandals have gotten so numerous and so large, the media did the unthinkable: They stopped assigning them cute nicknames ending in “–gate.” Now, “–gate” is used only by party members trying to pin scandals on their opponents, or said mockingly to dismiss a scandal as fake.
Political scandals hit us so fast, people can’t even keep track of them anymore. We stay vigilant nonetheless, and dutifully document all scandals, including these ones from years ago, scandals that thought they’d escaped everyone’s memories.
The FBI Tried Bribing Congressmen, And A Quarter Of Them Fell For It
Let’s say that, today, someone in Congress is caught accepting a bribe in an FBI sting operation. Not just accused of corruption, so they can claim persecution and draw their base even closer, but is charged, convicted, and is actually imprisoned, for years. That’d be a pretty big deal, right? Now say that happens to two people in Congress. Now say that happens to three people in Congress. Now say ...
Okay, let’s cut to the chase. In the ’70s, seven members of Congress were convicted and imprisoned following a single FBI sting. The operation was called Abscam, and many of you reading this are already familiar with it. Many others aren’t, and they’ll be surprised that something so crazy can possibly have happened without their hearing about it. If nothing else, all-star cast movie American Hustle from a decade ago, inspired by the scandal, should have brought it into public consciousness, but that movie fell short when it came to lasting pop-cultural impact.
The sting didn’t start out targeting politicians. The FBI were investigating the art world, full of forgeries and theft. They created a fictional company named Abdul Enterprises, and FBI employees posed as Arab sheikhs with money to burn (hence the sting’s name, which stood for “Arab scam”). One forger told the undercover agents that city officials could give them a casino license for some under-the-table cash, and now, the FBI had some higher-profile targets than art thieves.
They went after three men on the Philadelphia city council, who accepted bribes of $30,000 to vote the sheikhs’ way. They went after the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who pushed them toward various members of Congress who might be amenable to similar deals. Of the 31 representatives they next approached, seven went through with it, which is so many that we can’t even describe them all without dragging this out too long. But we can give you some highlights, including South Carolina rep John Jenrette replying to the offer by saying “I've got larceny in my blood.”
Raymond Lederer, from Pennsylvania, was an odd case because unlike all the others under indictment, he was still reelected in 1980. The House then voted to expel him, a move reserved for extreme circumstances, like voters electing a bear to Congress.
Michael Myers, also from Pennsylvania, was another rep expelled over Abscam (the votes were overwhelming and bipartisan, though Myers and nearly everyone convicted was a Democrat). Myers then became a political consultant, to allow him to be the one bribing officials. In addition to offering bribes, he went on to be convicted at the age of 79 of stuffing ballot boxes in five different elections.
An Insane Train Robber Joined Congress
We use the word insane quite freely. If Keanu Reeves watches TV in his spare time, we might refer to that as an insane celeb hobby. But when we tell you that Immanuel Herrick was insane, we say this literally. He was committed to a mental institution following criminal activity as a teenager. His crime: Attempting to rob a train, on behalf of a gang of outlaws that did not in fact exist.
Herrick believed he was the second coming. Again, we speak literally: His parents taught him that he was the reincarnation of God, and they refused to cut his hair because he was sacred. Attending church, he would often stand up, reproach the preacher, and tell the congregation that only he knew the truth about how to be saved. He would set neighbors’ fields on fire and then represent himself in court, ineptly. He’d walk into town barefoot, eat food out of barrels in stores, and be called the “backwoods man” by children.
In 1920, Manuel Herrick ran to represent Oklahoma in Congress. He stood no chance; Dick T. Morgan was running for reelection and was so popular that no sane man bothered running against him. Then, on the very last day in which candidates could file for that year’s election, Morgan died of pneumonia. Herrick became the Republican nominee, and though he raised and spent only $300 on the election, the district still voted for him that November over the Democrat. He was also briefly jailed during the election, but records don’t state exactly why.
He served out his term in the House, where they called him the “Okie Jesus Congressman.” While there, he introduced a bill to ban beauty contests, and to illustrate the dangers of these contests, he hosted one of his own. He contacted dozens of women, inviting them to compete to win a successful politician as a husband (i.e., him, Manual Herrick).
Multiple people sued him for fraud over this, with one woman suing him for breach of promise for refusing to marry her. Herrick, meanwhile, sued his own stenographer for refusing to marry him, and a court ruled in his favor, awarding him one cent. The court also ruled in the stenographer’s favor because he’d talked dirty about her, and they awarded her $7,500.
After he left Congress, Herrick was sentenced to six months for bootlegging. He’d merely been bootlegging to draw attention to how bad it was, he claimed, but the court didn’t believe him. He ran several more times for Congress, both from Oklahoma and California, never successfully. In his final days, he lived in a cabin near a gold mine. People eventually found his body frozen against a snowbank.
The KKK Went After An Unsympathetic Governor For Mail Fraud
In 1921, Indiana passed a bill to create a special “Klan Day” at its state fair. Klansmen would gather to recite the Lord’s Prayer and chant “America.” Multiple states did have Klan Days of their own around that time, but Indiana’s choice resulted not so much from general sentiment at the time as from the fact that the majority of the state general assembly were secretly Klansmen themselves. The governor, Warren T. McCray, then stepped in and vetoed the bill, keeping Klan Day from happening that year at least.
