Weathering the Storm: A Comparison of Scandal Recovery watergate, Iran-contra, and The Lewinsky Affair

Open Access
Donnelly, Mia Claire
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • John Philip Jenkins, Thesis Supervisor
  • Catherine Wanner, Honors Advisor
  • presidential scandal
  • scandal recovery
  • Nixon
  • Reagan
  • Clinton
  • Watergate
  • Iran-Contra
  • Lewinsky
My thesis examines the means by which presidents recover from, or are destroyed by, major scandals and attempts to establish a framework that determines the most important factors in this regard. In addition I sought to create a model of scandal recovery that can be applied to future situations. I did this by comparing the recovery periods of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the Lewinsky Affair. I evaluated all three situations across five common criteria, divided into two sections. The first section deals with internal factors that affect scandal recovery: White House strategy and the president himself. The second three sections are the external factors outside of the control of the administration: the investigations, the media, and the general context of the times. While it is impossible in any of these scandals to determine a single factor that explains why a president did or did not recover, one common pattern is evident. In order to recover the president must first personally win over the public and present a cohesive and convincing strategy that declares his innocence. Next, the external factors of the investigations and the media can either help or harm the president’s hopes of survival. In order to harm him they must both declare his guilt or present a negative view of him, and the public must support this opinion. Finally, some consideration must be given to the larger context that existed at the time of each scandal. Times of peace and prosperity create an environment conducive to scandal recovery, whereas periods of turmoil hinder it. Judging by these criteria it is clear to see why Nixon’s recovery in Watergate failed completely and why Reagan and Clinton survived their respective scandals.