Sex and the Married Politician

The list of politicos laid low by sexual scandal grows ever longer. It hasn’t always been this way. Fifty years ago, the press famously considered politicians’ sex lives off-limits, however colorful. Go back to the Gilded Age, though, and salacious gossip was front-page news. Taken as a whole, history offers a few lessons on when the press should opt for exposure—and when it should leave well enough alone.

Even as exposure became enshrined as a progressive principle, however, political sex stories went into eclipse. After the Cleveland coverage, no sex scandal involving a politician of that stature would grace the front pages for a century. This wasn’t for lack of opportunity. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson, a recent widower, conducted a passionate courtship of Edith Galt from the White House. But while Washington insiders gossiped—one joke had it that when Woodrow proposed, Edith was so surprised that she fell out of bed—the public remained unaware of the liaison until the engagement was announced. Warren Harding’s extramarital exertions would provoke titters only after his death, when a tell-all memoir by one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, boasted of assignations in a White House cloakroom. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with Lucy Mercer (later Rutherfurd), and possible liaisons with other women, went unreported, as did Dwight Eisenhower’s probable affair with his driver and secretary, Kay Summersby. Estes Kefauver, a Democratic presidential candidate in 1956, was known to reporters as a notorious womanizer; once, as his campaign bus pulled into an Upper Midwest town, he blurted out “I gotta fuck!” within earshot of Russell Baker of The New York Times. Baker did not report the comment, or the corresponding behavior.

Overall, reporters hadn’t gone soft. Away from politics, sensationalism and gossip were alive and well. “The newspaper reader perceives in the freedom of the press,” Silas Bent, a leading press critic, wrote in the 1920s,

the privilege to invade his personal privacy, print his picture without his consent, dump onto his doorstep filth collected from the courts, and ballyhoo, for the aggrandisement of its own treasure, prize-fighters, channel swimmers, football players, chorus girls and aviators.

But several factors introduced restraint into coverage of politicians’ sex lives. High-minded journalism, of the sort found at The Times, the New York Tribune, or the Associated Press, disdained the traditions of the Gilded Age yellow newspapers and their tabloid successors in favor of fairness, professionalism, and propriety. Starting with Theodore Roosevelt, presidents began to see that the escalating interest in them as personalities, even celebrities—including the hunger for details about their families, recreational habits, and the like—represented less a threat than an opportunity for them to shape the news. Availing themselves of the new public-relations experts, such as Edward Bernays and Bruce Barton, they regained some control of their public images. They took influential journalists into their confidence, making them part of a governing elite. By mid-century, the New York Times journalist James Reston spoke of the “cozy relationship between reporters and officials,” in which he himself reveled. As the historian John Summers has written, a “psychology of insulation” buffered officials from undue probing, making it unthinkable that someone like Ben Bradlee, then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, would blow the whistle on the affairs of his friend Jack Kennedy. If the press’s Gilded Age aggressiveness had been born of a desire to weaken the ruling class, now the press—or the agenda-setting part of the press, anyhow—belonged to that ruling class.

It has become common to look back on this period of restraint as an embarrassment. We wince at a press corps that was too enamored of power, or too spooked by World War and Cold War anxieties, to expose our leaders’ feet of clay. We routinely describe the press as having “covered up” for JFK. But reporters weren’t covering up for Kennedy so much as they were abiding by their era’s social and professional codes, which regarded politicians’ personal lives as privileged realms.

That mid-century regime of restraint began to come apart as the conformity of the 1950s gave way to the rebellious openness of the 1960s, a shift that gained urgency after the presidential deceptions of Vietnam and Watergate. The late ’60s and early ’70s saw many Americans joining in a new project of disclosure: congressional committees pulled back the curtain on CIA misdeeds; radical activists “liberated” FBI files; public-interest groups pressed for sunshine laws. Most prominent were the so-called New Muckrakers, a crop of journalists whose work constituted a golden age of investigative reporting: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovering Watergate; Seymour Hersh reporting on the My Lai massacre and the CIA’s domestic spying. Such reporting went mainstream, as newspapers established special units for deeply researched stories and CBS launched 60 Minutes. White House correspondents assumed a more adversarial stance, and the bond between media and government elites frayed.

Just as the muckraking of the Progressive era had carried its share of sensationalism, so the New Muckraking provoked imitators who adopted a slapdash and undiscriminating attitude toward their investigations. (As Mark Feldstein makes clear in his recent book, Poisoning the Press, the journalist Jack Anderson crossed back and forth over the fine line between the two forms: though he received a Pulitzer for his exposés about the Nixon administration’s secret foreign policy, he also broke with prevailing norms to charge or insinuate that various political figures—including Spiro Agnew’s son—were homosexual.) Before long, the political culture was rife with “feeding frenzies” that consumed the energies of hordes of reporters, editors, and broadcasters. By 1974, minor-league sex romps that once would have remained under wraps—such as the news of Congressman Wilbur Mills’s escapades with the stripper Fanne Foxe, the “Argentine Firecracker”—burst into the news. To argue for discretion in reporting was, as before, to swim against the tide.

The neuroses of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, moreover, had helped to link the personal to the political. To avoid another paranoiac in the White House, journalists began to probe the very psyches of the nation’s leaders. One crucial moment in this transition was the publication in 1976 of Woodward and Bernstein’s second book, The Final Days, a follow-up to All the President’s Men. Where the first book embodied the New Muckraking, telling the Watergate story from the journalists’ point of view, the second volume, focusing on Nixon’s struggle to remain in office, assumed an omniscient tone, and among its many revelations was titillating news about the loveless state of the Nixons’ marriage. This kind of scrutiny was focused on presidents long gone as well. The mid-1970s saw Ben Bradlee’s revelatory Conversations With Kennedy; the Senate investigation that turned up JFK’s affair with the purported Mob go-between Judith Campbell Exner; Kay Summersby’s memoir confessing to her affair with Ike; and Fawn Brodie’s influential psycho-biography of Thomas Jefferson, which rekindled interest in his relationship with Sally Hemings.

Journalists also began vetting possible presidents on sexual grounds. In the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter put the question of character front and center, pledging complete truthfulness. Speaking candidly to Playboy of his lust for women other than his wife, he endorsed a new standard of sexual openness while simultaneously upholding a model of sexual rectitude. Paradoxically, Carter’s admission emboldened both liberals who sought to erase sexual taboos and conservatives who wished to enforce them. From this period onward, the sex lives of public officials increasingly seemed like fair game—for the press and for political operatives of both parties, who assimilated the culture of exposure into their ideologies as it suited their needs.

Presented by

David Greenberg is an associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. The author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, he is at work on a history of political spin.

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