Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed January 1998
Copyright ©1998 by James A. Morone

A primer on presidential trystory

By James A. Morone

James A. Morone is professor of political science at Brown University. His award-winning book, The Democratic Wish, is being reissued this month by Yale University Press. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled Sin: Moral Politics from the Puritans to the Clintons.

"That incredible sucking sound is the entire American media (and every would-be pundit including me) trying to crack another angle on the story"

It's about sex!

There, I've said it. We keep hearing the same pious disclaimer: "It's not President Clinton's dalliances, it's his cover-ups and weird nondenials." Sure, the lies could actually get him impeached. But the vague rumors of White House trysting are what glue America to the television.

A media storm this big sends everyone running for a context. So here's a quick guide to presidential sex scandals - past, present and future.

Have past presidents had affairs? You bet. Fourteen out of 41 set off whispers. We don't know whether Thomas Jefferson really had six children with his slave, Sally Hemings. But he admitted seducing two other woman, both married. Almost two centuries ago, newspapers were blasting Jefferson's disgraceful morals.

In 1837, Vice President Richard Johnson shocked the country by flaunting his black mistress - and their children. The 1884 presidential campaign prominently featured Grover Cleveland's alleged love child. Cleveland frankly admitted the affair, inspiring that famous negative-campaign jingle: "Ma ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House - ha! ha! ha!"

Woodrow Wilson knew how to court a woman - he sent her a book of his essays. His "friend," Mrs. Mary Peck, got divorced right in the middle of the 1912 campaign. The smart money expected Wilson to be named in the divorce suit (though Teddy Roosevelt said no one would believe it because Wilson looked more like a sissy than a Romeo).

When the Republicans nominated Warren Harding in 1924, they sent one of his mistresses and her husband on a nice, long cruise. They forgot Harding's other mistress, Nan Britton. She was 30 years younger than Harding; he paid her, found her jobs, bribed vice agents to keep quiet, and trifled with her in a White House closet. Sound familiar? All this and more before John Kennedy.

So what's new about Clinton's escapades? For one thing, our politics are now played before a voracious news media. In Jefferson's day, the national news cycle turned every two or three months. Now it turns two or three times a day. We don't recycle the morning news in the evening; we need fresh stuff. That incredible sucking sound is the entire American media (and every would-be pundit including me) trying to crack another angle on the story. That drives the scandal at a reckless speed. Every shred of rumor, leak, and hypothesis gets scooped up and spread. It is not that there is more immorality. We've just organized the search more ruthlessly.

There's another political innovation in Washington, one that all sides will regret. Over the past two decades, the Democrats introduced two new techniques. They hired independent prosecutors (remember Iran-Contra?) and began digging up long-ago sexual misbehavior (yes, Clarence Thomas). Now Republicans play the dirt-mongering game right back with a ferocity that leaves Democrats flatfooted. Just how long has Kenneth Starr been searching for - how to put this delicately - an extramarital smoking gun?

Next time around, the Democrats will ratchet up the scandal search-and-destroy on the Republicans - what goes around will just keep coming around. Washington will get still nastier and dirtier.

What will history say? Here's an advance peek: At the end of the 20th century, the United States confronted a new global era thick with challenges and dangers. The economies of Asia were tanking. Europe confronted high unemployment as it entered a risky new monetary union. The American stock market bounced about wildly.

How did the United States prepare for a risky new century? Well, Bill Clinton fiddled while world economies turned. The Republican Congress will not look so good, either - how many hours did they burn on Whitewater hearings?

There is a sadder loss. Bill Clinton genuinely pushed America to grapple with race. There was plenty of sneering and carping and criticism. But isn't that just the point about race? Americans duck and carp and sneer. Give the President credit, he stuck to it. Few other presidents have been as eager to raise the subject or as willing to stick to it.

Race is a difficult topic. Now, sex, lies and audiotapes will bury that dialogue along with civility, serious policy debates, and Clinton's reputation.

What should Clinton do? Saying other presidents did similar things won't calm the storm or contain the sense of betrayal. Clinton cannot spin his reputation back. There's just one option. Do what men like Grover Cleveland did: Get up, face the country, and come clean.

Oh yes, there will be heck to pay. But painful honesty is the only decent course left. And it may just be successful. It preempts sensational leaks and scoops. And it sets an honorable precedent for every future politician embroiled in scandal.