Two Centuries of Presidential Sex Scandals
Presidents’ Day is a great shopping extravaganza! Everything from soapsuds to high-end SUVs is marked down to lure in shoppers and move products off the store shelves. However, the biggest sale that takes place on Presidents’ Day is the selling of the presidents.
For two centuries, Americas have watched with much glee as press stories and word-of-mouth rumors recounted the sordid tales of how one or another of our commander-in-chiefs succumbed to their wilder temptations. However much racist character assassination has been heaped on President Obama by the right, whether that he was not born in the U.S., is a Muslim or a socialist, no one has yet accused him of being unfaithful to his wife, Michelle.
The title of most outrageous philanderer among America’s recent presidents is a toss-up between Bill Clinton and John Kennedy. The exploits of Warren Harding and Thomas Jefferson, among earlier presidents, standout as high moments of dubious integrity.
America has gone through three eras in which presidential scandals have been part of the national political dialogue. The first lasted from the nation’s founding through the Civil War and was characterized by a gossip-mongering and highly partisan colonial and early-19th century press. In the decades following the Civil War through World War II, the American media played down if not hid most of the scandalous conduct of the presidents.
However, propelled by the ’60s cultural revolution, the sex scandals of American politicians, celebrities and other social worthies became the cannon fodder of a headline-hungry media. In the decades between Kennedy and Clinton, presidential sex scandals went from a media-hidden indulgence to a impeachable offense. As evident with the latest revelation involving (former) New York Congressman Chris Lee, if you are in the public eye, little can remain hidden.
Each year on Presidents’ Day, a clean-up squad of PR hacks, academics and media pundits is enrolled to white-wash the public record of America’s great leaders. This year will likely be no exception as evident in the recent rehabilitation of Ronald Reagan on the anniversary of centenary of his birthday. As the saint of modern American conservatism, his past has been cleaned-up and his policies repackaged for ideological consumption. His sad story of sexual scandal is but one of many that defines the American presidency.
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George W. Bush was a political disaster. Failures from the illegal Iraq war to the Katrina catastrophe to the Great Recession mark his administration. History will judge his presidency as the worst in the post-WWII era.
Bush is haunted by two sex scandals. One involved a criminal complaint and lawsuit of rape by Margie Denise Schoedinger, who later committed suicide; the second was an accusation by Tammy Phillips, a former stripper, of having an affair with Bush that ended in 1999. They were successfully dismissed as crank complaints, effectively sweeping them under the proverbial rug.
In 2002, Schoedinger, a 38-year-old African-American woman who lived in the Houston suburb of Missouri City, TX, filed a lawsuit against Bush alleging that he had raped her in October 2000. In her suit she alleged, "race based harassment and individual sex crimes committed against her and her husband." Schoedinger died on September 22, 2003, of a gunshot wound to the head, nine months after filing the suit. The Harris County, TX, Medical Examiner’s office ruled the death a suicide.
Phillips, a 35-year-old partner in a gym in Carrollton, TX, and (based on some accounts) an Austin exotic dancer or stripper, reported an affair with W that ended in June 1999. She claims to have been introduced to then-governor of Texas by her uncle, a prominent Republican, in December 1997 during a political function at a hotel in Midland, TX. Reports differ as to whether the alleged affair lasted 9 or 18 months long.
The scandal got coverage in "The National Enquirer," "New York Post" and other media outlets, but disappeared as the 2000 presidential campaign got underway. One Texas politico expressed surprise about Bush’s alleged affair with Phillips, "It means that he stopped fooling around just prior to announcing his presidential run." Phillips seems to have disappeared and not pursued the accusation.
One can only wonder if W got his education in philandering from his papa, George H.W. Bush. Kitty Kelley’s no-holds-barred exposé of the Bush clan, "The Family," mentions two alleged affairs involving # 41. One involved Jennifer Fitzgerald, who served as White House deputy chief of protocol during his administration, and the other an Italian woman with whom he set up house in a New York apartment in the 1960s. The senior Bush has denied the allegations and Fitzgerald has refused to comment.
However, the sexual exploits of Clinton and Kennedy define the post-modern media era as both were notorious philanderers. Clinton’s trysts with Monica Lewinsky, Jennifer Flowers, Juanita Broaddrick and who knows how many others became a national scandal. John 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," among others, have moved from scandal to presidential lore.
