It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Achilles’ heel is located nowhere near a person’s foot but rather higher up, as many U.S. presidents and presidential contenders can attest. Stories of illicit sex—including sexual assault—have wafted around our political leaders since the days of the Founders. But if past is prologue, presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden needn’t worry about the allegations of his former staffer Tara Reade, who claims that in 1993 he pushed her up against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers. As I explore in my forthcoming book, Sex with Presidents, we Americans have gasped in outrage at the bad sexual behavior of political candidates and then blithely ignored them at the ballot box, voting instead on the issues.
As a 25-year-old bachelor, Thomas Jefferson assaulted his best friend’s wife who, according to one account, defended her virtue with a pair of scissors. A widower 20 years later, he began a long-term sexual relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings when she was between 14 and 16, a relationship many today would consider rape, though at the time her race was the scandal. The tabloid press gleefully trumpeted the story during the 1804 election, but most voters didn’t care. Jefferson won re-election on a strong economy, low taxes, and the triumph of the Louisiana Purchase, with which he had doubled the size of the U.S. with a pen stroke.
Ten years before he ran for president in 1884, Grover Cleveland raped a virtuous widow, impregnated her, forcibly took their son from her and gave him up for adoption, and sent her against her will to an insane asylum. When, during the presidential campaign, his victim told her story to the press, Cleveland didn’t bother to deny it. His political opponents heckled him on stage and in the press with, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?”
Cleveland’s opponent, Republican nominee Richard Blaine, was known as both a faithful husband and a corrupt politician, having been accused of accepting bribes of some $2.5 million in today’s money while Speaker of the House. Cleveland, on the other hand, while mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, had lowered taxes, cut bureaucratic red tape, and fought corruption. When a pastor asked, “Do the American people want a common libertine for their president?” the answer, as the election results proved, was yes, as long as he was financially honest.
For several decades in the 20th century, the press formed a barricade of complicit silence with regards to the sexual peccadilloes of politicians.
The public had no idea that Warren G. Harding cavorted with young women in his Oval Office closet, in one case while his wife, Florence, was pounding angrily on the office door.
They didn’t know that Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary, Missy LeHand, wandered into his White House bedroom at all hours of the night in her nightgown, to take dictation, as he said.
Or that Jack Kennedy and some of his male staffers had orgies with secretaries and prostitutes in the White House swimming pool.
They never heard that Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, once walked into the Oval Office to find him in flagrante delicto with one of his secretaries on a sofa, after which a furious Johnson ordered the Secret Service to install a buzzer system to notify him when she was on her way.
Senator Gary Hart of Colorado was the first victim to tumble into the maw of the new tabloid press of the ’80s. But it was his lying and obfuscation about his monkey business with model Donna Rice that angered voters and caused him to drop out of the 1988 presidential race, not the affair itself. Soon after the story came out, a Time poll asked Americans what they disliked more in a politician: engaging in extramarital sex or lying to the public. Sixty-nine percent responded that they disliked being lied to, while only 7 percent said they minded the extramarital sex more.
A mere decade later, even lying didn’t upset most Americans. Bill Clinton’s highest approval ratings in eight years in office—73 percent—occurred during his 1999 impeachment for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
A Washington Post poll found that even though a majority of Americans believed Clinton had lied under oath, the lies didn’t bother them as they had only been about sex, and almost everybody lied about sex. Clinton’s sex life was unimportant compared to the sky-high stock market, record job creation, low inflation, higher household incomes, a federal budget surplus, reduced crime, and the lowest welfare rolls in 30 years. Gary Langer of ABC News summed up how most Americans felt about Bill Clinton: “You can’t trust him, he’s got weak morals and ethics—and he’s done a heck of a good job.”
Donald Trump is the most extreme example yet of voters’ preference for weighing policy over personal sanctitude. During the 2016 campaign, numerous women accused him of inappropriate touching, including digital penetration. He even bragged about such behavior in a 2005 Access Hollywood tape, released a month before the election. In 2019, advice columnist E. Jean Carroll alleged that he raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-’90s. Many of his supporters—even evangelical Christians—don’t seem to care. They have found a candidate whose policies they wholeheartedly support.
Tara Reade’s allegations involve decades-old events with a shifting narrative and some corroboration that she spoke of the assault to friends years ago. Biden has vigorously denied the story, stating it “never happened.” He has been forced to refine his 2018 statement that “Women should be believed” with regards to sexual assault claims, now stating the importance of “taking the woman’s claims seriously when she steps forward—and then vet it, look into it.”
However the Joe Biden/Tara Reade story unfolds, it is likely that most voters will not make it the deciding factor in their choice of president come November. To quote Grover Cleveland’s supporters after his victory, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
Eleanor Herman is The New York Times bestselling author of Sex with Kings and the forthcoming Sex with Presidents (Sept. 22, William Morrow)