© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Brief History Of Presidential Sex Scandals


The ongoing stories about a relationship between adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump are hardly the first allegations of sexual misconduct by a president. John F. Kennedy has long been rumored to have had many affairs while in the White House, including one with Marilyn Monroe, who famously serenaded him during a big birthday bash at Madison Square Garden.


MARILYN MONROE: (Singing) Happy birthday, Mr. President. Happy birthday to you.

MARTIN: The Stormy Daniels scandal has a lot of you out there wondering about past presidents and their sexual dalliances. And you want answers from Cokie Roberts, who joins us now.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. That was quite some serenade, wasn't it?

MARTIN: Right? I mean, it's hard to listen to that and think, ah, you know, maybe they're just friends, just buddies. All right. Let's get to our first question. This concerns a couple of past presidents. Stacy Ross wants to know the following. How well-known was President Harding's affair while he was president? Did Eisenhower have an affair with his driver? What affairs were known about as they were happening in the 19th century and before? Cokie.

ROBERTS: Well, Harding made absolutely no secret of his sexual appetites, telling a group of reporters that it was a good thing he wasn't a woman because he would always be pregnant. He could just not say no. But he went to great...


ROBERTS: ...Lengths to keep secret a long-running affair with his best friend's wife, Carrie Phillips. Apparently, he and the Republican National Committee paid for her silence while he was in the White House. His incredibly steamy letters to her were unsealed by the Library of Congress in 2014, 50 years after her death. Harding also had a child by another woman, but no one brought up his proclivities at all during his campaign in 1920.

MARTIN: All right, what about the rest of that question from Stacy?

ROBERTS: The first to be accused of extramarital relations was Thomas Jefferson when a newspaper published the accusation that he was having sex with the enslaved woman Sally Hemings. It took until the 20th century for that to be substantiated with DNA test, and it was a big scandal at the time. But newspapers, Rachel, would make stuff up all the time in this era. And when John Adams was running for re-election in 1800 with Charles Pinckney as his running mate, the Republican press said that Pinckney had brought home from England four women, two for him and two for Adams. And Adams said if it were true, he was cheated out of his two.

MARTIN: All right. Let's get to our next question. This is from Donna Vild from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and she has a question about the government's response to these things.

DONNA VILD: How were they officially handled? Did all branches of the government get involved? And what did the press know?

ROBERTS: Well, there was no official handling of sex scandals until Bill Clinton's impeachment, and that was due to his lying under oath, not the sex itself. There always have been disputes about what the press knew and when it knew it in various administrations, particularly with John F. Kennedy, where some members of the press certainly knew what he was up to, and nobody wrote about it. But, you know, Rachel, it's important to remember the press was a boys club. And it really wasn't until there were many more women on the bus that the way candidates and presidents treat women was considered important. The first victim, so to speak, of that new attitude was Gary Hart.

MARTIN: Gary Hart, former presidential candidate whose campaign was famously derailed by a sex scandal. Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org, or you can tweet us your question with the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON'S "DESIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.