It’s been almost 30 years since American journalists coined the phrase “sleaze factor” to describe President Richard Nixon’s administration. It was a richly deserved riposte. Since then the phrase has fallen into disuse. Lately, though, a series of scandals in President Barack Obama’s administration suggests it may be time to dust off that phrase.
The latest whiff of Obama administration sleaze comes from the Justice Department, which has been collecting telephone records of Associated Press reporters and editors. The White House hasn’t deigned to explain what looks to the rest of the world like contempt for the Fourth Amendment.
Before the Justice Department snooped on the world’s largest and oldest news service, the Internal Revenue Service -- with the full knowledge and tacit approval of IRS’ top leaders -- systematically pursued an ideologically focused audit campaign against Tea Party groups. David Plouffe, one of Obama’s closest advisers, felt it necessary to keep our focus on what really mattered about the whole thing with this tweet: “Impt to note GOP groups flourished last 2 elections, overwhelming Ds. And they will use this to raise more $.” What smells about this, besides a glimpse into Plouffe’s nonexistent moral bearings -- is the contempt with which the Obama administration treats the First Amendment.
Another exhibit from the Museum of Post-Nixonion Sleaze involves the State Department’s recent, and unsuccessful, effort to suppress evidence from its own employees in Libya last fall -- evidence that suggests the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi knew it was facing a well-organized terrorist attack, not a spontaneous popular eruption over an anti-Muslim film. Then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, or someone working for her, knowingly contrived deceptive talking points for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice that -- against now well-documented evidence to the contrary -- the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens was basically the fault of the United States (i.e., the anti-Muslim film). Pressed by Congress about how the administration could have denied desperate pleas from Benghazi and Tripoli for help, Clinton -- in vintage David Plouffe fashion --- snapped: “What difference does it make?” Apparently not much to folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
And then there was the botched “gun-walking” project known as Operation Fast and Furious. Attorney General Eric Holder decided to let licensed firearms dealers sell about 2,000 weapons to illegal straw buyers so he could track the weapons to Mexican drug cartel leaders and then have them arrested. No such leaders were ever arrested, though a few low-level thugs were nabbed, and the Justice Department could account for only 710 of the illegally sold weapons. Obama, in a strikingly Nixonian move, invoked executive privilege to keep the details secret and Holder became the first sitting cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress.
So far, the only price Obama has had to pay is right-wing noise. Reporters are mostly giving him a pass. But if my colleagues shake off their journalistic slumbers, the most apt and apropos descriptor might just be “sleaze factor.”