Orville Babcock's Indictment and the CIA Leak Case

In the wake of the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Mike Pesca revisits the story of Orville Babcock. He was the top aide for President Ulysses Grant, and the last senior White House official to be indicted while still on the job.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Revelations of wrongdoing at the heart of government are nothing new. It was more than a hundred years ago that the last sitting White House official was charged with a crime. Orville Babcock was an aide to President Ulysses S. Grant. Unlike all the others indicted, Babcock resigned before being charged. NPR's Mike Pesca has Babcock's story.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

The whiskey ring was a kickback scheme that festered during presidential administrations from Lincoln's through Johnson's up until Ulysses S. Grant's second term, when prosecutions finally began. Hundreds were indicted. The highest government official was Orville Elias Babcock, President Grant's right-hand man. By Grant's second term, the once capable brigadier general had become a loose cannon.

Mr. JOHN Y. SIMON (Editor, "The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant"): Babcock is somebody who was always looking out for Babcock.

PESCA: John Y. Simon is the editor of "The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant," 28 volumes thus far.

Mr. SIMON: Babcock is often viewed as the Iago of the Grant administration, the evil genius, the one who makes Grant do the wrong thing, whispers in his ear, who pushes him in the wrong direction.

PESCA: But during the Civil War, Babcock, a West Point graduate, was so trusted an aide to Grant that he was the one selected to deliver the final terms of surrender to Robert E. Lee. The loyalty Grant showed to his aide served him well on the battlefield but undid him at times as president, especially when it came to Babcock. Intercepted telegrams seemed to indicate that Babcock was tipping off Midwestern participants in the ring, which involved siphoning off tax revenue on whiskey. Once Babcock was indicted, Grant made the decision to offer testimony at the trial, an unprecedented step for a president. Brooks D. Simpson, history professor at Arizona State University, says Grant, at first, favored rooting out corruption but began to see the prosecutions as politically motivated.

Professor BROOKS D. SIMPSON (Arizona State University): Grant did what many presidents do, which is that he saw the prosecution against Babcock as a blow against him, an act of disloyalty by political opponents. I think people don't see his defending Babcock as anything more than the vice that accompanies his virtue of personal loyalty.

PESCA: Grant's testimony helped to overpower the prosecution's circumstantial evidence, and a not guilty verdict was returned. While he won in court, Babcock wound up losing the confidence of his patron, as was made clear when he returned to the White House. Brooks Simpson.

Prof. SIMPSON: He went in and wanted to go to work and Grant heard about it and the next day Babcock was told that his services were no longer needed by the administration.

PESCA: Babcock continued to have a career in government, however. He was a highly capable engineer and eventually became a chief lighthouse inspector. The work brought him to Florida, where he supervised the Mosquito Island light station. Not even a year into the project, his boat capsized in what's now Ponce de Leon Inlet, drowning Babcock at the age of 48. The light station was built on the site he selected and still stands today. Orville E. Babcock was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Five days ago he finally gave up the title of last sitting White House official to be indicted. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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