Politics isn't the only strange bedfellow White House whoopee: Over the years, after affairs of state were put to rest, presidents took up affairs of the heart.

November 28, 1995|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the movie, "The American President," President Andy Shepherd (Michael Douglas) has been widowed and apparently celibate for about three years. He decides to date cute lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). Advisers warn that it would be harmful politically.

He bristles. He says there is a precedent for it. Now most people today when they think of love in the White House, think of John F. Kennedy. But that wasn't what this movie is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be a romantic comedy. If they ever make a movie about the Kennedy White House it will be closer to porn. Jack Kennedy was notorious for his off-duty activities in the White House, with actresses, wives and/or relatives of friends or associates, staff, even a gangster's moll. It was just raw sex, or, maybe, therapy. Kennedy once said to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain, "I wonder how it is with you, Harold? If I don't have a woman for three days, I get a terrible headache."

President Shepherd's precedent was Woodrow Wilson. He told his aide that Wilson, like him, was a widower, who courted and wed while in the White House.

Indeed so (and he got re-elected). And he wasn't the first widowed president to pitch some woo in the White House without hurting himself with the voters.

It all started with Thomas Jefferson, who moved into the White House in 1801, five months after it was built. Jefferson had wed Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. She died in 1782. Jefferson never re-married. But before and during his presidency, he is said by some historians to have a sexual and romantic relationship with a slave from his Virginia plantation, Sally Hemings. This has never been proved, and many -- perhaps most -- historians doubt it.

The story first came to public attention in 1802, during Jefferson's first term. A Richmond newspaper editor wrote that Jefferson "keeps" a "concubine" identified only as Sally. She was described as "sable." The editor was anti-Jefferson, and there was speculation at the time that Chief Justice John Marshall, the president's political nemesis, was the editor's source. (The editor drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1803, and a coroner's inquest was suspect. Always a little intrigue in Washington.)

The "character issue" was invoked by Jefferson's opponents in 1804. He won in a landslide, 162 electoral votes to two opponents' 14.

John Tyler was the next widower in the White House. He was elected vice president in 1840, as William Henry Harrison's running mate. Harrison died a month after taking office. Tyler's wife of 29 years, Letitia Christian Tyler, suffered a paralytic stroke in 1839 and was an invalid during her entire term as first lady. She died in September 1842.

According to one biographer, President Tyler began a discreet courtship of Julia Gardiner, 30 years his junior, in January of 1843. She came from a rich New York family. How rich? When Tyler proposed, her mother told her to make sure the president of the United States could provide for her in the manner to which she had become accustomed.

Married in secrecy

They were wed in near secrecy in a church in New York City in June 1844, and the couple were the subjects of some vicious gossip. This, as in the case of Jefferson, was politically motivated in part. Tyler had been a Democrat who joined Whig Harrison in 1840. By 1844 both Whigs and Democrats hated him. He was not renominated. And the House of Representatives wouldn't appropriate money for the maintenance of the White House, where paint peeled and dirt accumulated. A contemporary writer called it "slum-like." (Always listen to your mother.)

The next presidential romance that is known of was that of Grover Cleveland's. He was a bachelor when he was elected in 1884. He survived an assault on his character that echoes 1992's. He was attacked for being a Civil War draft dodger and for fathering an illegitimate child. He won anyway.

Cleveland's law partner and friend Oscar Folsom had been killed in an accident when his daughter, Frances Folsom, was 11 years old. Cleveland became the administrator of her estate. While she was in college, his old-friend-of-the-family relationship turned romantic. They became secret sweethearts in 1885, and were wed in the White House in 1886, when he was 49 and she was 21, just a few days after they announced the engagement.

The public seemed to react positively to the marriage, and the animosity toward him as a pre-presidency philanderer (and draft dodger) faded. But the press took out after him in modern day, near-National Enquirer frenzy. It reported coarse jokes about the 250-pound president's crushing his small young bride on the honeymoon.

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