After watching the January 19th South Carolina debate, I thought to myself on how many of our presidents have had dalliances of one kind or another.
One can start with a young George Washington’s flirtation with a married woman, Sally Fairfax.
Thomas Jefferson’s decades-long relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings, who was the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife.
Andrew Jackson married Rachel Donelson Robards in August of 1791. Unbeknownst to them, her divorce from Captain Lewis Robards had not been finalized. The two, eventually, went through a second wedding ceremony on January 17, 1794. This sad chapter in their history was brought up in his campaigns for the presidency. Supporters of incumbent president John Quincy Adams, in 1828, called Rachel every awful name under the sun, as you can imagine. Jackson prevailed in the election, but, tragically, Rachel died of a heart attack before Jackson’s inauguration. Until the day he died, Jackson always blamed the scandal mongers for her death.
‘Old Tippecanoe’ – General William Henry Harrison had ten children by his wife, Anna Tuthill Symmes, and six children by his slave Dilsia. One of Harrison’s great-grandchildren, Walter F. White, served as the president of the NAACP from 1931 – 1955.
Historians are now speculating that our country’s only bachelor president, James Buchanan, had a homosexual relationship with his longtime congressional colleague William Rufus DeVane King, who served as Franklin Pierce’s Vice-President.
While a member of the US House of Representatives, President James A. Garfield had an affair with a ‘Mrs. Calhoun,’ that almost broke up his marriage.
In what historians have deemed to be the dirtiest campaign in American History, then bachelor Grover Cleveland was accused, in 1884, of having a child out of wedlock some ten years earlier. Cleveland neither admitted nor denied the allegations. His response ‘Tell the Truth’ became his campaign slogan.
During his time as President of Princeton University and as Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson had an extramarital affair with Mary Hulbert Peck, a woman he had met during one of his sabbaticals in Bermuda. Political enemies nicknamed our 28th president as ‘Peck’s Bad Boy.’
Warren G. Harding had a host of sexual dalliances, which included an illegal abortion and two out-of-wedlock children. His father, Dr. George Tryon Harding would often say to him: “Warren, it’s a good thing you weren’t born a girl because you’d always be in a family way.’
A deadlocked GOP convention in 1920, sensing victory, turned to Harding, a then obscure one-term Senator from Ohio, and asked him if he was available to run and asked if he had any skeletons in his closet. The GOP soon received their answer by having to acquiesce to the blackmail demands of Marion, Ohio socialite Carrie Phillips had carried on a nearly 15 year affair with Harding. The then-Senator had broken off his relationship with Phillips, during the first World War, as she was a German sympathizer. Warren continued his womanizing ways by impregnating Nan Britton, 31 years his junior. Their child, Elizabeth Ann, was born on October 22, 1919, less than thirteen months before he was elected president. (Doesn’t that sound familiar? 2008 Presidential Candidate John Edwards and Rielle Hunter)
While serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, in 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt was confronted by his wife Eleanor with the revelation that he had been carrying on an affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer. A divorce, back then, would have spelled the end of Roosevelt’s aspiring political career. Eleanor gave into the demands of her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and dropped her demands for a divorce. They remained married, but in name only. Two years later, in 1920, FDR ran unsuccessfully for the Vice-Presidency, and, as we all know, contracted infantile paralysis, while vacationing at the family’s summer home in Campobello in August of 1921.
On April 12, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt, upon learning of the president’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia, flew down to the ‘Little White House’ to escort her husband’s body back to Washington. It was there, that she learned that while her husband was posing for a portrait painting, he complained that he had a severe headache and collapsed. But, the president was not alone. Lucy Mercer, now Lucy Mercer Rutherford, was with him at the time of his death. Their only daughter, Anna, had been arranging secret meetings and dinners for the two, while Eleanor was away on her many frequent trips.
In 1975, while on her deathbed, Kay Sommersby published her memoirs ‘Past Forgetting,’ in which she detailed her long-time relationship with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while she was serving as his military chauffeur during the Second World War.
President John F. Kennedy’s alleged and substantiated extra-marital affairs have been the fodder for many books and tabloid articles over the last 30 + years.
Lady Bird Johnson grew to overlook her husband Lyndon B. Johnson’s marital indiscretions and became his trusted political confidante. She managed his congressional office while he was serving in the Pacific during the war, and nursed him back to health after his near fatal heart attack in 1955, so he could resume his duties as Majority Leader of the US Senate.
While Jimmy Carter may not have strayed outside his marriage vows, his published remarks in a magazine article that said he often ‘lusted after women in his heart,’ caused quite a political storm in the closing days of his successful 1976 campaign for the presidency.
Bill Clinton’s indiscretions were front page headlines both before and during his presidency. Impeachment hearings against him were presided by the then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. It has now been revealed that the Speaker was carrying on an extra-marital affair of his own, at the time. A tad bit ‘hypocritical,’ one might say, of the former Speaker now turned presidential hopeful.
George W. Bush is alleged to have gotten an underage girl pregnant in 1970 and arranged for her to have, at the time, an illegal abortion.
So, there you have it. An overview of the men who have held our nation’s highest office and the steamier sides of the lives they led. It really makes one stop and think, as we contemplate this year’s presidential campaign. Little has changed in the past 200 + years.