Does the current wave of sex scandals signify something new in American politics or merely the continuation of something as old and established in politics as payoffs, bribes, favors and business-as-usual corruption?
The unfolding sex scandal involving a growing number of Republican worthies has been fun to watch. Two upstanding moralists, David Vitter, Louisiana’s Republican senator, and Randall L. Tobias, former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have been exposed as clients of the “DC Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey. They join their fellow civic leaders, disgraced congressmen Mark Fowley (R-FL) and Don Sherwood (R-PA) as well as the defrocked Rev. Ted Haggard, who have been undone by those deeper desires that their simplistic morality could not contain.
To this growing list of politicians recently unmasked for moral hypocrisy if not worse (as in the case of Fowley for possible illegal solicitation of underage males pages), there are the withering carcasses of still other politicos who have been exposed in recent years for there inappropriate sexual excesses. Obviously Bill Clinton trysts with Monica Lewinsky, Jennifer Flowers, Juanita Broaddrick and who knows how many others tops this list. While he is the only president to be impeached for oral sex (and, of course, denying it), he is not the alone for being undone by their desires.
As Newt Gingrich (Cong., R-GA) attempts to cleanup his act for the 2008 presidential beauty pageant, one wonders if a conscientious reporter will remind this Christian conservative stalwart that his former campaign worker, Anne Manning, admitted that she gave him a blow job while he was still married to his first wife.
Similarly, one wonders if any good-old-boy will recall the career of Bob Allen (Sen., R-FL), that upstanding citizen caught soliciting an undercover male police officer inside a Titusville, FL, restroom to perform oral sex for $20? Nor should we forget Dan Burton (Cong., R-IN), who, as a born-again purist, fathered a child with another woman while married.
And what about the mysterious deaths of Lori Klausutis and Chandra Levy who had close relationships with former conservative Congressmen Joe Scarborough (R-FL) and Gary Condit (D-CA)? Then there’s Ken Calvert (Cong, R-CA), a champion of the Christian Coalition, who was caught by the police in a compromising position with a prostitute in a parked car and attempted to flee the scene. And, lastly, there’s Robert Livingston, the Louisiana Republican congressman ousted by none other than Vetter for his moral failing, adultery.
These are but the tip of an iceberg of sexual scandals involving American national political figures going back to the nation’s founding. Adding to this national list the scandals involving state and local politicos (one need only think of “Arnoid” Schwarzenegger and Rudi Guiliani) and one can appreciate how moral hypocracy is a defining characteristic of American political life.
In this light, it is helpful to contextualize the legacy of sex scandals involving politicos in term of what can be called “America’s Top 10 Grandest Political Sex Scandals.”
Scandal #10: George W. Bush
While many are aware of Bush’s dubious participation in the National Guard and his alcohol and cocaine problems, little attention has been paid to the alleged sex scandals that took place while he was Texas governor. He has been the subject of two sex scandals that were successfully dismissed as crank complaints, effectively sweeping them under the proverbial rug. The first involved a criminal complaint and lawsuit of rape by Margie Schoedinger that took place in 2000 and who later allegedly committed suicide; the second was an accusation by Tammy Phillips, a former stripper, of having an affair with Bush that ended in 1999 and she later disappeared.
Scandal #9: Helen Chenoweth
Chenoweth, a conservative Republican congresswoman from Idaho, admitted in 1995 to a six-year affair with a married associate; she claimed her case was different from Clinton’s indiscretions in that she was, at the time, single and had received a pardon from a higher authority: "I’ve asked for God’s forgiveness, and I’ve received it." She’s appears to be the only woman national-political office holder to have been caught-up in a sex scandal. As more women enter official national politics, we can expect an increase in sex scandals involving women.
Scandal #8: Clarence Thomas
When nominated for the Supreme Court in 1981, a FBI report was leaked concerning Thomas’ alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill, a former colleague at DOE and EEOC, that nearly sunk his appointment. Before a national TV audience, Senator Orrin Hatch’s questions revealed national politics as the soap opera it really is: "[D]id you ever say in words or substance something like there is a pubic hair in my Coke?" and "Did you ever use the term Long Dong Silver in conversation with Professor Hill?" Failing to substantiate Hills’ claims, Thomas was confirmed by the Senate with a 52-48 vote, the closest confirmation vote for a Justice in the 20th century.
Scandal #7: Strom Thurmond
As a lustful lad, Thurmond had sexual liaision with his family’s African-American maid, Carrie Butler. One unanswered question is whether Ms. Butler was a consenting partner or the victim of rape; another is her age at the time of sexual engagement, whether she was 15 or 16 years and, thus, whether the future senator and committed racist was guilty of violating age-of-consent laws and, therefore, a pedophile. This part of Thurmond’s pasts only became public when the daughter of his ill-fated liaison, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, revealed it; further complicating Thurmond’s darker past is the revelation that, genetically, he and the Rev. Al Sharpton share the same family line.
