People love a good story, and there are no better stories than the kind that have life-altering consequences and happen in full public view.
The news is an important part of a functioning democracy, because citizens need to be informed about matters of great importance. However, unlike other civic institutions, journalism is a private, often for-profit business, and thus must meet the demands of the market. This means that any compelling story is going to get inordinate amounts of coverage, because the biggest scandals earn the biggest profits. Some of these are important events that the public should be aware of, such as government malfeasance or criminal justice. Other times, they are the private business of very public people. As we’ve expanded the media landscape, that’s created more places for these stories to be told.
As we enter a new year, let’s look back at some of the biggest scandals that had a huge effect on society. These are things that people would talk about as they made their morning coffee at work or at the bar with friends. It was real life, but it was also maddeningly entertaining. And whether the biggest scandals are matters of great import or trivial things, the effect they have on the culture is indelible. And, like the news itself, they never stop coming. Yet, it can be very informative about the current day to look back at the biggest scandals and, more importantly, our response to them. At the time, these stories were the fodder for headlines and chat shows. Today, they are simply history.
A Bit About the Biggest Scandals in Recent Years
There's no doubt about it, we all love to hear about problems that we ourselves would never have to deal with. The biggest scandals have much the same effect. Let's explore what makes these stories so juicy.
What Makes the Biggest Scandals So Compelling?
From a certain point-of-view, the biggest scandals are made of the same skeleton as our popular fiction. At their cores, they are stories about crime, betrayal, and sex. What makes them different from the dozens of crime-scene procedurals on prime-time and the soap operas on in the day, is that they are real. The characters in these stories are real-life people and the drama unfolds in real-time. Whether they were famous before or infamous once embroiled in the scandal, they become genuine pop culture figures.
In fact, our response to the biggest scandals often reflects how we seemingly forget that these are real people going through, arguably, the worst times in their lives. Sure, presidents and even movie stars need to be prepared for public interest, but regular folks get caught up in these affairs as well. All the biggest scandals need to take root in the public consciousness is a compelling drama.
What Good Does Looking Back at the Biggest Scandals Do?
Whether or not some of these stories should have been covered as much as they were is a debatable point. Yet, we can’t change the past, so they are now a part of our historical record. To paraphrase the famous saying, those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to make the same mistakes.
In today’s world, we are in the midst of a number of scandals, any one of which would have been Earth-shattering just a decade ago. They span from the numerous investigations into the 45th U.S. President and his administration to the Me Too movement raising awareness and seeking justice for victims of criminal sexual behavior.
Yet, in going through this list, you can easily find parallels between the biggest scandals in recent history and the biggest scandals today. The question is: will we learn from history or will the cycle keep going?
The 20 Biggest Scandals in Recent History
Below you will find our list of the biggest scandals in about the past thirty years or so. There have been plenty of incredible scandals in the past, but the addition of the medium of television and mass communication changed things. It’s a good demarcation point for how these scandals so infected the national consciousness.
20. Brad Pitt Leaves Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie
Celebrity couples have always captured the attention of a certain kind of fan. Like the love stories and romance movies of fiction, these real-world relationship dramas are riveting. In 1998, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston met the way real Hollywood sweethearts meet, set up on a date by their agents. For the next seven years, they were the “It Couple” in the gossip media. They married a few years later, and there were miles of column inches spent on speculating when they would have children. Brad Pitt was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and Aniston was the heart of her hit show Friends (and it’s central will-they-or-won’t-they drama). Angelina Jolie, meanwhile, was Hollywood’s “bad girl,” married to Billy Bob Thorton (a man nearly as old as her father, Jon Voight). Eventually, Jolie and Pitt were going to be brought together on a film.
During 2004’s filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, co-stars Pitt and Jolie were love interests both on and off screen. The tabloids were ablaze with rumors of the affair. A year later, Aniston and Pitt officially divorced, and Pitt and Jolie soon married. He and Jolie had a family, making them great fodder for the tabloids. The common meme of making a port-manteau of a celebrity couple’s name began with “Brangelina.”
Yet, even though both stars moved on, they’re a lingering presence in each other’s cultural miasma. In fact, since Aniston split with her second husband and Pitt is single again, the tabloids are speculating that they may reunite. Celebrity couples come and go, but something about the pairing of Aniston and Pitt stuck, making their split one of the biggest scandals in celebrity romance.
