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Thursday, April 14, 2022

April 14, 2022: Presidential Scandals: Teapot Dome

[On April 14, 1922, the Wall Street Journal published a story breaking the news of a crooked deal that became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that history and four other presidential scandals, leaving aside the Grant administration as we’ll get to them in a couple weeks and the Trump administration because ugh. Share your thoughts on these & other histories, including Grant or Trump if you’d like of course, for a scandalous crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On three figures at the heart of (at the time) the biggest presidential scandal in American history.

1)      Albert Bacon Fall: President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior was the public face of Teapot Dome, eventually becoming the first Cabinet member in U.S. history to serve a prison sentence (as much for his multiple years of tax evasion as for his role in the scandal’s corruption, it seems). But Teapot Dome is just one part of Fall’s multi-layered connection to the Western U.S. in the early 20th century—the former Senator from New Mexico was also a key player in Woodrow Wilson’s fraught and possibly illegal 1916 military invasion of Mexico (also known as the Punitive Expedition) to end Pancho Villa’s guerrilla raids. Both Teapot Dome and that invasion can after all also be connected to the foundational history of U.S. land theft throughout the West, not only from indigenous peoples but also from Mexican American communities.

2)      Thomas J. Walsh: The investigator who brought down Fall was Montana Democratic Senator Thomas Walsh, a former prosecutor whose brought those skills to his two-year investigation into Fall and Teapot Dome. Walsh wasn’t the first Senator to engage with the unfolding scandal—after the April 1922 story of the land deal first broke, it was Wyoming Democratic Senator John Kendrick who introduced an initial resolution to investigate; and then Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert La Follette who initially led that investigation in his role as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Lands. But it’s fair to say, given all the other business of the Senate as well as Fall’s careful attempts to cover his tracks, that it took the dogged persistence of Walsh to finally uncover and expose the depths of Teapot Dome.

3)      Warren G. Harding: Like the Reagan administration Iran-Contra scandal I wrote about two days ago, President Harding was never formally tied to Fall and Teapot Dome. But he was most certainly associated with the scandal, not only in the media and public opinion but through his own statements. To cite two quoted in that hyperlinked official White House history (drawn from Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey’s book The Presidents of the United States of America): he complained to allies that “My friends, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floors nights!”; and on a 1923 Western trip with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, Harding asked Hoover, “If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?” While on that trip Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco—but the Teapot Dome scandal to which he referred (in all likelihood) would gradually emerge nevertheless.

Last scandal tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Takes on this scandal or other ideas you’d share for the weekend post?

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