Presidential proclivities for the history books

January 27, 1998|By Nathan Miller

ON her first visit to the White House, the president's mistress said that her lover had taken her ''to the one place where, he said, we might share kisses in safety. This was a small closet . . . [where] we repaired . . . many times in the course of my visits to the White House, and in the darkness of a space of no more than five feet square the president of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love.''

Is this a leak from the tapes in which former White House intern Monica Lewinsky purportedly told all about her alleged affair with President Clinton?

No, these are the words of Nan Britton, the mistress of Warren G. Harding and mother of his illegitimate daughter, as she detailed her supposed assignations with Harding in a closet in an anteroom of the Oval Office.

Thus, Mr. Clinton's alleged involvement with Ms. Lewinsky, along with its allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice and a resulting mega-media frenzy, is hardly the first time a president has been entangled in a messy sex scandal.

Not even George Washington was immune from charges of sexual misconduct. Political enemies described him as ''a man who tried to steal another man's wife and then married a rich widow for her money.'' It was a reference to the youthful Washington's unrequited affair with Lady Fairfax and his marriage to Martha Custis.

Jefferson's slave mistress

Opposition newspapers belabored Thomas Jefferson with charges of having several children with Sally Hemings, a teen-age slave who was also the half- sister of Martha Randolph Jefferson, his late wife. Visitors to Monticello were said to have been struck by the number of mulatto children on the estate bearing a likeness to Jefferson.

During the 1828 presidential election, John Quincy Adams was charged with having ''pimped'' for Tsar Alexander I while he was U.S. minister to Russia. Adams was said to have helped Alexander seduce a pretty young American girl who was working as a nursemaid in the Adams household.

In that same savagely contested election, Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, was described as a bigamist because her divorce from her first husband was not valid when she married Jackson. Jackson killed a man in a duel in 1806 because he called Rachel a harlot.

James Buchanan may have been this country's only gay president. For many years, before going to the White House, he vTC shared rooms in Washington with fellow bachelor Sen. William King of Alabama, and they were known as ''Buchanan and his wife.''

Grover Cleveland, a bachelor, fathered an illegitimate son whom he supported, and when he ran for president the Republicans taunted him with the cry: ''Ma! Ma! Where's my Pa?'' Cleveland forthrightly dealt with the charges and when he won the election, his supporters added: ''Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!''

Nan Britton was not Harding's only mistress. He carried on a longtime affair with Carrie Phillips, the wife of a friend, under the noses of their spouses.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had an affair with Lucy Mercer, a member of Maryland's Carroll family.

John F. Kennedy's infidelities were known to some members of the media but were not chronicled.

Lyndon Johnson had a succession of girlfriends, including one he married off to a friend but continued to date. Jimmy Carter apparently only lusted in his heart, but George Bush was rumored to have a female friend who was placed in a job where she could travel with the president.

Mr. Clinton's problem is different than those of his predecessors, however. The charges swirling about him combine the sexual allegations that besmirched Harding's name and the cover-up that brought about the downfall of Richard Nixon who, incidentally, was a faithful husband and affectionate father.

Mr. Clinton might do well to follow the advice Grover Cleveland gave his aides when confronted with the fact that he had fathered a child out of wedlock: ''Tell the truth.''

Nathan Miller's latest book is ''Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents.''

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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