19. Casey Anthony Trial
In the early 1990s, the advent of live-feeds from cameras inside court rooms changed the way criminal justice was seen in the U.S. The first to really capture this was the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez and a later entry in this list. However, the peak of this phenomenon came during the trial of Casey Anthony for allegedly taking the life of her toddler daughter Caylee. The child went missing in 2008, and her remains were found a little more than a month later. Casey Anthony’s story had plenty of holes in it, and she was eventually arrested for the crime and denied bail. The prosecutors wanted to seek a capital punishment penalty, and the trial would play out in front of cameras as one of the biggest scandals.
Over the next three years, this trial received a deluge of coverage. Serious news programs focused on politics and the government were forced to cover the trial. Headline News, a sister station to CNN, devoted almost all of their coverage to this case. Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor turned talk show host, skyrocketed to national fame for her coverage of the “Tot Mom” case. In July of 2011, almost three years to the day since Casey reported her child missing to the police, the verdict came in. A jury convicted the defendant on four counts of lying to law enforcement officers. On the three more serious counts regarding her daughter’s fate, they jury found her not guilty. This verdict caused an outrage at the time. Since then Casey Anthony has done her best to stay out of the public eye, yet coverage of this tragedy continues to this day.
18. Nancy Kerrigan Assaulted Before Olympics
The Olympics have always been a great source of dramatic, real-life stories -- and in this case, one of the biggest scandals. Usually, they are about some kid from humble beginnings committing to a sport and winning (or losing) at the storied quadrennial event. However, in the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, a much more sinister drama played out.
Then-U.S. Ladies’ Figure Skating champion Nancy Kerrigan seemed like a shoo-in to win the gold at Lillehammer. Yet, in January of 1994, Kerrigan was attacked, struck in the knee by a then-unknown assailant. The video of her clutching her knee and wailing “why?” over and over again through tears played on every news broadcast. Forced to withdraw from competition her rival Tonya Harding took the title.
In short order, the FBI interviewed people involved with Harding, including her then-husband Jeff Gillooly. Soon, it was revealed that Gillooly, Harding’s former bodyguard Darin Eckhart, and others conspired to attack Kerrigan. With her out of the way, Harding was a favorite for the title and the Olympic team. In a little more than a month’s time, Kerrigan healed and competed in the Olympics. She won a silver medal while Harding placed eighth. Harding then pleaded guilty to conspiring in the attack, receiving three years of probation and hefty fines. This story was recently adapted for the big-screen in the hit I, Tonya starring Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan.
17. The Celebrity iCloud Hack
Apple’s claim to fame has always, partly, been that they count many famous people as their customers. No celebrity would be caught dead without at least one iPhone. Yet after they debuted their cloud storage service, arguably the largest security breach of its kind happened. At the end of summer in 2013, dozens of celebrities had their accounts hacked and hundreds of pictures flooded online via private image-sharing services. Dubbed “the fappening” or “Celebgate,” stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Amber Heard had private, explicit photos and videos of themselves published for the public to see.
The backlash was immediate and swift, but not the way it might have been in the past. The explicit pictures might have hurt people’s careers in years gone by, but in 2013 they were unquestionably seen as victims. Apple CEO Tim Cook promised to redouble their efforts on security for iCloud systems. Federal law enforcement launched an intensive investigation, though it was filed under seal. At least five men have pleaded guilty to crimes similar to this event, though none have explicitly been named as responsible for this breach. The lasting effect of this, however, was both raised awareness about digital security and a national discussion about the ethics involved with making such private photos public.
16. Hulk Hogan Brings Down Gawker
Similar to the previous scandal, this involved a public figure and an explicit video. However, while the iCloud hack was the release of images taken by the people in the pictures, this was something else. Wrestling and reality TV superstar Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, was surreptitiously filmed when having a tryst with the wife of a close friend. This video was then released to the Gawker.com website in 2012, which posted it claiming it had news value. Bollea sued to website, his legal bills funded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who the site outed as homosexual without his consent.
The ensuing legal battle was one of what makes something newsworthy or not, and whether “Hulk Hogan” and “Terry Bollea” are both public figures or not. Eventually, the lawsuit was decided in favor of Thiel and Hogan. The website was ordered to pay more than a hundred million dollars in damages, so much that it forced the site to shut down. The larger Gawker Media Company was eventually sold off to Univision and renamed the Gizmodo Media Group. This company is still struggling, with Univision cutting staff and looking to sell it elsewhere. The larger impact of this case is one of where privacy and First Amendment law meet. It’s larger impact, especially in a world where the term “fake news” is thrown around so much, remains to really be seen.
