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Sexual Complications of the Presidential Kind

September 2019

Did you know that John Quincy Adams pimped for the czar Alexander I of Russia while he was serving as the American minister in St. Petersburg? Some journalists claimed to know that fact during the notably scurrilous campaign of 1824. But historians have tended to remember the even more foul allegations brought against Andrew Jackson by an unscrupulous journalist, Charles Hammond, since there was a kernel of truth in the stream of filth directed at Jackson. He had (with the approval of the woman’s family) taken away the vivacious wife of the man in whose home he boarded as a young bachelor and had then married her before her divorce was completed, living with her in inadvertent adultery for four years. Early in his political career, Jackson discouraged talk of that scandal with two duels, in one of which he killed a man. But it made him touchy about rumors and innuendo, a touchiness his enemies used to torment him. His first term was plagued with charges that his Secretary of War, John Eaton, had married a trollop, whom other cabinet wives would not meet socially.

The American public has always shown an interest in the sex lives of the Presidents, but the curiosity was usually thwarted by the same thing that fed it: the overkill of an irresponsible, openly partisan press. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both declared their love for another man’s wife in their youths, but only Jefferson’s lapse was reported; the disreputable James Callender, in a tide of other charges—most of them untrue—accused Jefferson of being an atheist as well as the lover of his mulatto slave. This last charge, unsubstantiated, still echoes in history’s whispering gallery, but it was disbelieved by the voters who reelected Jefferson in 1804.

The most famous sexual charge raised against a presidential candidate was the cartoonists’ baby that cried, “I Want My Pa!” during Grover Cleveland’s 1892 campaign. Once again the attack failed by an “overkill” reliance on false charges. Cleveland admitted that as a bachelor he had had an affair with a promiscuous widow who claimed her child was his. He had cared for the child, taking it from the woman when she proved a neglectful mother and having it brought up by respectable friends. This was before his distinguished terms as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York. When the episode was brought up in the presidential campaign by a suspect rag, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph , it was included in a list of other and later (and imagined) debaucheries. Leading clergymen, taken into Cleveland’s confidence, declared that he had acted honorably, years before, as a bachelor and that the later charges were baseless. This was as close as sexual impropriety ever came to affecting an election before 1988.

Warren Harding had a long affair with a woman who might have been a politically relevant embarrassment in his 1920 campaign since she had been a German sympathizer in World War I, but that affair was kept so rigorously hidden that Harding’s estate as recently as 1968 blocked in court the publication of his love letters. Woodrow Wilson wrote love letters (possibly platonic) to a woman not his wife, but that, too, was not known at the time. Franklin Roosevelt’s affair with Missy LeHand was known to more people, as was Eleanor Roosevelt’s warm friendship with Lorena Hickok; but many inhibitions, including wartime morale, kept those matters from public discussion.

John F. Kennedy was not given a similar exemption, but he was lucky that journalists went after the wrong scandal early in his Presidency. Instead of discovering his wartime affair with Inga Arvad, who had Nazi friends, critics of Kennedy chased a will-o’-the-wisp former marriage to Durie Malcolm. Kennedy’s father ended and covered up the affair with Inga Arvad, as his brother Robert would end and cover up an affair with a mafioso’s girl friend, Judith Exner. Both father and brother knew the danger of such liaisons, and even Kennedy himself wrote ruefully, during the 1960 campaign, that election would mean the end of his “poon days.” He recognized the rules, even though he later broke them.

Only luck and bad journalism had saved other Presidents from scandal. No presidential race until the current one was decided for any candidate by his sex life, though the potential was always there. Some now think James Buchanan was homosexual. If that is true, and had been known, it would have prevented his serving as President—or even as town librarian in most towns. The requirements of sexual conformity were greater, not less, in the past.

—G.W.