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Presidents and Their Mistresses: Who Cares?

Newly released details about John F. Kennedy’s torrid affair with White House intern Mimi Beardsley have brought new attention to a long history of bad behavior in the White House.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Newly released details about John F. Kennedy’s torrid affair with White House intern Mimi Beardsley have brought new attention to a long history of bad behavior in the White House.

From Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, presidential scandals are as American as baseball and apple pie.

But times have changed, along with attitudes and technologies -- rapidly decreasing the time it takes for the public to find out about what their leaders have been up to in the bedroom.

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Instead of learning about long-term mistresses and affairs with prostitutes from memoirs decades after a president's death, we hear about lewd text messages during political races, and we get news of sex with interns while presidents are still in office. Meanwhile, the public's thirst for gossip has only grown more voracious. And the mainstream press has become much more willing to deliver all the dirty details.

Together, these developments have given Oval Office gossip the power to affect politics in real time. What's still unclear, however, is whether presidential philandering actually harms a candidate's prospects or a leader's legacy. Even after a scandal is exposed, many politicians go on to enjoy successful, even heroic reputations.

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"We're more forgiving than a lot of people might imagine and we have always been so throughout American history," said Doug Wead, presidential historian and author of "All The President's Children."

"Sex is a part of life, and corruption is always a part of power, and wherever there are men, these sorts of things have always happened and they probably always will. This is a phenomenon that transcends cultures and religions and nations."

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Long before America was born, Wead pointed out, kings and other leaders have been exploiting their authority to take whatever or whomever they want, with endless examples of mistresses and bastard children throughout English and French history.

In the United States, rumors begin with the first president. According to allegations that are still debated, George Washington may have fathered a child with a slave. Evidence is stronger that Thomas Jefferson maintained a long-term affair with slave Sally Hemings, and likely fathered all six of her children.

From there, the list of womanizing presidents is lengthy. Grover Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock before his first term as president in the 1880s.

Beginning in the 1910s, FDR had a longstanding relationship with his wife's social secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, as well as with his own secretary, and it was Rutherford -- not his wife Eleanor -- who was with the president when he died.

Warren Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and George H.W. Bush all had affairs, either confirmed or rumored. And Beardsley was far from JFK's only fling.

Throughout most of our country's history, presidential transgressions were known about by some but not talked about by many and they were well hidden from the majority of the public.

One reason is that the press, which was mostly male, had an unspoken pact to keep quiet about the private encounters they saw or heard about, said Barbara Perry, senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center in Charlottesville and an expert on the Kennedy presidency.

When most news came through radio, print or videos that played before movies, it was also much easier to control what people saw and heard. Cleveland was actually elected despite public knowledge about his illegitimate child -- probably because he chose to be honest about the whole thing.

But during FDR's presidency, the majority Americans didn't even know that their commander in chief was confined to a wheelchair. Those kinds of details would never escape notice in the modern age of Twitter, YouTube and smart phones.

Bill Clinton's sexual exploits with intern Monica Lewinsky marked a turning point, Perry said. Presidential philandering came out of the shadows, with coverage that reached far beyond the tabloids. And yet, Clinton's popularity soared after the scandal was exposed.

In fact, as media outlets have become more forthcoming with news about the sexual behavior of presidents, the public seems to have become more accepting of it, said James Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. And even now that the affairs of JFK and FDR are common knowledge, Pfiffner wrote in an article in Presidential Studies Quarterly, both men remain well regarded as both people and politicians.

"One of the questions about Nelson Rockefeller and a run for the presidency was that he was divorced," he said. "President Ford crossed that threshold. Now, it is not much impediment, even on the religious right, that Gingrich has had a checkered past concerning adultery."

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Still, Americans remain divided about presidential philandering. Even though 92 percent of people said they thought it was morally wrong for married people to have affairs in a 2009 Gallup poll, just over half said that a presidential affair would bother them at least moderately in a 2007 poll of more than 1,000 Americans. The other half said it would bother them "not much" or "not at all."

As hard as it is for most of us to tear our eyes away from juicy stories about political cheating, our general indifference may stem from a resigned sense that men who have what it takes to become president may also be predisposed to fooling around, Perry said. Clinton, Kennedy and Roosevelt were all charismatic men with big personalities and big appetites, and that's a major reason why people loved them.

"Is there something about being a politician with a huge ego who is running for president that causes these men to be more unfaithful than average men?" Perry asked. "I don't know the answer, but it's an interesting question."

"If we eliminate every person from the presidency who had an affair," she added, "we would eliminate some of our greatest presidents."