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Presidential affairs: How have allegations of sexual impropriety affected American politics?

When you look at the history of it, a strange pattern emerges.
Porn star Stormy Daniels. Credit: Getty Images.

At least 19 women have accused President Donald Trump of sexual assault, harassment, or misconduct, a particularly glaring black eye in light of the #MeToo movement. The latest is that we, the public, may actually hear the sordid details of trysts with porn star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.

One wonders about the impositions of presidents past, and how their alleged dalliances altered the political landscape. What can we learn from these incidents and what are the implications for President Trump? Such accusations hearken back even to our first president. While some had merit others were mere smear tactics. Here are the weightiest incidents.

Thomas Jefferson

An artist’s impression of Sally Hemings, the mistress and slave of Thomas Jefferson. Was their relationship consensual or was she coerced? Credit: YouTube.

Thomas Jefferson was the first to be directly accused in a newspaper of having an affair, with Sally Hemings, his slave. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, when DNA testing confirmed these allegations. Hemings bore Jefferson six children and their descendants are still around today. Even though the scandal garnered a lot of attention, it failed to sink Jefferson.

Rumors circulated even before the 1802 piece, penned by former Jefferson ally, journalist James T. Callender. The president’s Federalist opponents republished the accusation several times, but Jefferson never suffered any backlash from it. One reason is the outlook on slavery and race at the time, another that Jefferson had positive deniability, as everyone in his family and those closest to him, swore such a thing was both physically and morally impossible.

Grover Cleveland

Anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon, 1884. Credit: Library of Congress.

The lead up to the 1884 presidential election erupted in a scandal over an illegitimate child, fathered by then candidate and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. As a result, Republican operatives spread a chant meant to assassinate his character, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” After his victory, supporters responded, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

The two-term president was rumored to have had an affair 10 years earlier, with 38-year-old Maria Halpin, in Buffalo, New York. He was 37 at the time. The event was particularly scandalous given the outcome—she gave birth to a son, Oscar, and even gave him the surname Cleveland. Shortly after, she was placed in a mental asylum, while the child was taken away and adopted by another family.

Rather than deny the affair, Cleveland’s Democratic allies smeared Halpin’s reputation, saying she’d been casual with her affections and who knows whose child it was. It helped that Cleveland was a bachelor at the time. The truth may be darker still. The book, A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, reveals an affidavit signed by Halpin that claims she had fought off Cleveland’s advances. According to her, he responded violently and forced himself upon her. Halpin was released from the hospital soon after and although she was interviewed several times, she never wavered on her son’s paternity.

Warren G. Harding

President Harding with his wife Florence and father, Dr. George T. Harding, 1920s.

President Harding’s administration was considered one of the worst in the nation’s history. It was rife with scandal, bribery, and corruption. He also admitted to a number of affairs, including with Carrie Fulton Philips, the wife of his friend, James. With Nan Britton he’d even fathered an illegitimate daughter. Republican operatives worked to shield the president from the press and his rivals, as well as to hush those he’d had intimate encounters with.

His wife, Florence Harding, was all too keen of her husband’s involvements and may have even put a stop to them, herself. Harding died in office in 1923 of ptomaine poisoning,  attributed to spoiled crabmeat. But there’s a rumor that Mrs. Harding poisoned him herself. What’s extraordinary are his love letters. All 1,000 pages of them, containing off-color poems, romantic musings, and erotic imaginings, each addressed to Ms. Philips between 1910 and 1920, have since been released by the Library of Congress.

John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy laughing during a press conference, August 9, 1963. Credit: Getty Images.

Although his White House was nicknamed Camelot, the goings-on behind-the-scenes were more like a classic porn than a historical fantasy. Besides dalliances with White House secretaries, JFK’s lovers included Blaze Starr, Angie Dickinson, and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe. Mimi Alford, who worked in the White House Press Office, wrote a book about her love affair with the president, many years afterward. At the time she was just 19 years-old and claims she lost her virginity to the president.

There are those JFK supporters who claim the medication for the rare and painful condition he had, Addison’s disease, may have caused him to have been more amorous than he normally would have. The press at the time kept quiet about his affairs, perhaps because the White House press core was an all-boys club, or maybe they protected the president’s reputation in light of the Cold War.

In any event, he might have paid the price for hound dogging. J. Edgar Hoover earned himself immunity from Kennedy’s tampering with the FBI, by keeping tabs on his love conquests. Moreover, some conspiracy theorists believe Kennedy’s assassination occurred due to his affair with the stunning Judith Exner Campbell. She was at the time also romantically entwined with the powerful Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton shakes hands with then-intern Monica Lewinski at a White House holiday function. This photo would later be submitted as evidence in the Starr investigation. Credit: Getty Images.

Perhaps the most famous case in modern history, Bill Clinton was accused of sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, with a sexual act said to have actually occurred in the oval office. What many miss is that Clinton wasn’t impeached due to his tryst but for lying about it under oath. As with Andrew Johnson in 1868, the Senate acquitted Clinton of his impeachment.

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A 1998 Gallup Poll—the same year the president admitted impropriety, found that the American public was surprisingly tolerant of presidential extramarital affairs. The presidential incidents mentioned here seem to bear this out.

To learn more about the political price JFK may have paid for his impropriety, click here.


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