Thomas Jefferson also had his secrets. As a young man he attempted to seduce his neighbor’s wife, whom he was supposed to be looking after while her husband was away. And, of course, he may have had an affair with black slave Sally Hemings, though the facts remain in dispute.
Over the course of the first hundred years of our country’s history, however, presidents rarely faced questions about their private life. With the exceptions of Jefferson and Jackson, the private lives of presidents largely remained private. But all that changed late in the 19th century with the arrival of the mass media. As newspaper editors discovered the profitable possibilities of gossip – especially gossip about the sex life and health of presidents – the editors published any and all gossip they could find. Gossip sold papers.
Presidents responded to the assault on their privacy in a predictable way: They did everything they could to keep their secrets secret. With the notable exception of bachelor Grover Cleveland, who admitted having an affair with one Maria Halpin, they concealed their past and sometimes even lied about it.
The list of those who concealed a history of sexual misbehavior includes both Democrats and Republicans, well-known Lotharios and strait-laced Presbyterians, among them: James Garfield, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson. All deliberately contrived to leave the false impression with the public that they were good family men who never strayed. But few lied directly about their past; unlike Bill Clinton, none was ever put in the position of having to answer questions about his sex life under oath.
In short, it was simply easier to get away with cheating. In the past even a president’s opponents were reluctant to expose their philandering. Wilson, for example, almost certainly cheated on his first wife Ellen Axson while on vacation in Bermuda. Teddy Roosevelt was advised by friends in 1916 to smear Wilson’s reputation through an adroit lead to the press, but declined, on practical grounds. “You can’t cast a man as a Romeo,” he explained, “who looks and acts so much like an apothecary’s clerk.”
Harding’s cheating was legendary. He reportedly had sex just outside his office in the White House with Nan Britton, a young woman who had idolized him since high school and who eventually had a child by him. Once Florence Harding came upon them just as Warren and Nan were in an amorous embrace. A quick-thinking Secret Service agent cleverly blocked the entrance to the room, giving Nan time to flee. To make sure Nan remained quiet, Harding slipped her thousands of dollars, delivered by a compliant Secret Service agent. (Another mistress had been put on a cruise around the world with her husband to keep them away from reporters during the length of the presidential campaign.)
Kennedy, of course, had numerous affairs. Biographer Thomas Reeves accuses the president of putting national security in jeopardy on several occasions in order to be able to keep a date with a mistress. According to Reeves, Kennedy would slip unnoticed by his Secret Service agents into the tunnels beneath New York City, eluding even the man who carried the president’s nuclear football.
While presidents did not generally find it necessary to lie about their sex life, they often found it essential to lie about their health. Presidents told more lies about their health than about anything else.
The first president to commit this offense was Chester Arthur, who was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney disorder, during his first year in office. Reporters got wind of the news and pressed the president for the truth. Arthur, worried that he would immediately lose his influence if people thought he was dying, boldly denied he was ill. Like his successors, he was concerned that if news got out about his condition he would lose control of the national agenda. All anybody would want to talk about was how he was doing rather than what he hoped to accomplish. Although he was terribly ill during his last year in office and once nearly died, he managed to survive, not finally dying until a year after leaving the presidency.
The next president to lie about his health was Democrat Grover Cleveland, who was well-known for his honesty – even in sexual matters. (As his first presidential campaign was getting under way in 1884, Cleveland, a bachelor, was accused of having fathered an illegitimate child. His advisers told him to “lie like a gentleman” and deny the charge. Instead, Cleveland courageously admitted the child was his, even though the paternity was in doubt: The child’s father may well have been Cleveland’s former law partner.) Over the July 4th holiday in 1893, amidst a financial panic, Cleveland underwent a secret operation to cut out a small cancerous formation about the size of a quarter that had appeared on the roof of his mouth. To prevent news from leaking out about the operation, the procedure was performed on a yacht steaming up the East River in New York City. Only one government official was told that the president was going under the knife, the secretary of war, who was present during the operation in case Cleveland died, which was altogether likely given that he was vastly overweight and at grave risk of a heart attack or stroke.
A dentist who worked on the president told reporters about the operation a few weeks later, when it appeared to have been a success, but Cleveland preferred to keep the matter secret and ordered spokesmen to deny the story. Because reporters were not yet accustomed to presidents lying, they backed off. In effect, they became part of the White House cover-up. The tale of Cleveland’s cancer operation remained secret until 1917, 24 years later, when the lead doctor finally told all in a fascinating story of deception published in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.
The list of presidents who followed the examples of Arthur and Cleveland includes Woodrow Wilson, who concealed the fact that he’d suffered two strokes before becoming president; Franklin Roosevelt, who ran for a fourth term without informing the public that he’d been diagnosed with a life-threatening case of hypertension; Dwight Eisenhower, who hid the news that three years before he ran for president he’d suffered a heart attack so serious he was hospitalized for a month; John Kennedy, who denied having Addison’s disease, a debilitating disorder involving the adrenal glands; and Ronald Reagan, who came much closer to dying after he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. than the public at the time was told.
Lying is bad. It’s particularly bad for presidents to lie. Recent history suggests that when they do – as Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam and as Richard Nixon did in Watergate – the consequences can be frightful. But is every lie a Vietnam-size lie?
Every generation draws lessons about the world from the events it experiences. The generation that appeased Hitler at Munich concluded that unchecked aggression leads to war. Our generation – particularly the media elites – learned that a lie told by a government official is never just a lie; it is a sign of deep, profound corruption.
But it may be time to rethink the lesson of Vietnam and Watergate as we once had to rethink the lesson of Munich. If we find a man likable and approve of the job he’s doing, then perhaps we should overlook his lies. Certainly, it’s doubtful we should impeach him. In the current environment that may sound morally bankrupt, but it hasn’t always.
In Otto Preminger’s classic, “Advise and Consent,” Henry Fonda lies about his communist past to a Senate committee holding hearings on his nomination as secretary of state. A righteous Mormon senator from Utah discovers that Fonda has lied and vows to expose him. But he’s not the hero in the movie; Fonda is. As the president explains to the senator, we all have things in our past we’d rather lie about. The Mormon senator proceeds to try to destroy Fonda, but ends up destroying himself when it’s revealed that he had a lie of his own he’d been concealing: During the war, he’d had a homosexual fling. The only one in the movie who doesn’t seem to be telling any lies is a reprehensible Southern senator played by Charles Laughton.
In our political movies today, it’s the politicians who tell lies who seem reprehensible. But in real life – as in Preminger’s movie – that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the good guys lie.