The events that unfolded after five men were arrested for breaking into the Watergate Hotel in 1972 revealed a lot of important things: primarily, that the balance of powers in our government (as laid out by the Constitution) was alive and well, and that solid investigative journalism could serve as a check on those in power. It also provided something else: inspiration for countless headline writers throughout the world.
On Aug. 9, 1972, Richard M. Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign, and the term for the scandal that prompted his resignation—”Watergate”—continues to be referenced today. Typically, the suffix “-gate” is simply added to a noun to imply that scandal and intrigue are afoot. When used responsibly, the “-gate” construction suggests unethical behavior by a prominent figure and a subsequent cover-up. When used less responsibly, “-gate” is tacked on to anything remotely controversial and plays into what one sociologist calls “scandal syndrome.” Here are 10 of the not-so-good, bad, and ridiculous of the Scandalgates.
- According to the U.S. Constitution, what is the process for impeachment and removal?
- Here is a list of primary and secondary sources if you would like your classes to investigate presidential impeachments.
- Public scandals are not a new phenomenon. American history is riddled with events which can be viewed as morally wrong or permissive depending on where one is positioned socially, economically, and/or politically. Can your students name 10 public scandals from history and discuss who benefits and is hurt for each?
10. Koreagate: In 1976 it was revealed that leaders in South Korea had been attempting to influence Democratic members of Congress through bribes and favors. This was the first scandal to be “gate-ified”.
9. Hackgate: Investigations have come to a head over the past year with accusations that employees at the British tabloid News of the World had been illegally hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians, royals, and even murder victims.
8. Biscuitgate: In other, much more frivolous news across the pond, we have the 2009 case of the media hounding then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown about his favorite biscuit. Almost a year later, Brown succumbed to the pestering press and, as so Britishly phrased here, “confirmed his partiality towards chocolate digestives.”
7. Troopergate: There have been not one, not two, but three, publicized usages of the term “Troopergate.” The most recent was in 2008, when Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska, was investigated for allegedly violating a state ethics law after dismissing the state’s public safety commissioner. A state commission later found she was not guilty of violating the law.
6. Climategate: In 2009 a server at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was hacked, and emails and other files were released. Climate change skeptics interpreted some aspects of the emails as evidence that climate change was manufactured or overblown by scientists. Because the release of the files was just around the time of the Copenhagen Summit on climate change, it was seen by others as a smear campaign.
5. Rathergate (also referred to as Rathergate and Memogate): In a 2004 60 Minutes episode, anchor Dan Rather presented documents that cast doubt on then-President Bush’s past service in the Air National Guard. Rather stated that the documents presented had been authenticated by CBS. Within hours, however, the documents were called into question online, where many people noted, among other discrepancies, that the superscripted “th” on a memo was an anachronism for 1973, when it was supposedly typed. Rather and several other CBS employees later resigned.
4. Cablegate: In November 2010, WikiLeaks released scores of classified U.S. diplomatic cables. The leaked documents are cited by some as a catalyst for the revolts in Tunisia.
3. Weinergate: When New York Rep. Anthony Weiner accidentally posted suggestive pictures via Twitter, his political career took an unfortunate turn. Meanwhile, punsters everywhere rejoiced.
2. Kanyegate: At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech. His outburst drew rebukes from the likes of Katy Perry, 50 Cent, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and even Jimmy Carter. The ensuing melodrama is painstakingly chronicled on this Wikipedia page—and immortalized on t-shirts like this one. But don’t worry, Nixon: thanks to the glorious Internet, you have t-shirts, too.
1. Doublebillingsgate: With this Scandalgate, the importance lies less with the scandal itself and more with the person who coined the term: William Safire, longtime New York Times columnist—and former Nixon speechwriter. Throughout his time at the Times, Safire championed the use of “-gate”; in one of his books, he enthused, “The formulation with the -gate suffix is too useful to fade quickly.” He once noted that his fondest “-gate” coinage was Doublebillingsgate, in which some contractors were found double-billing the government. Safire, who for years wrote the “On Language” column for the Times, well knew the power of one simple suffix. And, some say, he used it to his advantage; one author suggested that he was “seeking to minimize the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss [Nixon] with this silliness.”
Scandalgate: useful, or silly? You decide.
Holly Munson is a Public Programs Experience Guide at the National Constitution Center.