The innuendos flying back and forth between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump about the mutual sexual peccadillos of the candidates and their wives has elicited an abundance of hand-wringing over how such mud-slinging has dragged presidential politics into the gutter. Actually, it has returned it to the steamy, if seamy, flow of American history that harkens back to the Founding Fathers. The only surprise is that pundits affect to be surprised by this turn of events. In fact, sexual indiscretion and its consequences are an indelible part of our nation’s political tradition
The issue is not whether our forbears who attained, or aspired to, the White House were plaster saints but, rather, how the times in which they lived responded to their behavior. The ink had hardly dried on the Constitution in 1791 when our first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, entered into a liaison with Maria Reynolds, whose scoundrel of a husband, James, blackmailed Hamilton in return for his silence, further implicating Hamilton in corruption charges. It wasn’t until six years later that Hamilton’s political enemies exposed the affair. Hamilton responded by coming clean, admitting that he’d slept with the lady but denying the corruption charges. His response won him points for candor but the mud never quite came unstuck.
Ted Cruz might not want to follow the path pursued by Andrew Jackson, who killed Charles Dickinson in a duel in 1806 for impugning the reputation of Jackson’s wife, Rachel. The duel did nothing to mar Jackson’s reputation, as evidenced by his being elected president two decades later. The more notorious sexual scandal of Jackson’s political career occurred during his presidency when he insisted on defending the virtue of Peggy Eaton, the wife of his War Secretary, John Eaton. Peggy, a local tavern keeper’s daughter disparaged in Washington society for her allegedly easygoing ways, was shunned by the wives of Jackson’s cabinet. What started out as a contretemps of social snubs soon grew into a full-blown political schism. Eaton eventually resigned, but Jackson revenged himself on his recalcitrant cabinet members by dismissing several of them. Jackson won the battle but at a cost that contributed to a growing schism in the Democratic Party.
A different set of circumstances entirely arose from two men who entered the White House as bachelors: James Buchanan (1857-1861) and Grover Cleveland, who served two terms in the Gilded Age. There, their similarities end. Buchanan was rumored to have had a homosexual friendship with William Rufus King, himself a former vice president, whom Jackson disparagingly referred to as “Miss Nancy.” The real scandal of Buchanan’s tenure was his virtual abdication of executive responsibility as the nation unraveled in the months leading up to the Civil War.
Grover Cleveland was another story. Running as a reforming Democrat in 1884, he was vilified by his Republican enemies as the father of an out-of-wedlock son whom he’d sired during an earlier sojourn in Buffalo. The GOP, which had run the bribe-receptive Sen. James G. Blaine against Cleveland, sought to detract from their own candidate’s turpitude by sullying Cleveland’s reputation. Cleveland was mocked with the chants of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” accompanied by cartoons lampooning the errant father who’d abandoned his illegitimate son. Cleveland turned the tables on his tormenters by acknowledging responsibility for the boy and providing for his welfare, although he never fully owned up to admitting paternity. The exposure may have dented his campaign but didn’t derail it as he went on to win the White House.
Then there was Warren Harding, the first president to be elected with the women’s vote, who displayed his fondness for the ladies by maintaining a long-term affair with his best friend’s wife, Carrie Phillips, when he was elected in 1920, and, for good measure, embarking on a second liaison in the White House with the youngish Nan Britton. Their trysts led to the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth. Monthly payments to the parties involved assured their discretion. Harding’s tenure was ushered in by Prohibition and the ensuing Jazz Age. But his teetotaling supporters came to have greater concerns than rumors of randy hijinks in the Executive Office when the Teapot Dome scandal blew the roof off the GOP White House.
The age of Democratic ascendancy, which roughly stretched from the New Deal through the Great Society, provided an Era of Good Feeling where the human lapses of our Chief Executives were overlooked by a forgiving press. It was only after their tenures that a more prurient, or judgmental, posterity examined their private affairs more closely. Thus, the discreet indiscretions of Franklin Roosevelt with Lucy Mercer and Missy LeHand (or, for that matter, Eleanor with Lorena Hickock), Jack Kennedy’s serial philandering, or LBJ’s randy ways, were all suppressed by a media that was more concerned with presidential policies than peccadillos.
With the sexual abandon of the Cultural Revolution came a new approach to residents of the Oval Office or aspirants for the job. Those who sought or won the post, for the most part, had the same human frailties as their predecessors. The difference was in the Anything Goes approach of the media, whetted by the success of exposing the Watergate scandal and abetted by a technological revolution that made what was once the province of intimacy the source of prurient interest under the rubric of “the public’s right to know.” Watergate, whatever its virtues, made the president fair game and encouraged an “investigative” journalism that devolved from monitoring public malfeasance to invading what had once been considered private affairs.
So by the 1988 campaign, when Democratic Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential hopes and political career became caught in the maw of tabloid journalism and left to the mercies of reporters on the scent of sexual scandal, the quest for the presidency had become an adjunct of the entertainment industry. The Oscars for this spectacle went to the Clinton impeachment proceedings.
Donald Trump took it to the next logical step from turning a candidate into a celebrity to simply making a celebrity a candidate. Americans love a circus and the circus has now come to town, or rather the electronic Town Hall of social media, digital dazzle, squawk radio, and cable wrestling that passes for discourse in our political arena. The unrestrained passions of partisan politics and party faction that Washington futilely warned against were there from the beginning. They have simply been amplified by technology. The list cited above is a short one.