Lying in bed last night, I began running through the list of 20th and 21st century Presidents and comparing their sexual behavior. Here, divided by party, are the results of my survey.
President Known misbehavior
Teddy Roosevelt None
William Howard Taft None
Warren Harding Extramarital affairs, love child
Calvin Coolidge None
Herbert Hoover None
Dwight Eisenhower Wartime affair
Richard Nixon None
Gerald R. Ford None
Ronald Reagan Nothing alleged after 2nd marriage
George H. W. Bush Extramarital affair alleged
George W. Bush None
Donald Trump Two divorces, extramarital affairs, groping
Woodrow Wilson Extramarital affair during first marriage
Franklin Roosevelt Extramarital affairs
Harry Truman None
John F. Kennedy Extramarital affairs
Lyndon Johnson Extramarital affairs
Jimmy Carter None
Bill Clinton Extramarital affairs, unwanted physical advances
Barack Obama None
Summarizing, we find that out of 12 Republican Presidents, seven, as far as we know, would not have been vulnerable to accusations of scandal. Of the other five, four of them--Harding, Eisenhower, Bush I and Trump--were elected, two of them by landslides, despite widespread rumors (or, in Trump's case, multiple accusations) of misbehavior. Eisenhower's case is more interesting than I realized. Kay Summersby, his wartime driver, had actually written a book in the 1940s detailing their association, albeit without any reference to sex, and reviewers did not shrink from using the word "intimate" to describe it. Yet this had no impact on his candidacy.
Of the 8 Democrats, only three led blameless personal lives in this respect. Overall, we see 20 Presidents, exactly half of whom did not, apparently, lead strictly monogamous lives after marriage.That, interestingly enough, exactly matches the figure for male marital infidelity published by Alfred Kinsey, based on a very respected survey, in the middle of the last century.
Looking at these lists, I personally can't see any correlation between personal behavior on the one hand and performance in office on the other. Franklin Roosevelt was a far greater President than Herbert Hoover; Barack Obama was certainly superior to Warren Harding; etc. Bill Clinton occupies an interesting historical niche within this list: he was the last Presidential philanderer, it seems, who (barely) got away it. There is general agreement, in the wake of the controversies over non-politicians Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and political figures Ray Moore and Al Franken, that Clinton would never have survived in office today. Yet the fact remains that Donald Trump was elected President after he bragged about serially abusing woman on tape, suggesting--as does the attitudes of Alabama Republicans--that Republicans may take such behavior less seriously than Democrats.
Why was it, then, that so many Presidents were elected and remained in office despite personal sexual misbehavior? In part, of course, this was the result of a kind of gentleman's agreement that such matters were private and not a fit topic for discussion in major media. Today many people would regard that as an all-male conspiracy designed to protect men, while others might still see it as a sensible custom that allowed our government to function, often very effectively. In any case, those days appear to be gone.
It is heartening, in a way, that none of the contemporary controversies involves a consensual affair between adults. I still believe that thsoe episodes are no one else's business, but we are dealing today with something else altogether, allegations of actual physical abuse or attempts to exploit power to secure sexual favors. Few people, if any, will defend behavior like that. Yet we don't have a clear standard for what level of bad behavior constitutes disqualification from public office. At the moment, Al Franken's career is threatened by one clear instance of an unwanted advance and groping. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times has already called for his resignation and asked the Governor of Minnesota to appoint a woman to succeed him, not because she thinks he deserves to go--she doesn't--but because only this will sustain the current momentum to do something about sexual harassment. With that I cannot agree, but many will. (If more women come forward to accuse Franken, the situation, of course, will change very rapidly. In addition, if Ray Moore wins his election in Alabama, Mitch McConnell will undoubtedly push to have both of them expelled from the Senate.)
I think, as I tried to indicate last week, that we are having trouble keeping various issues in perspective; but that is largely the fault of the politicians themselves. Everyone (including myself) agrees that sexual harassment is a serious problem and that sanctions against it have heretofore been inadequate. And many of us have almost no respect for any sitting politician, and therefore see no reason not to sacrifice any of them to our current crusade or even to allow them ordinary privacy in their personal life. There is, however, one enormous exception. Donald Trump's supporters did not care about the revelations about his behavior during the 2016 campaign, and apparently they still don't. It will, I think, inevitably occur to many politicians and commentators that if in fact Franken deserves to be driven out of the Senate, Trump should not remain in the White House. Yet remain he probably will, and this will raise new questions about the attempt to discipline powerful and abusive men, what impact it will have, and whom it will benefit.