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Presidential sex scandals can occur by simply challenging the social or religious conventions of the day. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 "Playboy" interview, in which he uttered those famous words, "I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times," is but one example. Similarly, a friendship between a man and a woman could be the grounds for suspicion as to more scandalous goings-on. George Washington’s close friendship with Mrs. Sally Fairfax and Woodrow Wilson’s associations with Mrs. Mary Hulbert Peck and Edith Bolling Galt came under much suspicion. Andrew Jackson was assailed over his marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards, an alleged bigamist, because her divorce was not legally finalized before their marriage.
A similar scandal of innuendo involved Calvin Coolidge. As reported in the tabloids of the day, Coolidge and his wife, Grace, were being separately shown round a chicken farm. Learning that the farm’s rooster had sex dozens of times a day, the first lady said: "Tell that to the president." On being told, the president asked: "Same hen every time?" "Oh, no, Mr. President, a different one each time." Coolidge is supposed to have quipped: "Tell that to the first lady." There had been rumors that Grace Coolidge had intimate liaisons with secret service agents.
The sex scandal associated with Ronald Reagan is more complicated. As the champion of the conservative ascention to federal power, Reagan came under hardline Christian scrutiny because he is the only divorced person to be president. He married Jane Wyman in January 1940, her third husband; she filed for divorce in 1948. In 1952, he married the actress Nancy Davis.
However, things got more intriguing for Reagan when Kitty Kelley revealed in an unauthorized bio of Nancy Reagan that, in 1952 when the Gipper was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he reportedly raped the actress Selene Walters in her home. "I opened the door," she admitted in an interview in "People" magazine, "then it was the battle of the couch. I was fighting him. I didn’t want him to make love to me. He’s a very big man, and he just had his way." (Kelley also reported, without substantiation, that the Reagans smoked pot with Jack Benny and George Burns and that Frank Sinatra had an affair with Nancy Reagan.) It should be noted that no legal actions were taken by the Reagans against Kelley.
The alleged homosexuality of James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln is a more slippery subject given that our 20th century notions of sexuality are not applicable to 19th century same-sex intimacies. In addition, it was not uncommon for strangers to share a bed for a night when staying at a small-town inn or share a bed at a rural household with strangers traveling in the wilderness or at isolated settlements (i.e., "bundling"). However, as in Buchanan’s and Lincoln’s cases, it was uncommon for male (or female) acquaintances of financial means to share an urban home.
Buchanan was America’s most "out" president. He lived for many years with William Rufus King, a former vice president and 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 President James Polk’s wife, referred to him as Buchanan’s "better half," "his wife" and "Aunt Fancy . . . rigged out in her best clothes."
A new round of debate as to Lincoln’s sexuality emerged following the 2005 release of C.A. Tripp’s book, "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln." A former Kinsey researcher and author of "The Homosexual Matrix," Tripp’s book takes up the argument only hinted at by Carl Sandburg in his famed 1926 biography of the assassinated president. Sandburg, using code words of the day for homosexuality, suggested something deeper about Lincoln, "a streak of lavender and soft spots as May violets." It should be noted that most leading Lincoln scholars, notably David Herbert Donald in "’We Are Lincoln Men," have assailed the Tripp thesis.
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More traditional heterosexual rumors follow still other presidents. These rumors range from too-intimate friendships with women other than their wives to engaging in adulterous liaisons to fathering an out-of-wedlock child. In the good-old days, these secrets could be contained, hidden from the public. Those days are over.
Grover Cleveland was, like Buchanan, a bachelor when he was elected president. However, he came to the office with a reputation as a lady’s man. After assuming office in 1874, he was confronted by newspaper reports claiming he had an affair with Mrs. Maria Crofts Halpin, who accused him of fathering her illegitimate 10- year-old son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland. While he never admitted paternity, Cleveland sent child support to Mrs. Halpin.
Often forgotten, when Cleveland took office he invited his sister, Rose, to serve as first lady until he married in 1886. Rose was a 19th century "spinster" with a successful career as a teacher, novelist and literary critic. In 1889, she began a romantic friendship with Evangeline Simpson, a wealthy 30-year-old woman. The two women exchanged a series of romantic letters. In one, Rose admits: "I tremble at the thought of you" and "I dare not think of your arms." Simpson replies, calling Cleveland "my Clevy, my Viking, my Everything." After Simpson’s husband died, the women moved to Italy in 1910 and lived together until Cleveland died in 1918.
James Garfield’s alleged extramarital affair with a "Mrs. Calhoun" appears to have taken place in October 1862 while he was a Civil War general. It allegedly took place during a visit to New York while, as he wrote, he was living through "years of darkness." When his wife, Lucretia, discovered the affair, they worked out their differences.
