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The Long Tradition of White House Sex Scandals

by John F. Marszalek on Feb 19, 1998

The sexual sensationalism surrounding Bill Clinton has launched the media into a search for past scandals to throw light on the present one. The press has been citing the sexual affairs of earlier presidents as a way of making sense of Clinton’s: John F. Kennedy’s escapades, Eisenhower’s alleged liaison during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s with Lucy Mercer, Warren G. Harding’s with Nan Britton, and Grover Cleveland’s fathering of an illegitimate child.

Typically pundits talk about the sharp break between past and present. They insist that the press once left the president’s private life alone, while today, they argue, we live in a culture of scandal, and politicians’ private lives are fair media game. We may incur terrible costs, they warn: Esteem for the presidency and the media may plummet to historic lows, never matched in American history.

This analysis is simply not accurate.

Another president in the early years of the nation experienced a sexual scandal that shocked the nation. During the 1828 campaign, Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, were accused in press and pulpit of being adulterers because they married in the 1790s before her divorce had officially become final. He won the election anyway, but she died of a stress-induced heart attack before he began his term.

Then Jackson named his close friend John Henry Eaton as Secretary of War. Washington society and the Jackson cabinet itself shunned Eaton’s wife Peggy for all kinds of alleged sexual transgressions. They accused her of offering sexual favors while working at her father’s Washington boarding house and causing her first husband to commit suicide out of shame over her supposed blatant sexual misbehavior.

Jackson refused to accept the reasons for her shunning. He battled what came to be known as the Petticoat Affair for the first two years of his presidency, doing almost nothing else. The result was the firing of his cabinet, a new vice president for his second term, and a public scandal of the first magnitude.

Granted, there were no questions of depositions, perjury, or obstruction of justice. But were the rules so very different then and now? Consider the similarities between the Petticoat and Lewinsky Affairs:

1. Jackson was from backwoods Tennessee, and permanent Washington society concluded that he and his followers were coarse and vulgar, not worthy of being included in proper social circles. Similarly, Clinton and his Arkansas coterie are dismissed by veteran Washingtonians as an unsophisticated multitude from a rustic state.

2. Jackson had determined opponents in Tennessee and Washington who hated him with a passion and felt no compunction about using whatever they could against him, going so far as to call him a murderer, an adulterer, and a dangerous demagogue. Clinton has equally determined opponents in Arkansas and Washington who are willing to bring him down in any way they can, by similarly calling him a murderer, a sexual harasser, and a manipulator.

3. Contrary to popular belief, the press has not always kept sex scandal stories out of the public eye. The Petticoat Affair filled the pages of the day, with Jackson’s supporters and opponents placing articles in the press or tipping off newsmen in a barrage of charge and counter-charge. Newspapers printed a mountain of allegations, and journalists encouraged an unwarranted rush to accept accusations as facts, then as now.

4. Jackson was a willful man who was so convinced of his correctness that he would not bend, no matter the issue, sexual or otherwise, in order to serve as what he called the “People’s president.” Clinton has willfully stood up to a torrent of criticism on a vast array of issues, sexual and otherwise. He has insisted that nothing will stand in his way of doing what he calls “the people’s business.” Jackson then saw and Clinton now sees the accusations of sexual impropriety as politically motivated conspiracies, scurrilous and worthy only of condemnation.

5. Jackson had and Clinton has an unflinching toughness, the ability to carry on despite seemingly unending attacks. Such self-confident determination is essential in any president, helping him overcome adversity. Self-assurance can turn to hubris, however, which in turn can lead to disaster. As the Old Testament says, pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Leaving aside questions of proof of perjury, subornation of perjury, or obstruction of justice, there remains a classic, timeless question. The rules should have been clear to both Jackson and Clinton. How could they think they could get away with ignoring them? The answer: Jackson accepted no rules not of his own making, nor does Clinton. Besides, the constant barrage of unproven accusations against Clinton seem to have made the rules irrelevant for him.

John F. Marszalek is William L. Giles Distinguished Professor of History at Mississippi State University, Starkville. He is the author of a recently published book, "The Petticoat Affair," and is a writer for the History News Service.