Scandal #6: James Buchanan
Buchanan appears to be America’s only gay president. While homosexuality was a far different phenomenon in the 19th century then it is today, Buchanan lived for many years with William Rufus King, an Alabama Senator. The two men were considered inseparable and were the butt of much mockery. Andrew Jackson dubbed King "Miss Nancy" and Aaron Brown, a prominent Democrat, writing to Mrs. James K. Polk, referred to him as Buchanan’s "better half," "his wife" and "Aunt Fancy . . . rigged out in her best clothes." The only question for his contemporaries was whether Buchanan’s infatuation with King rose to the level of a scandal.
Scandal #5: John F. Kennedy
Kennedy’s affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson; Inga Arvad, a Danish journalist; the stripper, Blaze Starr; Judith Exner Campbell, mistress to mob boss Sam Giancana; and White House secretaries Priscilla Weir and Jill Cowan, who were referred to as “Fiddle” and “Faddle,” have moved from scandal to presidential lore. Like the affairs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (with Lucy Page Mercer, Marguerite Alice (Missy) LeHand and Crown Princess Marta of Norway) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (with Kay Summersby), Kennedy’s extramarital liasions were effectively surpressed.
Scandal #4: Arthur Brown
Brown was one of Utah’s first Senators, elected when the state joined the union. He was shot and killed in Washington, DC, by his mistress for many years, Anna Maddison Bradley, for failing in his promise to leave his wife and marry her. After securing a divorce and making a financial settlement, Brown returned to Utah and, to Bradley’s chagrin, claimed to have made a full reconciliation with is wife. Bradley, three months pregnant with a second child she insisted Brown had fathered, could take no more of his lies.
Scandal #3: Alexander Hamilton
While serving as secretary of the treasury, Hamilton was living in Philadelphia with his wife, Elizabeth, and children. He was approached by a young damsel in distress, Maria Reynolds, and got involved in a two year sexual liaison that turned into a blackmail scheme. Reynolds, in collusion with her husband, James, shook down Hamilton for an estimated $1,000 to continue their affair. However, James Reynolds sought support from some of Hamilton’s political enemies by suggesting that Hamilton was providing him with insider information about government finances. When challenged, Hamilton showed intimate letters with the Reynolds that cleared his name regarding insider trading, but only made his role in the adulterous affair more pathetic.
Scandal #2: Warren G. Harding
Harding is reported to have had an affair for fifteen year with Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend, James Phillips. As president, he had a relationship with Nan Britton, thirty years his junior. She insisted that they had sexual liaisons in the White House and later wrote: … [H]e introduced me to one place [in the White House] where, he said, he thought we might share kisses in safety. This was a small closet in the anteroom, evidently a place for hats and coats, but entirely empty most of the times we used it, for we repaired there many times in the course of my visits to the White House. …” She concludes her intimate reflection with remarkable candor, “… and in the darkness of a space not more than five feet square the President of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love.” Their adulterous affair culminated with the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Ann. When Harding died unexpectedly in 1923 from ptomaine poisoning, rumor circulated widely at the time that his wife, Florence, poisoned him.
Scandal #1: Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson’s relation with Sally Hemings, the African-American slave who was his wife’s half-sister (they had the same father) and with whom he had six children, makes this America’s most scandalous sex scandal. As a bachelor, he was accused of attempting to seduce his close friend John Walker’s wife, Betsy, and, after his wife Martha died, he apparently had an affair in Paris with Mrs. Maria Cosway. However, according to Sally Hemings’ son, Madison, she served Jefferson at Monticello as chambermaid, seamstress, nursemaid-companion and, later, lady’s maid to his daughters; he referred to his mother as “Jefferson’s concubine.” Four of the children that Hemings had with Jefferson survived to adulthood, two females and two males – all appeared to be white in complexion and Jefferson set them all free. Ironically, Hemings was not freed by Jefferson but given “her time” (a form of unofficial freedom so she could live in Virginia) by his daughter, Martha Randolph.
We all have our favorite Top 10 Sex Scandals, but looking back from the vantage point of 21st century morality, one can well appreciate what the fear of public exposure has on politicians. Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which lead to his impeachment, serves as much as a warning for those challenging Christian conservative hypocrisy as an indicator of the barbarity inherent to partisan politics. And it says as much about the ability of those with powerful political connections, like George Bush, to suppress questionable behavior, whether involving sex, drugs or military service.
At the end, however, politicians from Jefferson to Bush are but all-too-human beings struggling within the deeper crisis of repression, the battle between what Christian propriety demands to maintain patriarchy and the deeper drives of the unconscious to overcome sexual repression. Each politician’s behavior is not unlike that of ordinary Americans caught in the cultural vise that deforms us as civilized people. Their lessons should not be lost as we witness the current crop of political sex scandals.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at email@example.com.