A profitable political scandal Most of official Washington sneered at Peggy Eaton's morals. But one politician who reached out to her would soon hold the highest office in the land.

September 20, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

By now, everybody with a beating heart has heard of Monica Lewinsky. Many may even recall the languid Christine Keeler. But who remembers Peggy Eaton? Lewinsky is the grinning, breathing, flirting nightmare of the Democratic Party. Keeler was the insouciant young woman who shook Britain's Conservative Party to its roots a generation ago by sleeping with Secretary of War John Profumo while at the same time warming a bed for a Russian intelligence officer.

This occurred in 1963, at one of the hotter conjunctions of the Cold War, when such liaisons could have strategic implications. Profumo first lied about his dalliance, then confessed. He resigned and spent the rest of his life doing charitable work. His Tories fell from power in the next election.

It is not certain what, if any, effect Lewinsky will have on politics and history in the United States. Keeler certainly had an impact, though in many ways, it wasn't so much what she did as the reaction to her behavior that moved things.

Peggy Eaton, on the other hand, may have been the innocent instrument through which one man, not at all popular with the American people at large, made it to the Oval Office. That man was Martin Van Buren.

This is an interpretation offered by historian Catherine Clinton, currently a visiting professor at Wofford College, in Spartanburg, S.C., and no relation to the president.

To learn about Peggy Eaton one has to go back to 1829, and the tumultuous, scandal-wracked administration of Andrew Jackson, who, historian Clinton says, was the first U.S. president "to be scathingly attacked during the campaign over an issue of sexual misconduct."

"Jackson was the first American president who during his campaign had to regularly fight off the notion that he was a libertine; he had been involved in a sex scandal because he married another man's wife," she says.

The woman was Rachel Donelson, and there was some question whether at the time Jackson married her, years before he ran for president, she was divorced from her first husband.

Catherine Clinton likens the whole affair to the Gennifer Flowers debacle: "Sensationalism in the press ... scurrilous, nasty attacks ... people went out looking to discover the piece of paper, the evidence to prove it."

Jackson won the 1828 election, but his wife died before his inauguration. The widower president blamed the scandal-mongers for her death.

Perhaps it was this embittering experience that encouraged Jackson's sense of protective sympathy for Peggy Eaton. The young daughter of a Washington tavern owner, she married John Henry Eaton, Jackson's secretary of war, after her first husband, a U.S. naval officer, mysteriously disappeared at sea.

Then as now, Cabinet members generally did not marry bar girls. As a tavern-keeper's daughter, Peggy Eaton was widely assumed to have flexible morals. She was shunned by the wives of all of Jackson's Cabinet members, and by Washington society in general.

Shunned by all, that is, except Martin Van Buren, a political ally of the president. Van Buren had been a U.S. senator who resigned, then ran and won the governorship of New York so he could assist Jackson's campaign in that state. He later became Jackson's secretary of state.

Being a widower, Van Buren had no wife to appease in the matter of Peggy Eaton. He paid her many attentions. Perhaps he felt an affinity for her, for Van Buren knew what it was like to work in a tavern: His father ran one in Kinderhook, N.Y., when he was young.

Van Buren - known as the "Red Fox of Kinderhook" for his political astuteness - was also certainly aware of Jackson's fondness for Peggy, since before becoming president, Jackson had lived for a while at her father's tavern.

In fact, Jackson was so incensed by the social boycott of Peggy Eaton that he revised his Cabinet, and replaced John C. Calhoun (whose wife, Floride, was Peggy's primary foe) as his vice president. He chose Van Buren as his running mate for his second term.

"Van Buren became the favored son," Clinton says. "He was politically aligned with Jackson, but I think it is an interesting example of how a personal situation, and the private scandal, created a political alliance that grew so strong that Van Buren became Jackson's heir to his powerful Democratic machine, and the presidency."

Clinton does not insist that Van Buren could not have made it on his own. "But certainly the situation with Peggy Eaton allowed his star to rise."

Before the 1970s and the revisionism in the writing of American history that occurred that decade, the names of women were not abundant in history texts.

"Prior to this renaissance in women's history, Peggy Eaton was all we ever heard about," says Clinton. "As someone who gained power through seduction."

And what of Monica Lewinsky? Is she so identified?

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