It’s that time of year again. The Golden Duke awards are here!
The Golden Dukes, of course, are TPM’s annual recognition of achievement in the field of public corruption, nonsense, reckless abandonment of dignity and betrayal of the public trust.
This is our fourteenth year honoring the best of the worst, and a lot has changed over that time. In 2007, George W. Bush won the inaugural Duke for Best Scandal, General Interest for his work on the social security privatization bamboozlepalooza. In 2012, Mitt Romney won a General Interest Duke for his 47 percent gaffe. A gaffe! In some ways, the Dukes used to celebrate simpler times.
But that got us thinking. How do the Dukes of old match up to the Dukes of now? What characteristics do we seek in our Dukes? Who had the chutzpah to really make a scandal sing?
Reflecting on the origins of the Dukes and their namesake — the great Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham — Josh Marshall has described this annual TPM tradition through our institutional attitude toward muckraking and scandal:
We like scandals. We like to luxuriate in the sheer clownish awfulness of them, get a novelistic read on the central characters, and appreciate the pure brazenness and cravenness of it all. The tenor we strive for — and tends to come naturally — is one of savoring the folly, ignominy and comedy of it all rather than outrage. Others can do outrage. It has its place. It’s not our focus or our aim. And that’s what the Dukes are about: a once a year event where we take stock of great achievement in public betrayals, venality and nonsense
Savor the folly, ignore the outrage.
With that in mind, we’d like to introduce the ultimate tournament of ignominy, featuring 18 standout performances of public betrayal and nonsense reaching back 20 years to the founding of our site in 2000. Spanning four eras and three presidential administrations, this is your chance to have the final say on who wears the crown: Welcome to TPM’s Duke of Dukes.
A few weeks back we asked you to nominate candidates based on the role they played in a specific scandal, not on their entire body of work — similar to how an actor is nominated for an Oscar for their role in a movie. We received nearly 400 entries nominating approximately 70 candidates.
To keep it manageable, we decided to break it down by era with four nominees representing the time period during which their scandal was exposed: The OGs (2000-2005), Shoot Your Shot (2006-2010), Sorry For (Tea) Partying (2011-2015), and Seriously But Not Literally (2016-2020).
To select the four finalists in each era and rank them according to their Dukiness, we had a heated all-staff happy hour to sort through the muck and reminisce on the comedy. In the end, some reader favorites — including outrage machines like Donald Trump and George W. Bush — failed to make the cut. While undeniably scandalous, neither was able to elevate the folly and comedy above the outrage in the manner characteristic of a true Duke.
(If you have questions on how the bracket works, here’s a YouTube video in which a kid explains single-elimination tournaments. We promise it’s more information about tournament brackets than you ever thought you’d need.)
The voting begins in earnest on Monday. But for two of our eras we simply couldn’t decide who got the final spot on the bracket. We are letting you make the choice.
So today, we have two play-in games, to whittle down our list of contenders from 18 to 16.
In the “Shoot Your Shot” region, a gun-toting Dick Cheney and amorous Mark Sanford — both of whom, we note, had woodland-themed scandals — are facing off for a slot.
And in the “Sorry For (Tea) Partying” region, two volume-at-11 right-wingers, Dinesh D’Souza and Michele Bachmann, are competing for a slot.
What champs! What competition! But alas, there are just two seats for four people. Two have to go. Voting is open now and will go for 24 hours.
SHOOT YOUR SHOT PLAY-IN:
(4) CHENEY vs. (5) SANFORD
(4) Dick Cheney: In February 2006, the Vice President shot Harry Whittington, a then-78-year-old Texas attorney, in the face with a 28-gauge Perazzi shotgun while they were on a quail hunt on a ranch in Riviera, Texas. Whittington suffered a non-fatal heart attack and atrial fibrillation, as well as a collapsed lung. Both Cheney and Whittington later called the incident an accident — for which Whittington felt the need to apologize. “My family and I are deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family have had to deal with,” Whittington said in a press conference following his discharge from the hospital. “We hope that he will continue to come to Texas and seek the relaxation that he deserves.”
(5) Mark Sanford: Take a bittersweet story of forbidden love and an inept cover-up and suddenly “hiking the Appalachian Trail” is an Urban Dictionary entry. It’s the one political sex scandal that seemed more romantic than squalid, more existential crisis than risk-seeking fling. But there was no happy ending. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) and his Argentine soulmate eventually parted ways.
SORRY FOR (TEA) PARTYING PLAY-IN:
(4) D’SOUZA vs. (5) BACHMANN
(4) Dinesh D’Souza: Before he was mocking high school shooting survivors and vomiting racist broadsides about Obama on Twitter, D’Souza pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud in 2014 after his straw donor scheme in the 2012 New York Senate race between Republican candidate Wendy Long and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was exposed. Not only did D’Souza have his assistant and the assistant’s spouse contribute $5,000 each to Long’s campaign with the understanding that D’Souza would reimburse them later, he also roped the woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair and her husband into the plot by getting them to donate $10,000 together. D’Souza was sentenced to five years of probation and eight months in a community confinement center along with being ordered to pay a $30,000 fine. Trump pardoned him in May 2018, moaning that the far-right troll was “treated very unfairly by our government!”
(5) Michele Bachmann: For a brief moment in 2011, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) appeared to be a presidential frontrunner. She won the Iowa straw poll that year, before her campaign ultimately imploded. Along the way she created what turned out to be one of our favorite debate moments of the GOP presidential primary that year: Repeatedly calling out Anderson Cooper’s name in a desperate attempt to get a little more air time. Bachmann was a trailblazer in congressional “crazy” — arguing that terrorist Muslims were infiltrating the U.S. government.
Thanks for voting! See you back here, Monday.