Lately stories of sexual indiscretions have been fatal, or at least damaging, to the careers of American politicians. It was not always so. True, what was standard in the court of Louis XIV has not been so cavalierly accepted in the United States. Still, the private lives of past American leaders rarely had a decisive impact on their public effectiveness.
The 15th president of the United States, James Buchanan, who had neither wife nor children to inflict upon the adoring masses, suffered for years from innuendo. His best friend, Sen. Wm. Rufus De Vane King, was called "Miss Nancy" by Andrew Jackson and "Aunt Fancy" by others. The president knew that his own nickname, at least in some circles, was "Mr. Nancy."
One of Buchanan's better-esteemed predecessors, Thomas Jefferson, was thought by contemporaries to have made one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, his mistress. Historians argue the subject to this day.
While her husband Franklin was sleeping with her social secretary, Eleanor Roosevelt was drawn intimately, maybe very intimately, to her lesbian friend Lorena Hickok, to whom she wrote on one occasion: "Hick darling.…Oh I want to put my arms around you.…I want to hold you close."
President Warren Gamaliel Harding hid his mistress in a White House cloakroom. One of John Kennedy's good buddies, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, says JFK frolicked in the White House pool with naked maidens. According to many biographers, JFK's mistresses included Judith Campbell, the moll of Mafia honcho Sam Giancana.
When Grover Cleveland was running for president, the Republicans were eager to make hay from Cleveland's admission that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. They taunted him: "Ma, ma, where's pa?" But when Cleveland won, his party, the Democrats, twitted the GOP: "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"
Now, aren't you glad you asked?
Maybe you didn't ask, but these and many other tales out of school from the world of politics inspired comment in their day and engage scholars and civilians alike today. We've learned that General Dwight Eisenhower wanted at one point to divorce Mamie and marry his driver. General George C. Marshall, his superior, was furious and sent Ike back onto the path of righteousness with a chiding letter. Ike went on to carry himself and Mamie into the presidency. Who knows if Eisenhower's wartime fling with the lovely driver, were it known then to public and press, would have kept him from the presidency as Gary Hart's hanky-panky derailed the playboy of the good ship Monkey Business.
As Cleveland's case shows, even wide public knowledge of infidelity didn't necessarily prove catastrophic to a political career 100 years ago. JFK's buddies and the press maintained a strict silence during his lifetime; even three decades ago not everything dicey about an American president turned into common gossip.
Today? Today the nation indulges in an orgy of moralistic pontification. Not only the "love that dared not speak its name," as homosexuality was once called (and which now can't shut up), but heterosexuality too, if not comfortably ensconced within marriage, surfaces to muddy the political waters, if that's possible.
In Massachusetts, the impotent Republicans devote themselves to rehashing the amours of Sen. Edward Kennedy—always good for a giggle, albeit useless in preventing Teddy from merrily returning to the Senate election after election with vote totals hovering around 59 percent—and to fulminating about the Bay State's two acknowledged homosexual congressmen, Gerry Studds and Barney Frank. The late summer scandal that filled many columns and dominated the talk shows, pushing almost everything else to the back pages, concerned Rep. Frank, who would have us believe that he let an excess of kindness expose him to betrayal.
As Oscar Wilde wisely said, no good deed ever goes unpunished. Frank answered a personal ad in a Washington, D.C., homosexual magazine, enjoyed the services of a young hustler, then befriended the fellow, sharing his apartment with him and hiring him as a personal aide. Frank later learned to his sorrow that his pal/employee was using the apartment for prostitution while the congressman was out of town.
Frank's efforts to rehabilitate his young amigo merely validated Wilde's dictum and turned his life into a topic about which nothing, no matter how vicious, wasn't said for weeks on end. One day after the incident surfaced in the Washington Times, bumper stickers appeared in South Boston: "Let's Be Frank About Aides." Frank quickly found himself obliged to insist that he doesn't and didn't engage in sexual activity that might be conducive to transmitting AIDS. The pun proved irresistible to Frank's enemies, as did calls for his resignation.
An indiscretion committed when he was 30 years old and in his first term in Congress came back to haunt Congressman Gerry Studds 10 years later. Studds served drinks to a male congressional page and then went to bed with him; he later took him to Europe. This Platonic (in the correct use of that term) incident, now nearly two decades behind us, lives forever in Bay State political lore. The page, who was 16 years old at the time, is now middle-aged, but he is described as 15 or 14 or even as 13 by some callers to the talk programs. We've heard Frank's erstwhile friend, who is 32, described as a teenager. At this rate, Studds's former page will turn 3, and Frank's bad boy will enter kindergarten. Once craziness gets into the air, the sky's the limit.
Years ago, when the Ayatollah Khomeini turned up as Time's Man of the Year although Pope John Paul II seemed to many a worthier candidate, many Time readers canceled their subscriptions, confusing "great" with "good" and assuming that to be the former one must also be the latter. So, for those of that mentality, Alexander couldn't be Great because he was bisexual, nor the Sistine Chapel ceiling a magnificent work of art given Michelangelo's sexuality, nor Whitman's poetry sublime for the same reason, nor the innumerable licentious kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers and spiritual leaders worthy of admiration owing to their energetic heterosexual promiscuity.
Whether America is better off today, with our ravenous journalists prowling the land in zealous search of sexual shenanigans among the pols, whether we're a happier nation when careers dissolve into nothingness as the bedroom becomes an appropriate subject for political discussion—whether this is progress—is up to each of us to decide. Perhaps this morbid dwelling on the sex lives of our leaders and would-be leaders serves the same function as bread and circuses always do for the masses, distracting us from serious things and from the supposed legitimate purposes for which we bring some people forward to leadership.
The politicians can't stop the drug wars or stifle the growing horrors of racism or reverse the trend toward ever-more-intrusive-yet-inefficient government, nor can they do anything worth doing about a world largely mired in primitivism, war, famine, disease, and ignorance. But they can drink too much and like women and therefore fail in their grasp at cabinet posts; or like men, if they are men, and find themselves forever ridiculed.
We've long since given up any real hope that politicians can do us much good, but they can entertain us by being human, by falling from perfection, and by keeping our minds off what matters and our thoughts stuck in the gutters of gossip. Soon, the 21st century. Can you wait?
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is WBZ Radio's late-night talk host and a film critic in Boston.