Medved: How Biden learned money misdeeds can hurt most of all

Aug 28, 2023, 5:45 PM | Updated: 10:28 pm


US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden walk to the White House upon arrival on the South Lawn in Washington, DC, August 26, 2023, following a week long vacation in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. (Photo by Saul Loeb via Getty Images)

(Photo by Saul Loeb via Getty Images)

As he confronts the deepening crisis over shady business dealings involving his son, Hunter, President Joe Biden should learn crucial lessons from the wretched example of his fallen predecessor, Richard Nixon. The Biden team may feel protected by the multiple indictments afflicting their Republican rival, former President Donald Trump, but the doomed example of “Tricky Dick” demonstrates the way that financial wrongdoing and personal enrichment can upset the public even more than sex scandals or other abuses of presidential power.

In November 1973, in the early stages of the Watergate story that ultimately wrecked his presidency with a coverup that amounted to obstruction of justice, Nixon made a crucial mistake while addressing 400 editors assembled by the Associated Press in Orlando, Florida. The Washington press corps had recently raised questions about $10 million of federal funds used to upgrade security at the president’s vacation homes in Biscayne Bay, Florida, and San Clemente, California. This led to further investigations about his personal tax avoidance strategies, greatly upsetting a political leader who had always prided himself on his working-class roots and modest wealth.

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“I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service – I have earned every cent,” Nixon told journalists in prepared remarks. “And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.”

In his memoirs, Nixon acknowledged the destructive impact of his inept proclamation.

“This was not a spur-of-the-moment statement,” he wrote. “The attacks on my personal integrity were more disturbing for me and my family than all the other attacks put together. I thought it was essential to put my defense in down-to-earth, understandable language. But it was a mistake. From then on, variations of the line ‘I am not a crook’ were used as an almost constant source of criticism and ridicule.”

In fact, those words helped to explain how within the course of just a single year the president could go from a landslide victory (carrying 49 of 50 states and 61% of the popular vote) to a battered object of contempt careening helplessly toward impeachment proceedings, disgrace and ultimate resignation.

Prior presidents similarly demonstrated the unique potency of financial transgressions to shatter public confidence and political prospects: Americans have displayed a long-standing tendency to take misbehavior most seriously when they can associate dollar signs with its cost. Consider the most notoriously scandal-driven campaign in American history: In 1884, recently elected New York Gov. Grover Cleveland battled the former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State, the celebrated and charismatic James G. Blaine.

Republicans felt confident that they had destroyed Cleveland’s chances when they discovered and publicized the sad and sordid story of the bachelor candidate’s involvement with a troubled widow with whom he allegedly fathered a child out of wedlock, and even paid for the baby’s care in an orphanage. GOP enthusiasts rallied around the catchy chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” while the Democrats jauntily answered, “Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha!”

In contrast, Blaine’s family life seemed impeccable and exemplary, but his participation in suspect railroad deals and incriminating correspondence fatally damaged his campaign. For eight years he denied the authenticity of “The Mulligan Letters,” which indicated that he had received $64,000 for some nearly worthless railroad bonds in return for Congressional favors for Union Pacific. Worst of all, he had concluded one of the suspect missives with the unforgettable conclusion, “Kindly burn this letter.” Another chant that energized Democratic partisans in the heat of the campaign: “Burn, burn, burn this letter!”

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In the end, Blaine’s twisted business relationships produced a more indignant and decisive public reaction than Cleveland’s intimate indulgences. Cleveland went on to a tenuous victory in November and a glamorous and romantic White House wedding in the midst of his first term. He also became the only president before Trump to lose his fight for re-election, and then to come back with a third nomination in in a less personally focused (and more decisively successful) race in 1892.

Sixty years later, Nixon won the vice presidency as running mate to General Dwight Eisenhower and received an early, unforgettable indication of the public’s limited tolerance for self-enrichment on the part of public servants with any serious connection to the White House. Sherman Adams, the former governor of New Hampshire who became Ike’s tough-minded and all-powerful chief of staff, ended his eminent career in 1958 when a House subcommittee exposed his acceptance of an expensive vicuna overcoat and an elegant oriental rug from a textile manufacturer who had business with the federal government.

The Democrats in Congress demanded his resignation, but the president didn’t have the stomach to transmit the bad news personally. Instead, he handed the onerous job to Vice President Nixon who reluctantly delivered the message in an emotional meeting that Adams recalled to me when I interviewed him for my 1979 book The Shadow Presidents.

More recently, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received the most negative publicity since his confirmation hearings 32 years ago because of lavish vacations and costly gifts, provoking widespread indignation despite the lack of evidence of any favoritism whatever displayed to the sources of that largesse.

Looking ahead, regardless of what all the Republican-led House committees discover about the Biden family’s dubious finances, no one expects a Nixonian resignation or successful impeachment and removal from office.

But the charges against the president and his relatives for alleged influence peddling to fill the family coffers, amount to more than partisan “what-about-ism” designed to distract attention from the multiple allegations against Donald Trump. The Nixon disaster also highlights the manner in which the public understands monetary misdeeds and old-fashioned greed more readily than the importance of conscientious cooperation with the National Archives in handling presidential documents.

Ordinary Americans can more readily grasp the shameful nature of receiving millions in under-the-table payments from sleazy foreign interests in return for access to the vice president than can comprehend the complexities of trying to replace duly certified members of the electoral college with panels of impostor fake electors.

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Democrats believe Trump’s alleged crimes threatened the core functions of our democracy while the Bidens have, at worst, engaged in the sort of self-serving, unscrupulous behavior that’s been a familiar feature of money-hungry politicos since the beginning of the Republic. But the very familiarity of these charges makes them easier to understand and helps to mobilize indignant Republicans into resentment of the supposed “double standard” that hits Trump with multiple indictments but at one point provided Hunter Biden with a “sweetheart” plea bargain.

Nearly 50 years ago, the Joint Congressional Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation spent months reviewing Nixon’s personal history, and even before the conclusion of that investigation committee chairman Wilbur Mills expressed confidence that Nixon would be out of office by November because of public “dismay” over his tax history.

Ultimately, information about the president’s personal handling of money played no discernable role in the articles of impeachment drawn up by the House, which focused almost entirely on the president’s obstruction of justice and misuse of federal agencies including the IRS and the FBI.

In the same context, the allegations against Donald Trump will almost surely produce more legal damage than any of the allegations currently aimed at President Biden’s apparent involvement with the dubious business dealings of his reprobate son.

But the experience of the only president to leave office in the middle of his term still suggests the political impact of financial speculations and the unfortunate declaration that “I am not a crook” can generate even more damage in the world of public opinion than guilty verdicts and legalistic indictments.

Listen to Michael Medved weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3)

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