Where's Pa?


Politics in the shadow of the Clinton presidency is turning a good trick: With the sex-war "meltdown" of Washington, political discourse has become as scabrous as it was in the 19th century. Then, mostly false tales of the private lives of public men spewed even from the nation's pulpits, and many newspapers were filled with salacious rumors and outright lies.

The case of Bill Clinton's purported "love child" is entirely typical; you could fill an orphanage with all the rumored presidential illegitimacies. Indeed, many presidents have themselves been rumored to have been the offspring of disreputable couplings. Even that's said of Clinton: Conspiracists claim that he's a son of Winthrop Rockefeller, thus the nephew of David, and thus an heir to the New World Order.

The Clinton love-child story surfaced in the tabloids in 1992, when a Little Rock prostitute claimed to be the mother of the governor's 7-year-old son. This rumor was kept alive in the anti-Clinton underground, where it was believed that mother and son had been hustled off to Australia. But a tabloid's recent effort to prove the story by using published Clinton DNA data was the story's undoing. Even as would-be mom Bobby Ann Williams was giving TV interviews, the results came back negative.

It's rare that such rumors are ever fully squelched. In 1927–the pre-DNA era–Nan Britton proclaimed herself to be the mother of Warren Harding's illegitimate child, and it is still unclear if her claim was true. The President's Daughter, Britton's self-published account of a claimed six-year affair with Harding (including trysts in an Oval Office closet), became a best-seller even though leading bookstores wouldn't handle it. It was made into the 1928 film Children of No Importance.

Grover Cleveland publicly acknowledged an out-of-wedlock son by Maria Crofts Halpin in response to lurid charges in the appalling 1880 campaign. But neither Cleveland nor Halpin really knew who the boy's father was; Cleveland, who was unmarried when the child was born, may have acted out of honor, protecting the reputation of a late friend and sparing the delicate Victorian feelings of that friend's widow.

Of course, the most persistent such charges have involved Thomas Jefferson and the children of his slave, Sally Hemings. Last year, DNA tests indicated that Jefferson could indeed have been the father of Eston Hemings. But critics have countered that Thomas's brother Randolph might also have been the father, and the matter is unlikely ever to be settled completely.

In the meantime, Clinton is thought by some to be under even this bed: Questioning the report's timing, conspiracists have dismissed it as intentionally exculpatory. Thus would the 19th century exonerate the 20th. But both centuries' presidential children have usually turned out to be changelings, and their accusatory cries so much political noise.