Harding has been blamed for an illegal kickback scheme at the Veterans Bureau and the infamous Teapot Dome scandal that sent his secretary of interior, Albert Fall, to prison. In fact, Harding was involved in no wrongdoing whatsoever regarding these scandals. When Harding got the first whiffs of illicit activity, he was outraged and demanded answers. A trusting man, he took those involved at their word and proceeded to play his weekend golf games, and then took a trip to Alaska, on which he died. Because he had failed to take more decisive action, history has blamed him for scandals that developed after his death. Harding’s lack of action ruined his presidency.
In fact, the same can be said of every presidency that has been damaged by scandal. In varying degrees, all the scandals were ignored until it was too late. Nixon’s failure to act let Watergate get out of hand. Ronald Reagan’s lassitude allowed Iran-Contra to become a scandal. And Bill Clinton’s indolence fueled the Lewinsky affair into his impeachment. The oxygen created by presidential inaction allows White House-related scandals to smolder and smoke, until they almost inevitably erupt.
In the tradition of Harding, Obama played golf this past weekend and instructed his staff to largely ignore the emerging scandals. Yet as many presidents discover to their chagrin, inattention won’t end a scandal; it’s more likely to do the opposite. President Obama needs to read a bit of history to better understand the workings of scandals and to knock down those that are increasingly engulfing his presidency.