Of Bill Clinton say presidents having had...

SOME DEFENDERS

May 16, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SOME DEFENDERS of Bill Clinton say presidents having had adulterous affairs is nothing new. Birds do it. Bees do it. Democrats and even Republicans do it.

Clinton is no different from FDR and Ike, they say. Pfui to that, I say.

Franklin Roosevelt had an intimate relationship with his wife's social secretary, Lucy Page Mercer, when they were living in Washington during World War I. When Eleanor learned of it she was ready to get a divorce -- and so perhaps was he -- but they agreed to stay together for appearances, although they were not truly man and wife again.

Lucy promptly married Winthrop Rutherfurd. She and FDR exchanged letters for 25 years. They talked on the phone. Late in his life, after she was widowed, they met several times, in the White House and elsewhere. She was with him when he died, sitting for his portrait.

But there is no evidence that they were ever physically intimate during that period. In fact, there is no real evidence that their affair was ever consummated, as they say around the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, when they were seeing each other before Eleanor found them out.

Some close observers of the pair at that time thought their affair was limited to kissing, holding hands and whispering sweet nothings. They were proper Victorians, after all.

One FDR biographer (Ted Morgan) disagrees and even asserts that Roosevelt slept around in the reckless, compulsive fashion of a Jack Kennedy or a Bill Clinton. But another biographer, Geoffrey Ward, demonstrates pretty conclusively that Morgan bases this only on a gross misreading of a third party's awkwardly phrased correspondence.

* * * *

As for Ike, it's not surprising that many people think he had an affair. His wartime driver, Kay Summersby, wrote a book after he died (and she was practically on her own deathbed) with the provocative title, "Past Forgetting/My Love Affair With Dwight D. Eisenhower." In it she said they were romantic lovers, but not physical ones, because Ike was impotent during the three war years they were together.

He told her, "I love you. I'm crazy about you," she says. You have to take her word for it. Ike never said that anywhere else. His most responsible biographers of the period, Stephen Ambrose and grandson David Eisenhower, say they've found no evidence of a real affair. Ambrose says of their wartime romance that she was obviously "deeply in love with her boss," but "whether Eisenhower loved her in return or not is less certain."

The whole truth about FDR & Lucy, Ike & Kay will never be known. Both affairs may even have been just platonic, as Gennifer Flowers might put it. (BULLETIN! Gennifer doubts Paula's story! She told the New York Daily News: "Sure, he may have invited her up to his room. That's a real Bill-ism. But it's not like Bill to pull down his pants.")

Even suspecting the juiciest about Ike and FDR, their morals were nothing like Clinton's.

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