15. Chris Brown Admits Domestic Abuse of Rihanna
R&B singers Chris Brown and Rhianna were a celebrity couple in 2009, but their scandal had little to do with love and everything to do with violence. In February, Brown and Rihanna had an argument which resulted in Brown physically assaulting his girlfriend. Rhianna was so badly beaten that she required hospitalization, and the photographic evidence of her wounds were shown all over the press. Charged with felony assault, Brown originally pleaded not guilty. However, he eventually took a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to the felony but served no prison time. This outraged domestic violence advocates nationwide.
In interviews later, Brown detailed how he grew up in a abusive household, specifically that his stepfather beat his mother. He apologized, but the consequences of his violent assault followed him as one of the biggest scandals. He was denied entry into the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. He has had successive legal troubles as a result of his probation. He and Rhianna briefly reconciled, but their reunion was short-lived. Since then, Brown was accused of threatening another woman, though police found no evidence to corroborate the claim after a long standoff with the star. In 2018, he was charged with felony battery for a 2017 incident in which he allegedly punched a photographer.
14. Britney, Paris, and Lindsay All Break Down
In 2006 and 2007, the three most famous pop culture, party girls all had serious issues, legal and otherwise. Singer Britney Spears, actress Lindsay Lohan, and socialite Paris Hilton were all famous on the party circuit. However, during this year, all three had harrowing moments that had their fans worried and them in court.
Spears, going through a divorce and mourning her aunt, entered rehab, left after a day, then shaved her head. Lohan received a number of DUIs, and she entered rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction. Hilton was also caught up in a number of DUIs. They all ended up in court, and because of their unique celebrity status it seemed that people were hungry for blood and gossip to make these happenings some of the biggest scandals.
All three of these women entered rehabilitation facilities, and they suffered consequences for their actions while under the influence. Spears lost custody of her children to her ex-husband and control of her own finances. Lohan was also often in front of a judge, and she did spend a single day in jail. Upon release she started serving what would be an eight-year probation term. Hilton earned the harshest sentence, spending 23 days behind bars (a commuted 45-day sentence). This was only one of the biggest scandals because of that strange phenomenon where people seem to turn on celebrities. They make them super-famous and, when the fail, love to see them fall.
13. Hugh Grant’s Prostitution Arrest
In 1995, actor Hugh Grant was poised for superstardom. A successful leading man, he was popular and affable, with nothing but good things ahead of him. Then, in June of 1995, Grant was arrested with a sex worker near Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The timing of this was bad, because his first major studio film with him as the lead, Nine Months, was set to be released in two weeks. With this now looming over Grant, his press tour for the movie was going to be all about this. When he appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the host wasted no time. “What the hell were you thinking?” he asked. Grant didn’t make any excuses, saying he “did a bad thing,” and then moved on.
Still, as one of the biggest scandals, it harmed his career a bit. Two films, made prior to the arrest, were released. Over the next three years, Grant only appeared in a single film and as a guest star on the network sitcom the Nanny. It wasn’t until his turn in Bridget Jones’s Diary that he began to again climb the ladder of fame. The sex worker in the story, Estella Marie Thompson who went by the name “Divine Brown,” reportedly made over a million dollars as a result of the incident. She went on to work in adult films for a short time and has made scant media appearances in recent years. Still, she claims that the money and fame from the incident gave her a path out of sex work and allowed her to put her children through school.
12. George Michael’s Bathroom Arrest
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the late George Michael was not just a huge pop star but also a sex symbol. Yet, in the spring of 1998, the former Wham! front man was caught up in an embarrassing arrest that changed his life and became fodder for the biggest scandals. Michael was followed into a restroom where an undercover cop allegedly exposed himself to the singer. Michael, not yet public about his sexuality, apparently reciprocated and was arrested for “lewdness.” Following the arrest, Michael publicly came out as a gay man, though he also identified as bisexual in the past.
While homosexuals in the United States still didn’t have equal rights, the social response to this revelation was a collective shrug. In fact, Michael satirized his arrest in a video for his first single since coming out. The officer involved in the arrest sued Michael for $10 million saying the singer slandered him. The case was thrown out of court, but then reinstated some time later. In 2002, the court ruled that Rodriguez had no basis for his claims because he was a public official. After this, however, Michael was able to live freely as himself and his reputation didn’t suffer. Michael struggled with substance abuse issues, but found peace in his last years. He passed away in the early hours of Christmas Day 2016 from natural causes, even though he was only 53.
