From the founding fathers through John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, American politicians have indulged in extramarital affairs with slaves, movie stars, sisters-in-law and interns.
But, in large part because of the press, the American public still reacts to political sex scandals as if they were completely unheard of.
Americans remain shocked by these events, I believe, in large part because our perception has been shaped more by the press’s behavior than by the behavior of the politicians themselves. While putting together my book “The Sex Effect,” I found a connection between the way journalists cover extramarital affairs and the public's opinion on sexual matters.
Although the press has generally tried to expose public figures since Watergate, the media’s approach to uncovering the dirty secrets of politicians has fluctuated throughout American history.
One of the first major political sex scandals in the U.S. involved Alexander Hamilton and a married woman named Maria Reynolds. America’s first secretary of the treasury was so enamored with Reynolds that he paid her husband, James Reynolds, to keep the relationship secret.
In the end, though, Hamilton’s affair was exposed by a zealous pamphleteer named James Callender. Callender and his contemporaries were more like activist bloggers than nonpartisan journalists.
“Most pamphlets were written to appeal to some certain emotion or to some particular group of people,” wrote historian Homer Calkin. “Patriotic, religious and economic motives often formed the theme of a pamphleteer.”
The writing in these pamphlets was often extremely ideological because political parties and people with financial power used pamphlets as propaganda tools. After Callender broke the Hamilton-Reynolds scandal, he was hired by Thomas Jefferson to target Jefferson’s political opponent John Adams. But Callender and Jefferson had a falling out, so Callender revealed that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his teenage slave, Sally Hemings.
Jefferson’s sex scandal was opened to public scrutiny by the sensational media standards of the day. For example, an 1828 Cincinnati Gazette story about Andrew Jackson screamed, “General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE, brought to this country by British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN with whom she had several children, of which General JACKSON IS ONE!!!”
But media coverage of politicians’ personal lives gradually shifted. During the Great Depression, World War I, World War II and the Cold War, U.S. journalists opted to forego sensational stories about the personal lives of leaders, preferring instead to focus their reporting on matters of national security. By the time Franklin Roosevelt became president, journalists often kept politicians’ secrets hidden in exchange for access. Historians also theorize that journalists protected politicians' personal lives during this time as a matter of national security.
With the uncertainty brought on by the Great Depression and World War II, journalists decided to help conceal Roosevelt's personal life. Millions of Americans didn’t realize he was paralyzed until after his death. Today, few photos exist of Roosevelt in a wheelchair.
Journalists also concealed Roosevelt's sexual relationships. Many Americans still are unaware that Roosevelt had numerous affairs. According to Joseph Persico’s “Franklin and Lucy: Mrs. Rutherford and the Other Remarkable Women in Roosevelt’s Life,” which details Roosevelt's affairs, journalists who supported Roosevelt prevented other reporters from photographing the president in his wheelchair.
Journalists blocked or knocked aside photographers who tried to shoot images of the president’s disability. In newspapers, cartoonists portrayed Roosevelt as a superhero. If ever cameras began rolling when he was lifted out of his wheelchair, Roosevelt said things like, “No movies of me getting out of the machine, boys.” Journalists often respected the request.
Like Roosevelt, President Kennedy benefitted from a comfortable relationship with the press. Despite all that we now know about Kennedy's numerous affairs, he never had a public sex scandal while in office, in large part because of the press.
“Before Watergate, reporters just didn’t go into that sort of thing,” said a Hollywood Associated Press writer who helped keep Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe out of the press. “I’d have to have been under the bed in order to put it on the wire for the AP.”
Not long after Kennedy was assassinated, President Johnson ramped up America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, an action that led to years of anti-government protests. Fewer than 10 years after Kennedy’s death, the presidency faced the greatest scandal in its history with Watergate, which led to President Nixon’s resignation. These events made journalists more aware of their duties to inform the public of unsavory deeds. Reporters undertook a renewed effort to expose secrets as they did in the pamphleteering era.
“Between the Kennedy and the Clinton presidencies, access journalism was replaced by gotcha journalism,” wrote historian David Eisenbach and “Hustler” publisher Larry Flynt in their book, “One Nation Under Sex.”
By Bill Clinton’s second term, 24/7 news networks and the growing power of the internet gave reporters tools to spread indiscretions faster. The world became more connected, and journalists were more aggressive. When Matt Drudge exposed Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, he wasn’t doing anything radical. By then, any journalist would have craved that tip.
By concealing the affairs of the past, journalists unwittingly created the impression that modern sex scandals are a new phenomenon. Not all sex scandals are created equally, and it’s a matter of public interest if a political figure violates consent or other laws. But if the sex in question is legal and consensual, press reports would be more useful if they included some historical context.
Ross Benes in the author of “The Sex Effect,” which Kirkus called “a witty discussion of the indirect role sex plays across political, economic, religious, and cultural landscapes.” He is also a Digiday reporter who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Deadspin, Quartz, Slate, Vice, and Esquire. You can follow him on Twitter @RossBenes and reach him through rossbenes.com.
A gripping exploration of the relationship between sex and our society, with a foreword by bestselling author A.J. Jacobs. "The Sex Effect" explores questions like: How did the U.S. military inadvertently help make San Francisco a mecca of gay culture? And what was the original purpose of vibrators? According to Kirkus, this is book is "certain to instigate debate and productive discussion."