by Kaleigh Steigman
Throughout the course of history, US presidents have been depicted as quintessential Americans, with loving families and pleasant lives. When they have extramarital affairs, the public has often chosen to overlook them in favor of their projected images.
American society highly values the relationships and marriages of people in popular media, but often romanticizes the personal lives of those in the spotlight, including its presidents. Many past presidents have had affairs that are rarely discussed.
Textbooks across the nation refer to the strength and intelligence of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, but don’t mention the affair he had with his slave, Sally Hemings, a woman he had five children with.
“Thomas Jefferson is generally considered one of the best presidents, so it’s strange that even though he cheated on his wife, he is still admired,” said James McCampbell, a freshman at Monticello High School.“I guess what our country is saying is that it’s ok to cheat on your wife as long as you’re the president.”
This consensus can also be applied to numerous other presidents are believed to have had extramarital affairs: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton being the most well known.
In 1998, Bill Clinton went on national television and discussed his alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky, a then White House intern. He ended the broadcast with the famous quote “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” referring to Lewinsky. When it was later discovered that he did have an affair with her, he was nearly impeached on the grounds of obstruction of justice and lying under oath.
John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was believed to commonly have extramarital affairs, the most notable with Marilyn Monroe, an actress and model. At Kennedy’s birthday celebration in 1962, Monroe serenaded the president with a seductive version of “Happy Birthday to You,” later called “Happy Birthday Mr. President.”
Kate Walz, a junior at the high school said: “I think that it’s part of being a politician to portray yourself differently than you are, and it is expected that something about the way people see you is a lie. For some, it’s adultery.”
Presidents have gone to great lengths to ensure that their affairs aren’t publicized. The 29th president, Warren Harding, had an affair with a woman named Carrie Fulton Phillips. When Harding received the Republican nomination, Phillips threatened to reveal the scandal, so the Republican Party bribed her with $50,000 to keep Harding’s name clear.
In several instances, affairs haven’t been revealed until the presidency is over. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s alleged mistress, Kay Summersby, published Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1977, sixteen years after Eisenhower’s last term.
“I think that I learned about some of the affairs from popular media,” said Mr. Michael Shafer, a history teacher at the high school. “Forrest Gump made me aware of the Kennedy relationship with Marilyn Monroe and as a high school student in the 90s, I lived through the Clinton affair, and remember watching the news about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and about some of Clinton’s other affairs that came up.”
“It was definitely something that I was familiar with, but I was pretty young so it didn’t really impact the way that I perceived things that were going on, or the way that presidents were viewed,” he said.
Kate Walz agreed that the personal lives of presidents don’t typically come up in conversation about politics. “I think that our country cares more about the political views of our president then their personal lives,” she said.
Some believe that the reason society overlooks moral failures of presidents is because they improve the world more than they damage it. “I think that Bill Clinton did what most people thought was the right thing to do for the country, so they were willing to overlook his personal mistakes in marriage,” said McCampbell.
In some lights, people think that a president’s personal life doesn’t affect his ability to run the country, while in aspects of the job other than political decisions, it is crucial to their success.
“I think in foreign diplomatic matters, their private life has limited influence on their ability to process and make decisions, but we also ask our presidents to reflect the moral fabric of American society,” said Schafer. “I think on those issues, matters of social norms,and respectability, and how we treat people – those things do play into how we interpret their ability to navigate complex issues,” he said.
He further explained how the leaders of America are expected to fit a certain mold, and how, when they don’t fit it, people tend to admire them less.
“There is this aura of tradition; we have never had a president that has been single when they entered office,” he said. “Woodrow Wilson’s wife died while he was in office, and then he remarried while in office. We have never had a single man or woman running for office as president, and I think that’s because people have wanted someone that has a family, someone who can say that they have real experience when issues come up that impact home life.”
Walz identified the relationship between a president’s private life and society’s view of them.
“I feel like our society thinks that the president has to look really strong, like how Kennedy and FDR were sick, but no one knew about their illnesses until much later. I think that’s part of the job of president as well, looking strong for the image of America, and divorce wouldn’t be considered strength,” she said.
Schafer further examined the importance of marriage to American Society.
“I think it is very hard for Hillary or Bill Clinton to talk about the strength of the traditional family unit when they don’t have a traditional family unit,” he said. They have stayed together, perhaps, for political expediency.”
“Maybe their relationship is truly one that is not based in love, but in some other symbiotic connection. It is more difficult for them to make those arguments, it doesn’t mean they can’t be made, as people make mistakes, people change over the course of their lives and sometimes people drift apart, and that happens, but it does speak to character of an individual,” he said.
McCampbell thinks that the personal life of a presidential candidate isn’t relevant when considering their political capabilities.
“When I vote, I think I will consider a candidate’s views as a whole, and not their personal reputation. I will choose the candidate who has a strong political reputation over the one who is just a ‘nice guy’,” he said.
Despite this view, he acknowledged that the moral beliefs of a president are important. “A president’s morals play a big role in their job because they have political beliefs that affect their party and what policies that they support, as well as the power to endorse concepts that they believe in more than ones they don’t feel strongly about,” he said.
In the current presidential race, society’s view of the candidates could be a turning point in the election.
“I think that this issue is very relevant right now,” Schafer said. “If we look at the candidates, Bill Clinton’s wife is obviously running, and she is the likely Democratic nominee for the presidency. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, is someone who has been married several times, who has been reported to be a womanizer. I think that does reflect on the gender dynamic in this country,” he said.
Walz shared her perspective on this current issue: “As a woman, I want to support other women, so I don’t support leaders with derogatory views on women,” she said. “I think it is interesting that Donald Trump is on everyone’s mind, and he has had several wives, and has been rude to women, but that’s not even the worse thing he’s done.”
Walz pointed out the lack of honest in society and politics, as well as the desire of the people for a strong leader.
“I guess that it is a flaw of our society that we don’t hold our leaders to the truth, but I think it is also hopeful that our leader really is who they say they are, and that they are who we want them to be,” Walz said.