11. Tiger Woods Cheats on His Wife
When Tiger Woods hit the professional golf circuit, he was a sensation. It wasn’t just that he was a multiracial athlete in a sport that has, historically, excluded non-white players. He was a genuine artist with a golf club. He amassed fame and fortune, marrying Elin Nordgren, a model and daughter of a Swedish official. In 2009, Woods and his wife were involved in a car accident. This was suspicious because they were cagey about the cause, and it followed a National Enquirer story about Woods’s infidelity. Eventually, as more reports were made public, he admitted to “transgressions” first and then confirmed his serial infidelity, which quickly became one of the biggest scandals.
He took a step back from golf, lost millions of dollars in endorsement deals, and his monthly column in Golf Digest. The total loss to shareholders during this time was estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Eventually, his wife divorced him. When he returned to golf, later that year, his performance suffered. The once-great champion of the game seemed to have been undone by his personal scandals. In fact, despite some pretty impressive performances recently, Woods has not yet regained his status in the sport or in the media world that he had before the scandal.
10. Anita Hill Calls Out Clarence Thomas
When Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black to sit on the court, retired, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace him. The only two things the two men had in common is that they were both judges and both black. Justice Marshall started his career as a crusader for civil rights and ruled on matters consistent with the liberal philosophies of the post-civil rights era. Thomas, however, was a strict conservative who had a reputation for family values.
During his confirmation hearings in 1991, a former law clerk and current law professor, Anita Hill, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Professor Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and became the face of a movement to unearth the hidden evils of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Despite being one of the biggest scandals, Justice Thomas was confirmed, though by the narrowest margin in history at the time. So, while it might have seemed like Professor Hill’s efforts failed, they arguably did not. As a result of her testimony and the media coverage of sexual harassment, laws were put in place to prohibit such unacceptable behavior. While it seems like common sense today, the idea that a male superior couldn’t impede a female subordinate’s career simply because she wouldn’t have a physical relationship with him was not illegal before then. While these victories were important, today we see that sexual impropriety and aggressive behavior in the workplace still persists.
9. Michael Jackson’s Last Decade of Life
From a very, very young age the late Michael Jackson was a huge superstar. First as part of the Jackson Five and later during his solo career, Jackson became the “King of Pop.” In the early 1990s, Jackson was accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a minor. The incident made headlines, but it was settled out of court. He married Lisa Presley, the daughter of the late Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock N’ Roll.” They talked about starting a family. Then, in 1999, Jackson and she divorced. Following this, the last decade of the troubled singer’s life was a series of the most strange and biggest scandals.
He had children who he claimed were his natural offspring but everyone suspected were adopted. At one point, he dangled one of those children over a balcony, so fans could see him. In the early 2000s, Jackson was accused of sexual impropriety with a minor. This case went to trial, but Jackson was ultimately acquitted. Following this second accusation, however, he could no longer afford his lavish lifestyle. Surrounded by debt, Jackson also apparently had constant care from his doctor, Conrad Murray. In 2009, Murray administered a fatal dose of powerful anesthetics to help the pop star “sleep.” Murray was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter and served two years in prison.
8. Penn State Child Abuse Scandal
While the allegations against Michael Jackson remain unproved to this day, unfortunately one horrible story about sexual abuse of minors was all too true. In 2011, Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on numerous charges and involved in one of the biggest scandals of all time.
He founded a children’s charity called The Second Mile, which he used to locate and “groom” his victims. After a lengthy trial and independent investigations by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Sandusky ended up sentenced to 60 years in prison, effectively a life sentence for him. Others involved in the Penn State Football program also faced charges.
The result of this horrific scandal threatened the entire Penn State University, beyond just the football program. The NCAA hit them with sanctions and threatened to permanently disband the football program. The University has paid out close to $100 million in civil settlements to Sandusky’s victims. They had to pay millions after defaming a former employee who was fired for blowing the whistle on this abuse. The football team lost its biggest sponsor, and the late longtime coach of the team, Joe Paterno, had his legacy tarnished by reports he was aware of the abuse. He died shortly after stepping down from the organization. The university’s bond rating took a hit, and its accreditation was threatened.
7. Lorena (Gallo) and John Wayne Bobbitt
In June of 1993, a 911 operator took a call that sparked a story that people both couldn’t believe and couldn’t get enough of. A man named John Wayne Bobbitt was accused by his wife, Lorena, of sexually assaulting her, after which she took a knife from the kitchen and severed his phallus at the base. Lorena, who now uses her maiden name Gallo, left the house with the member and tossed it into a field. She eventually pulled over and called the police. Amazingly, police found where Gallo tossed it and doctors were able to make Bobbitt whole again. The ensuing double-trial told a harrowing tale about an abusive husband who, legally speaking, drove Gallo insane. Both were acquitted of the charges, Gallo not guilty by reason of “insanity.”
