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    Political Junkie
    Send your questions about campaigns and elections.
    George Washington Slept Here... and Here

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to washingtonpost.com
    Friday, August 21, 1998

    Question: We've heard a lot about how President Clinton got caught doing what a lot of former presidents did while in office. How many presidents have had affairs while serving in the White House? – Don Williams, Springfield, Mass.

    Answer: Clinton is not the first president to be accused of sexual misconduct, but his administration is the first to be consumed by such charges. Many of the alleged offenses of the past 209 years were just whispers, and in cases where the episodes were apparently real, they didn't become public until well after the presidents were out of office. Still, while nobody seems to get into as much trouble over marital fidelity as Bill Clinton, nobody has shown the uncanny resiliency to get out of such trouble as well.

    Actually, rumors involving sex have been flying since the days of George Washington, who was said to have cheated on unsuspecting Martha. The most famous story – which was reported at the time – involved Grover Cleveland. Ten days after he received the Democratic presidential nomination in 1884, a Buffalo newspaper reported that the unmarried Cleveland had fathered a son out of wedlock 11 years earlier. Cleveland, who never denied the story, financially supported the child. The Republicans had a field day with the revelation. There is some dispute over the authorship of a memorable ditty of the time:

      Ma, ma, where's my Pa?
      Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!

    Some scholars argue it was sung by the Republicans to mock the illegitimate child. Others say the second line was added by Democrats to mock the Republicans after Cleveland's victory.

    button
    Three years after Harding's death, his mistress authored a book about their affair. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Three years after Warren Harding died in office in 1923, Nan Britton, who was 30 years younger than Harding, wrote of their longtime affair in the book "The President's Daughter." Britton disclosed that she and the married Harding had a child, conceived in Harding's Senate office the year before he was elected president. But by the time her book came out, Harding's reputation had already been soiled by revelations of massive bribe-taking and other crimes involving the leasing of government oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. As it turned out, Britton was only one of a whole slew of other women apparently bedded by Harding.

    In 1918, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, his wife Eleanor discovered he had been carrying on an affair with Lucy Mercer, her social secretary. By all accounts, from that time forward, the Roosevelts' marriage became no more than a "business partnership." In fact, FDR was with Mercer when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1945.

    button
    JFK's peccadillos were not reported until after his assassination. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Not everyone is convinced there was an affair between Dwight Eisenhower and his World War II driver, Kay Summersby, though Summersby wrote of one in her 1976 autobiography. Since his death, various reports have linked John F. Kennedy romantically with an untold number of women, including actress Marilyn Monroe and Mafia moll Judith Campbell Exner. JFK's affairs were well-known by many reporters who covered the White House, but few hints of such behavior made it into print until well after his assassination. Lyndon Johnson's healthy sexual appetite has long been documented, and he is alleged to have said he would not be outdone by Kennedy in this department.

    While seemingly tame compared to the above stories, there was a big hubbub in 1976 when candidate Jimmy Carter admitted in a Playboy interview that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times." Some fundamentalists were upset by his remarks, but they did not derail his march to the presidency.

    Question: I live in Norway. The Monica Lewinsky case is all over the news here too. There is something I don't understand. How can one little hug on TV end up like an affair? – Kevin Tempel, Tromso, Norway

    Answer: The same way a third-rate burglary could end Richard Nixon's presidency. There's more to it than what appears.

    And speaking about vices. . .

    Question: Has there ever been an unsuccessful V.P. candidate who later won the presidency? – Philip Holzbauer, Valley Lee, Md.

    button
    A Cox-Roosevelt button from 1920. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Answer: Only one: Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the Navy Department when tapped by Ohio Gov. James Cox to be his running mate at the 1920 Democratic convention. They lost in a landslide. Twelve years later, Roosevelt, who had by then been stricken with polio, was elected president. Bob Dole, having lost as the vice presidential nominee in 1976, failed three times to duplicate FDR's feat, in 1980, 1988 and 1996.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

    Ken Rudin, a former editor at NPR and the Hotline, writes the "Political Graffiti" column for The Hill, a Capitol Hill weekly. He is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1998 Ken Rudin

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