Scholars have had an easier time uncovering the extramarital affairs of 20th century presidents – although their sexual nature has often been denied. For example, Franklin Roosevelt’s "friendships" with Lucy Page Mercer, Eleanor’s secretary, is openly acknowledged, but its apparent sexual aspect is still debated. It is reported that Eleanor threatened to divorce FDR if he didn’t end his relations with Mercer; and it was Mercer, then a widow, who was at FDR’s bedside at Warm Springs just before he died. FDR is reported to also have had affairs with Marguerite Alice (Missy) LeHand, his secretary, and Crown Princess Marta of Norway, who lived at the White House during World War II. (Eleanor’s "friendships" with Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman and Lorena Hickok are the subject of similar debate.)
During World War II, Dwight Eisenhower is rumored to have had an affair with Kay Summersby, his English driver. Ike is reported to have wanted to resign from the army, divorce his wife and marry Summersby, but General George Marshall said it would ruin him if he did. Later, Summersby wrote a book, "Past Forgotten: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower," about their relationship. She claimed that she and Ike never had sex: He was impotent due to the pressures of the war!
Much gossip circulated about Richard Nixon’s long-term friendship with Marianna Liu, a Chinese cocktail waitress he met in Hong Kong while vice-president. Nixon first met Liu in 1958 while she was a tour-guide. It is reported that, in the mid-’60s, Liu and a female friend had a party with Nixon and his buddy, Bebe Rebozo, in a suite at the Mandarin Hotel.
What gives this scandal a particular sleazy caste is the alleged role of J. Edgar Hoover, America’s foremost drag queen, in exploiting the affair to gain leverage over Nixon. As the story goes, one of Liu’s closest friends was a general in the Communist Chinese army. In 1969, Liu moved to Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, CA, and denied that there ever had been an affair.
And then there is Lyndon Johnson. He once boasted: "I have had more women by accident than he [JFK] has had on purpose." Among his reported conquests were Madeline Brown, who claims that they had an affair that lasted more than two decades and that LBJ fathered her son. Brown insists that their affair was purely physical and remained hidden from Lady Bird Johnson.
In his biogrpahy of LBJ, Robert Caro revealed that he also had a thirty year affair with Alice Glass. Their friendship began in 1937 when she was living with her common-law husband, Charles Marsh, and their two children. Marsh was a newspaper mogul and one of his papers, "Austin American-Statesman," was an influential LBJ supporter. It is rumored that Glass ended her affair with LBJ in 1967 over her opposition to the Vietnam war. She is reported to have burned their love letters.
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We finally come to America’s two greatest presidential sex scandals, those involing Warren Harding and Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson is warmly remembered as the principal author of the Constitution and the most cosmopolitan of the Founding Fathers, if one recalls Harding at all, it’s for his role in the notorious Teapot Dome corruption scandal of 1921.
Harding is reported to have had an affair for fifteen years with Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend, James Phillips. Before becoming president, he began a relationship with Nan Britton, thirty years his junior. It is rumored that he had sexual liaisons with her in the White House. Their adulterous affair culminated with the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Ann. After Harding’s death, Britton published, "The President’s Daughter," an intimate account of their affair.
However, the most scandalous part of this scandalous tale is the questions associated with Harding’s untimely death in 1923. While stopping over in San Francisco from a trip to Alaska and Canada, he came down with ptomaine poisoning contracted from tainted Japanese crabmeat and died. Rumors circulated widely that his wife, Florence, poisoned him.
Thomas Jefferson remains America’s most compelling president and his reported sexuality mirrors this passion. In his youth, he attempted to seduce his best friend’s wife, Betsy Walker, and after his wife Martha died he apparently had an affair in Paris with Mrs. Maria Cosway. However, it was his relation with Sally Hemings, the African-American slave who was his wife’s half-sister (the daughter of Martha’s father) and with whom he had six children, that makes this America’s most scandalous sex scandal.
Hemings (sometimes called Sarah) was born in 1773, the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and, most likely, John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law. She lived in Paris (along with her brother, James) with the Jefferson family between 1787 and 1789. According to her son, Madison, she served Jefferson at Monticello as chambermaid, seamstress, nursemaid-companion and, later, lady’s maid to his daughters. Madison referred to his mother as "Jefferson’s concubine." Four of her children 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.
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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. It also says much about the ability of those with powerful political connections, like George Bush, to suppress questionable behavior, whether involving sex, drugs or dubious military service.
In the end, however, presidents from Washington to Obama are but all-too-human men struggling within the deeper crisis of repression, the battle between what Christian propriety demands to maintain patriarchy and the deeper forces of the unconscious to overcome sexual repression. Each president’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 on Presidents’ Day.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.