The inciting incident in this tale became fodder for comedians, both professional and amateur. Bobbitt, who denies all of Gallo’s accusations to this day, faced additional charges of domestic abuse from subsequent partners. He also started a failed band and then starred in adult films, capitalizing on his infamy. Gallo, on the other hand, has mostly shied away from the spotlight and notoriety. When she does speak in public, it is to advance the Lorena Gallo Foundation, raising awareness about and helping victims of domestic violence. She has been married to the same man for more than two decades and has a family. A four-part documentary series produced by Jordan Peele is forthcoming from Amazon Prime.
6. Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafucco
In 1992, another trial captivated the country but unlike the serious social issues raised by the assault of Rodney King, this was purely salacious. A then-16-year-old girl named Amy Fisher was seduced by a married man, 20 years her senior, named Joey Buttafuoco. In May, Fisher and an accomplice drove to the Buttafuocos’ home and confronted his wife Mary Jo. Fisher lied and said Joey was involved with her younger sister, and, naturally, this angered Mary Jo. Eventually, Fisher struck her with the butt of a gun and fired a round into her temple. In spite of all odds, Mary Jo survived after all-night surgery. Fisher spent some time in jail. Some years later, advocates for Fisher, including Mary Jo who forgave Fisher, successfully petitioned to have her guilty plea vacated because she had bad legal counsel.
During the aftermath of the attempted murder and the resulting trial, the story became a national sensation as one of the biggest scandals. The tabloids dubbed the teenage Fisher as “the Long Island Lolita,” a term the mainstream press picked up. A seemingly endless series of made-for-television movies about the whole affair were produced. Only three of them actually used Fisher’s name, but other derivative stories appeared with different names. Alan Ball even credited this story as an inspiration for his hit film American Beauty. Joey Buttafuoco maintains to this day that he had nothing to do with this attack. However, most others involved allege that he goaded Fisher into it and helped her by telling her when his wife was usually home alone.
5. Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal
Lance Armstrong was already a rising star in the professional cycling world when, in 1996, he was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. Remarkably, he beat the disease and reentered the sport. He then became one of the most successful racers ever in the sport, and naturally allegations of “doping,” meaning using performance-enhancing drugs followed him. He consistently denied it, but in 2006 investigations began, leading to one of sports' biggest scandals. Over the next six years numerous investigations by U.S. federal agencies investigated the doping claims. Eventually, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency ruled that Armstrong should be stripped of his titles. For his part, Armstrong never admitted to all the claims, he did say in 2013 that “some” of them were accurate.
Armstrong could have appealed the decision, but he said the forced arbitration process to do that was unfair to the accused. By not challenging the ruling, however, he was stripped of every title won after 1998, including his seven Tour de France victories. He was also banned from competition, though he’d announced his retirement before all this. Still, this is the biggest doping scandal in professional cycling and one of the largest in any other sport. Armstrong had to retire from his cancer support foundation, Live Strong in 2012. Since his departure, it’s struggled to be effective.
4. The L.A. Riots and the O.J. Simpson Trial
In 1994, former NFL running back O.J. Simpson’s star was, arguably, fading. His acting career wasn’t going well, and he seemed to only make headlines in the tabloids. Then, in the summer of that year, his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were fatally stabbed in a horrific act of violence, which would develop into one of history's biggest scandals.
When police showed up to Simpson’s house to arrest him on suspicion of the crime, he led them on a low-speed chase in a white Ford Bronco that captivated the nation. After this, his trial became a huge media spectacle with two young prosecutors facing off against a legal “dream team” that included Alan Dershowitz and famed civil rights lawyer Johnny Cochrane. Despite what seemed to be overwhelming evidence of Simpson’s guilt, the jury found him not guilty.
The verdict was seen live by most of the country, schools even showed it during their classes. The reaction to the verdict was divided primarily along racial lines. What should have been a case about domestic abuse resulting in the worst of all possibilities became an indictment of the LAPD after events two years prior.
When four police officers were filmed in 1992 mercilessly beating an intoxicated black driver named Rodney King, they faced charges. When they were not convicted, the city erupted in destructive riots. Cochrane used that unresolved anger about the corruptibility of the system to create reasonable doubt. Simpson later lost a civil case to Goldman’s family and wrote a strange book in which he, seemingly, confessed to the crime. Today, despite the reaction at the time, the website FiveThirtyEight concluded that most people today believe Simpson was guilty.