McCray also intervened when Secretary of State Ed Jackson (a Klansman) granted the KKK a state charter. Indiana could turn down this charter, said McCray, because the Klan kept its leadership secret. They Klan next had Jackson try to bribe McCray into appointing Klansmen to state positions. McCray turned him down, even though he was now in some trouble financially and facing bankruptcy. Incidentally, this is an actual argument often presented for why politicians should be rich: So they will resist petty bribes.
He’d turned down this one bribe, but no politician is untouchable, and the Klan figured that if they poked around at him long enough, they’d find him guilty of something. They were right about that. McCray took out a business loan from the government and used it for personal stuff. He actually paid back the original money, but he lied about his finances to qualify for the loan, lied through the post, and that meant he was guilty of mail fraud.
And so the Klan got McCray out of office and into prison. This meant the Klan would rise to new heights, said Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson. “We are going to Klux Indiana as she has never been Kluxed before!” he said, in a quote that we are not making up.
The Klan did not rise to new heights. A couple years later, Stephenson was convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder. The murder was not intentional but was a result of him biting victim Madge Oberholtzer so severely while in captivity that she caught a staph infection (she looked like she’d been “chewed by a cannibal”). He released her to get medical care, and though this was too late to save her, it did give her enough time to dictate a statement to police. That meant Madge Oberholtzer ended up providing testimony for her own murder trial.
Stephenson’s conviction hurt people’s perception of the Klan, which was otherwise known as a very clean organization, due to their disapproval of alcohol, minorities, etc. Stephenson hoped to get a pardon from his old buddy Ed Jackson, and when that didn’t happen, Stephenson blabbed about Jackson’s attempted bribery and the plot to take McCray down. So, McCray received some vindication, and one person in this story did get a pardon: In 1930, McCray got a pardon from President Hoover.
The Pro-Butter Senator Who Secretly Ate Margarine
For years, butter fans and margarine fans waged war. The pro-butter side said you should eat butter, since it’s pure and honest and good. The margarine side said that if you just need some grease to lubricate your toast, we surely could find a cheaper and easier way of making it than squeezing it out of living cows.
We’ve talked about this war before. Butter barons forced taxes on margarine and passed laws keeping people from coloring it yellow, since yellow would make margarine look too tasty. They didn’t really care about preserving butter out of a love for the natural world, of course. They cared about selling butter because they ran the dairy industry. The dairy state of Wisconsin fought extra hard against margarine, outright banning its sale until 1967.
They lifted the ban after a long campaign, whose highlight was a stunt to see if the pro-butter politicians could even tell the difference between the two products. In 1965, young state senator Martin Schreiber gathered up a bunch of politicians for a blind taste test. And ... almost all of them were able to distinguish butter from margarine easily. Leaving aside all health and economic arguments, butter does taste better than any margarine.
But one senator failed the test. It was Gordon Roseleip, a particularly vocal butter supporter, and he proclaimed the margarine sample to be the butterier of the two. The margarine ban’s days were numbered after this (though it was replaced by a ban on restaurants serving margarine that remains on the books to this day).
Roseleip’s days were numbered as well. He remained a crusader for butter to the end—"Why did God Almighty manufacture butter?” he asked. “To build good bodies for the future of this nation.” But he was eventually booted out of office, for what we’re going to say was 100% due to the butter flub, and not because his bad record on women’s issues convinced a feminist to run against him and beat him.
Gordon Roseleip died in 1989. Only then did his wife reveal why he’d failed that famous test. Throughout their many years of marriage, she’d been buying margarine from neighboring Iowa and telling him it was butter, and that’s why he thought butter tasted like that. She did it to keep his heart safe from butter’s saturated fats. This worked effectively enough; he lived well into his seventies.
A Sex Scandal Got A Senator To Shoot Himself In His D.C. Office
On June 9, 1953, D.C. police arrested someone for soliciting sex from an officer. In case you’re new to 20th-century sex stings, that’s cop speak for “a cop approached a man for sex, perhaps got a blowjob out of the encounter, and then arrested the man.” Arrests like this were routine and usually ended with the police setting the suspect loose with a small fine, just having put the fear of the law into him.
This man, however, was Buddy Hunt, son of Lester Hunt, a US senator. And Sen. Lester Hunt had enemies. Mainly, he had an enemy in Joseph McCarthy, because he’d taken it upon himself to fight McCarthyism, such as by pushing for a law that would let McCarthy’s targets sue him for libel. McCarthy’s crew had been looking for ways they could muzzle Hunt, and in Buddy, they seemed to have their answer.
The crew approached Hunt and gave him a choice. He could resign from his seat. This would be huge, and could give Republicans control of the Senate in the upcoming term. Or ... the McCarthy crew would widely publicize Buddy’s arrest. This could lead to Hunt losing the upcoming election, putting him in the same position as if he resigned. Except, his family would now also suffer disgrace. The news story would surely wreck Buddy’s mother. It also wouldn’t be terribly helpful for Buddy himself, currently the student body president at a divinity school.
Hunt went back and forth on how to respond. Then, almost exactly a year after Buddy’s arrest, he announced that he would not run for reelection in November 1954, falsely citing health concerns. It appears he was not totally satisfied with this decision. Eleven days after making it, Hunt took his own life, shooting himself in the head while sitting his office in the senate building. For years, many people thought he’d killed himself due to that poor health that he’d claimed to have.
People talk a lot today (sometimes in good faith, sometimes not) about the ethics of investigations pursuing a politician’s children. Few politicians have seen their children get as much scrutiny as Lester Hunt did. With the exception, of course, of George H.W. Bush in the first decade of this century.