Presidential Misconduct

From George Washington to Today

The historic 1974 report for the House Committee on the Judiciary, updated for today by leading presidential historians

“A whole book devoted exclusively to the misconduct of American presidents and their responses to charges of misconduct is without precedent.” —from the introduction to the 1974 edition by C. Vann Woodward, Pulitzer Prize–winning Yale historian

In May 1974, as President Richard Nixon faced impeachment following the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee commissioned a historical account of the misdeeds of past presidents. The account, compiled by leading presidential historians of the day, reached back to George Washington’s administration and was designed to provide a benchmark against which Nixon’s misdeeds could be measured.

What the report found was that, with the exception of William Henry Harrison (who served less than a month), every American president has been accused of misconduct: James Buchanan was charged with rigging the election of 1856; Ulysses S. Grant was reprimanded for not firing his corrupt staffer, Orville Babcock, in the “Whiskey Ring” bribery scandal; and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration faced repeated charges of malfeasance in the Works Progress Administration.

Now, as another president and his subordinates face an array of charges on a wide range of legal and constitutional offenses, a group of presidential historians has come together under the leadership of James M. Banner, Jr.—one of the historians who contributed to the original report—to bring the 1974 account up to date through Barack Obama’s presidency. Based on current scholarship, this new material covers such well-known episodes as Nixon’s Watergate crisis, Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, Clinton’s impeachment, and George W. Bush’s connection to the exposure of intelligence secrets. But oft-forgotten events also take the stage: Carter’s troubles with advisor Bert Lance, Reagan’s savings and loan crisis, George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and Obama’s Solyndra loan controversy.

The only comprehensive study of American presidents’ misconduct and the ways in which chief executives and members of their official families have responded to the charges brought against them, this new edition is designed to serve the same purpose as the original 1974 report: to provide the historical context and metric against which the actions of the current administration may be assessed.

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Praise

“A highly relevant, well-documented study . . . [that] offers a comparative gauge on executive misdeeds.”
Kirkus Reviews
“A very useful compendium, which allows important conclusions to be drawn about the present occupant of the White House.”
—Elizabeth Holtzman, former congresswoman and member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate era
“A highly informed and reliable account of attempts to corrupt our laws and constitutional principles that provides essential context for today’s events. Facts do matter—and they are brilliantly presented here.”
—Richard Ben-Veniste, author of The Emperor’s New Clothes: Exposing the Truth from Watergate to 9/11
“A careful and nuanced look at presidential misconduct that helps readers understand the different kinds of misdeeds, and the precedents set, in presidential history.”
—Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs, Princeton University
“This careful consideration of evidence is just what Americans desperately need to move beyond the distorting hoopla of cable news and social media.”
—Lizabeth Cohen, author of the forthcoming Saving America’s Cities
“Presidents have misbehaved since they wore powdered wigs. The battles to hold them accountable—in which investigators, Congress, and the courts struggled with a sometimes lawless chief executive—are among the most riveting chapters of American history. This is book is a treasure, an eye-opening look at presidential recidivism. It is both a compelling historic document and an urgently current warning about what we will lose if we tolerate a president who is above the law.”
—Michael Waldman, president, Brennan Center for Justice
“The Trump presidency has raised to the forefront deeply troubling questions of corruption and unchecked executive power. These questions have been with us for decades, and this book offers invaluable historical evidence and context for this debate.”
—K. Sabeel Rahman, president, Demos
“By resurrecting and substantially expanding this classic study, James Banner has performed an especially timely public service. The distinguished contributors to this invaluable volume reassure us that American democracy has time and again had the resilience to survive any number of presidential misdeeds, trivial as well as grave.”
—David M. Kennedy, professor of history emeritus, Stanford University
“Written by a powerhouse roster of America’s leading historians, this is an indispensable resource for the study of presidential power and democratic resilience that will be relevant and resonant for years to come.”
—Margaret O’Mara, Howard and Frances Keller Professor of History, University of Washington