3. The Bill Clinton Infidelity Scandal
Since he first stepped on the national political stage, Bill Clinton faced accusations of infidelity and some of the biggest scandals around. The most serious came from a former employee for the Arkansas state government named Paula Jones, who claimed she was sexually harassed. This ultimately led to a special counsel investigation, led by Republican prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
During a deposition for the original Paula Jones case, President Clinton lied about having extramarital affairs. At the time, he was involved sexually with then-22-year-old Monica Lewinsky. The affair would have been nothing more than rumor, if not for Linda Tripp, a career civil servant, who surreptitiously recorded her conversations with Lewinsky detailing the affair. Starr’s final report was inconclusive about Paula Jones’s claims, but it did accuse the president of committing perjury and obstructing justice by lying about his affair with Ms. Lewinsky.
This led to the second impeachment of a U.S. president in history. The House of Representatives filed two Articles of Impeachment. It then went on to the Senate. Overseen by the then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist. Two-thirds of the Senate need to vote to “convict” the president on these counts, and they didn’t come close. His perjury charge was defeated with 55 Senators voting for acquittal. The obstruction of justice charge was defeated with 50 votes. Since then, Lewinsky has gone on to become a champion against bullying and the demonization people face in the media. The second season of the podcast Slow Burn details this entire scandal, a great listen for people interested in the details.
2. The 2008 Financial Crisis
While the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression first caught the worlds’ eye when investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, it began much earlier. In the mid-2000s there was a mortgage “boom,” and people were getting approved for loans they couldn’t ever afford to pay back. Those toxic loans were then broken up and repackaged as investment assets, rated much higher than they deserved.
In late 2006, significant numbers of these mortgages fell into delinquency. Two years later, pensions and investment portfolios were effectively wiped out. Massive government intervention saved the rest of the “too big to fail” banks, and legislation passed in Congress meant to prevent this from happening. These laws were rolled back in 2017, however the financial crisis remains one of the biggest scandals in recent memory.
Biggest Scandals 01: The Watergate Scandal
All of the above biggest scandals happened in the past thirty years or so, so it may seem like a stretch to include the events of the Watergate scandal in this list of events in the “recent” past. Its roots date back to the election of 1960, and every year we learn more about it.
It all began with a botched break-in during the summer of 1972, undertaken at the behest of the sitting U.S. President, Richard M. Nixon. The ensuing investigations uncovered an astounding conspiracy of abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and many other crimes. It also led to then-Vice President Spiro Agnew being incriminated in a bribery scandal that hearkened back to the days of Tammany Hall. However, we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do were it not for a particular quirk of Presidents Nixon and his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson. At the time, there was a recording system in the White House, specifically in the Oval Office.
An astounding number of meetings and phone calls between Nixon and his top aides were preserved on this system. When then-White House counsel John Dean revealed to Congress the existence of this taping system, they subpoenaed them immediately. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, who ruled that Nixon had to turn them over. As they clearly implicated him, he resigned the presidency rather than facing impeachment. Agnew resigned prior to Nixon stepping down, meaning former Speaker of the House Gerald Ford became the first U.S. President to have appeared on the ballot in only a single district in the state of Michigan.
There have been hundreds of books written about the scandal, but two podcasts, the first season of Slow Burn and Rachel Maddow’s Bag Man, detail the investigations into Nixon and Agnew. If you are at all curious about this scandal (and how its lessons can inform our understanding of current-day politics), these are must listens.
The biggest scandals in entertainment and politics have only one thing truly in common: they are all fascinating stories.
A scandal can be a newsworthy or important event, or it can be a personal matter between private individuals that somehow captures the world’s attention. Some are about crime, some are about violence, and the rest are about sex. There is a voyeuristic quality to it all, but it’s not necessarily anything untoward or even wrong about the people who pay attention to them. What makes a great scandal is a riveting story about people who folks can easily classify as “villains” or “victims.” Yet, if you can get past the headline and late-night hosts’ jokes, these scandals are all tied to fundamental issues in human society. Things like abuse of power, manipulation of the system, and (all too often) domestic violence. In remembering these scandals past their flash-in-the-pan notoriety, we can take away larger lessons about how we handled things in the past and how we should handle things today.
What do you think? Did we miss any of the biggest scandals in recent history? If so, share them along with your thoughts, reactions, and experiences in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media so your friends can get in on the conversation.