The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on September 11, 2018, during a conference on “American Political Scandals” sponsored by the College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives.
The great difficulty of interpreting political scandals was summarized by a newspaper editor in the western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Deciding not to publish the truth of an explosive political story, the editor justifies it by saying, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” We have certainly had many legends regarding political scandals foisted on us, especially since Watergate.
Nearly every political administration has potential scandal lying just below the surface. There are always those in government who seek to profit privately from public service, and there are always those who will abuse their power. All governments provide the occasion for scoundrels of both kinds. But the scandals they precipitate rarely erupt into full-blown crises of the political order. What differentiates the scandals that do?