Sex and Politics, Part I: A Trail of Tawdry Tales

The Anthony Weiner story showed how social media offer politicians new outlets for their sexual exploits. But political sex scandals are far from new. The escapades of the earliest American politicians were known to the public.

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scandal is old news. Early in Thomas Jefferson’s administration, one newsman who opposed the president wrote:

It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth people to honor, keeps … as his concubine, one of his slaves …. By this wench Sally, our president has several children. There is not one individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story, and not a few who know it.

Jefferson never responded to the accusation, which was reported with more caution by other news outlets. But most people believed the story, especially those who saw the president’s likeness in the children. (At least one of Sally Hemings’ children was later linked to Jefferson through DNA). As in such cases today, the incident spawned ribald humor. In the absence of late-night talk show monologues, the insults were couched in catchy songs like this one to the tune of Yankee Doodle:

Yankee Doodle, where’s the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a stock of slaves for stock,
A blackamoor’s the dandy.

Warren G. Harding faced less reliable paternity charges: A woman named Nan Britton claimed to have had a child with the president after having sex with him in the Senate office building before he was elected. She stuck to her story until the day she died but never provided any evidence. However, Harding’s longtime mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, did have evidence in the form of love letters and blackmailed Harding with them.

Grover Cleveland also had a son out of wedlock and, like Jefferson, became the target of sarcastic humor. His adversaries in the 1884 elections brought up the issue through cries of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” After Cleveland’s victory, his supporters retaliated with, “He’s gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

But the affair between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford, his wife’s social secretary, was not public knowledge even though hints appeared in gossip columns from time to time. His son Elliott reports in An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park that Eleanor suspected the affair but didn’t have proof until she found love letters from Lucy. She immediately suggested divorce, but FDR’s mother threatened to cut off his inheritance if he caused a disgrace. He temporarily terminated the affair. Although the press knew of FDR’s secret meetings with Lucy, not a word was printed. Nor was it known until years later that Lucy was one of the few people with Roosevelt at Warm Springs when he died.

The public also didn’t know about Dwight D. Eisenhower’s affair with his Jeep driver, Kay Summersby, even though it was an “ill-kept secret” among journalists, according to media historians John Tebbel and Sarah Miles.

However, the affairs of John F. Kennedy are the ones most associated with a gentleman’s agreement with the press. Many reporters – as well as Kennedy’s close friend Ben Bradlee, then editor of Newsweek – were aware of the president’s amorous antics. But Kennedy biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger believes Kennedy’s charisma has sparked too many stories of sexual adventures:

Every claim by anyone to have slept with John Kennedy is taken as gospel, though if half the claims were true he would have had time for little else.

After Kennedy, politicians’ relations with the media took a dramatic turn.

Next time: Changing attitudes


Bain, George G. The President’s Office and Home. Schlicht & Field, 1891.

Brough, James, and Elliot Roosevelt. An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park. New York: Putnam, 1973.

Smith, Page. Jefferson: A Revealing Biography. New York: American Heritage, 1976.

Tebbel, John, and Sarah Miles Watts. The Press and the Presidency: From George Washington to Ronald Reagan. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Schlesinger, Arthur. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Thompson, Kenneth W. Ten Presidents and the Press. Washington, D.C.: University Press of American, 1983.