As surprising as this may sound, presidents behaving badly is not new. President Trump is just the latest. Politicians have been skirting the law since the creation of politicians. This in no way condones bad behavior, yet if every conversation of every president was investigated, I believe we would be shocked at what we learned.
Trump’s Ukraine conversation in some ways is not unlike when President Obama was overheard telling the Russian President that he could be more flexible with missile defense after his reelection. Obama’s conversation was not illegal, but may walk a moral line. As for Trump, Congress will have to determine if the president’s conversation is an impeachable offense, but what may end up hurting Trump even more is a possible coverup of a complaint.
We have seen before where the cove up is worse than the crime for presidents. Richard Nixon had no part in the Watergate burglary, his crime was the cover up after the fact. With this same president, we also saw his downfall come because of a whistleblower, who went by the code name Deep Throat. Nixon and Deep Throat are responsible for the most famous presidential takedown, but they are not the only one. The 1912 election saw the take-down of President Howard W. Taft by whistleblower Louis Gavis.
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt decided not to run for his own second term and instead handpicked his successor. Taft was completely qualified for the office and Roosevelt liked his progressive ideology, but even more he liked Taft’s lack of personality that would not outshine Roosevelt himself. Roosevelt might be stepping down, but he did not intend to give up control. It turned out that Taft would be his own man, to the frustration of Roosevelt, and one issue in particular forced Roosevelt to return from his African safari to block Taft’s nomination for a second term. This incident became known as the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair.
When Taft took over the White House, one of his appointment changes was replacing James Garfield, son of the late president, as Secretary of the Interior with Richard Ballinger. Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service, were upset with the appointment. They feared Ballinger would not follow through with the conservation policies they had enacted. The two men were right to fear Ballinger. Once in office, he opened up federal land for commercial use.
Louis Gavis ran the Portland field office of the U.S. Forest Service. He came to suspect Ballinger was illegally selling rich coal lands in Alaska to private companies. He brought his suspicions to Pinchot, who suggested Gavis present his findings to President Taft. When Taft questioned Ballinger, he responded with a 730-page defense of his practices. Taft only took a week to investigate the charges, including reading Ballinger’s response, and cleared Ballinger of all charges. Taft followed up his investigation by firing Gavis for insubordination.
In retaliation Gavis went to Collier’s Magazine and gave his account. The story was so sensational that Congress called a hearing to look into the matter. Though Ballinger would be cleared by the hearing, the investigation turned up other improprieties. It proved that Taft was trying to protect Ballinger by firing Gavis. The investigation showed that a letter Taft circulated, claiming he wrote it before the firing of Gavis, was actually written after the fact and was written by Ballinger’s attorney.
Finally, during the trial Gifford Pinchot testified against Ballinger. When the trial was over, he too was removed from his position by the Taft Administration. Roosevelt was so incensed that it was one of the reasons he decided to challenge Taft for the Republican ticket in 1912. When Taft was successful in retaining the Republican nomination, Roosevelt and the progressive members of his party broke away to form the Bull Moose Party. With the Republicans split, the Democrats were able to elect their candidate for only the second time in 56 years.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.