How Low Can Bush Go? | Scandal Stalks the Democrats | Corrupt Contracts

Worse Than Nixon—George W. Bush’s approval ratings plunged into the 20s recently. Only three states—Idaho, Utah and Wyoming—now have a positive view of the president. Only four other chief executives—Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon—have fallen as far during a presidency since the advent of modern polling. A recent photo strip in National Journal showed Bush morphing into Ronald Reagan and then Nixon. Not a pretty sight. Bush is compared to Tricky Dick two and a half times more nowadays by the media than he was in his first term.

Nixon campaigned as a peace candidate in 1968. Bush campaigned against “nation building” in 2000. Nixon had Watergate. Bush has Plamegate. Nixon tapped the phones of his enemies. Bush compiled the phone records of millions of Americans. Both won re-election and were soon engulfed in scandal. When the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on Senator Russ Feingold’s proposal to censure Bush, former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, who testified during the Watergate hearings and is the author of Worse Than Watergate, resumed his role as the star witness. “It’s almost as if we’d left an old playbook in the basement; they found it, dusted it off and said, ‘This stuff looks pretty good—we ought to give it a try,'” Dean says.

But comparing the current president to Nixon may be too generous. Historians most often compare Bush to James Buchanan (see War, Civil); Andrew Johnson (“a stubborn man . . . incapable of compromise”); Warren G. Harding (“amiably incompetent . . . fabulously corrupt”); and Herbert Hoover (see Depression, Great). In a poll of historians back in early 2004, 81 percent labeled Bush “a failure.” One in 10 called him the worst president ever. And that was before Hurricane Katrina and the fourth year of combat in Iraq.

Enough Scandal to Go Around—Democrats plan to make Republican ethical improprieties, or what they call “the culture of corruption,” a key issue in November. But week after week this spring, Democrats themselves kept getting caught in the cross hairs. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) slugged a Capitol Hill cop. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, steered millions of federal dollars to state non-profits run by friends—who then helped him turn a sweet profit on his real estate holdings. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), son of Teddy, overdosed on prescription drugs and crashed his car into a Capitol Hill barricade at 3 a.m. Most recently, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) was caught on tape by the FBI accepting a $90,000 bribe intended for the Nigerian vice president, which Jefferson hid in his freezer, in “various food containers and wrapped in aluminum foil,” according to court papers.

McKinney apologized. Mollohan resigned from the Ethics Committee. Kennedy checked himself into rehab. But the Jefferson saga is still unfolding. These separate incidents, unlike the Abramoff scandal dogging Republicans, lack a connecting narrative thread. Taken together, however, they give Republican campaign strategists plenty of fodder. Jefferson, in particular, is quickly becoming the Democrats’ own “Duke” Cunningham—the jailed California congressman who drew up a bribe menu of requests. Cunningham maintained innocence until the day of his guilty plea, when the former fighter pilot broke down in tears. Jefferson, too, has remained defiant, denouncing an FBI raid on his office and refusing to resign from his seat on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. He plans to run for re-election to his seat (he represents, of all places, New Orleans).

The Duke and the Chairman—Speaking of the Duke, federal prosecutors are widening their probe of the convicted congressman to include nine current or former staffers on the House Intelligence, Appropriations and Armed Services committees, Roll Call recently reported. A top target is Appropriations chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA), one of the most powerful men in Congress. Investigators are looking into the millions of dollars in contracts Lewis steered to lobbyist Bill Lowery. Lowery’s clients included Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor who gave Cunningham $2.4 million in bribes and other favors, reportedly including prostitutes’ services, limos and a hospitality suite at the Watergate hotel. Wilkes and Lowery both donated generously to Lewis, whose top aide jumped between jobs in Wilkes’s and Lowery’s offices. A former member of the Appropriations Committee himself, Lowery left Congress in 1992 after writing 300 bad checks—part of the “Rubbergate” banking scandal. None other than Duke Cunningham ran for his seat, with the slogan: “A congressman we can be proud of.”