Near Casper in Wyoming, a strangely shaped butte soars out of the prairie. It is known by its shape as Teapot Dome, and it towers over an unseen oilfield.
The scandal of Teapot Dome is synonymous with the presidency of Warren Harding. It owes its notoriety to its unequivocal moral; compared to the jumble of corruption and sleaze discovered in its wake, the rights and wrongs of Teapot Dome are crystal clear.
In the early 20th century various US presidents set aside vast tracts in Wyoming and California to be held as unexploited oil reserves for the US Navy. In 1921 incoming President Harding appointed Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior. Fall lost no time in persuading the Secretary of the US Navy to pass him responsibility for two of the oil reserves; and indecently soon he leased them to two personal friends who each headed a major oil company. It was common gossip in Washington that the oil corporations had made huge, unsecured ‘loans’ to Fall by way of thanks. But Harding defended his man by citing earlier presidential approval for the deals. The truth might have stayed suppressed despite an investigation mounted by the outraged Senate, but Harding died suddenly in 1923 and Vice President Calvin Coolidge stepped up. He was having none of it. Fall was convicted of receiving at least one bribe of $100,000.
The Jazz Age was in full swing, fuelled by the Charleston and the ubiquitous hip flasks of Prohibition. Perhaps Teapot Dome should not have disgusted people already so contemptuous of the law – but apart from its demonstration of naked greed and abuse of power, it was just the tip of an iceberg of corruption to which it gave a collective name. It still does, though in scale it has long been outmatched. People remember the first time, and their worst-ever president.
When: March 1921 to January 1924
Where: Teapot Dome, Wyoming; Elk Hills, California; Washington DC, USA
Toll: Worst hit was the credibility of government itself. Teapot Dome lodged in popular consciousness like no previous wrongdoing and gave movies like Mr Smith Goes to Washington their meaning years afterwards, because trust between government and governed simply evaporated.
You should know: Albert Fall was the first cabinet member to be jailed for a crime committed while in office. Ever since, American journalists (and conspiracy theorists) have kept a weather eye on ‘sticky’ oil money, its provenance, and its influence on every level of elective office. With the Enron debacle recalling Teapot Dome so forcefully, observers have been quick to record the painful details of the uneasy relationship between George W Bush, Enron’s S1.76 million campaign contribution, former oil executive Wee President Dick Cheney and the protection of so many corporate oil interests. They’ve gone – but the story has yet to be revealed.