Obituaries for the Louisiana politician Edwin Edwards last year often called him “colorful” or “flamboyant,” although the word “corrupt” tended to find its way in as well. The man’s chutzpah had a certain flair. Heading to prison after his conviction on 17 counts of racketeering and fraud charges, Edwards pledged to be “a model prisoner, just as I was a model citizen.” Pitted against former Klan leader David Duke in a runoff, he declared, “The only thing we have in common is we’re both wizards under the sheets.” But what won him a spot in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations was his assessment of another campaign: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
By implication, getting caught in bed with a living female (other than his wife) would be survivable—with the proof being that Edwards won four terms as Louisiana governor while cultivating a reputation for extramarital shenanigans.
It’s unfortunate that Edwards makes no appearance in J. Michael Martinez’s Libertines: American Political Sex Scandals From Alexander Hamilton to Donald Trump (Rowman & Littlefield), simply as an outlier. More commonly, as Martinez’s case studies show, the politician’s instinct is to deny, deflect or apologize profusely, in whatever combination, in hopes that the subject will change as much and as soon as possible. The book’s 14 accounts of American sex scandals raise two related questions: Why do some private indiscretions become public affairs? And what makes one scandal fatal to a politician’s career while another isn’t?
The author, a lecturer on political science at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, seems to have an undergraduate audience in mind, rather than colleagues; the book is, on the whole, more narrative than comparative. But they are interesting questions, and the chronicle of historical figures with their pants down is full of striking details. Warren G. Harding, for example, will forever be ranked among the worst American presidents, but he had another side.
“Owing to his surviving correspondence,” Martinez writes, “we know far more about his love life than we should. Harding nicknamed his penis ‘Jerry,’ and he wrote about the appendage in the third person in letters that he sent to [one mistress]. Jerry took on a life of its own, becoming an alter ego with hopes, dreams, and desires that Harding expressed in numerous letters.”
The Teapot Dome scandal will never be the sole element of the Harding administration I remember ever again.
When and how the electorate becomes aware of a politician’s private life (privates’ life?) varies a great deal, and the impression left on the historical memory can shift over time. By now the musical Hamilton has made the statesman’s blackmail payments to cover up his affair with Mrs. Reynolds almost as familiar to today’s public as the matter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But House of Representatives member Daniel Sickles’s murder of his wife’s lover in 1859 is largely forgotten, although it could not have been more public or salacious at the time.
After securing Teresa Sickles’s confession in writing that she “did what is usual for a wicked woman to do” with a gentleman she frequently met for “intimacy of an improper kind,” the congressman fired several pistol shots into him in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. The matter is a footnote in history insofar as Sickles was the first American defendant to be acquitted by reason of temporary insanity. However, the author suggests that getting Mrs. Sickles’s confession on paper showed plenty of cold-blooded premeditation, and a friend had told the congressman, before the killing, that “there is but one course left for you, and as a man of honor you need no advice.”
The verdict did not bring the scandal to a close. “Public opinion turned,” Martinez writes, when the wronged husband “reconciled with Teresa Sickles only a few months after his acquittal. If he were as despondent as he had claimed, how could he welcome this Jezebel back into his bed?”
Hypocrisy, double standards and punitive attitudes make up much of the record, with powerful-guy entitlement as the prevailing force in most chapters. A retroactive Me Too applies often enough. To be clear, not all of the opportunists are male. Hamilton’s femme fatale Mrs. Reynolds and the recipient of Harding’s Jerry letters in particular knew how to turn affairs to their own advantage. But they are exceptional. Most of the opportunists are men (and incorrigible about it), while all the predators are.
It is not always clear which label best applies. The claim that Grover Cleveland did the right thing by paying child support to the unwed mother who bore his son (even though he didn’t have to! Who knows who the father was, right?) clearly mollified enough of the electorate for him to win the presidency in the 1884 election, though it sure looks like spin-doctoring now, even apart from the fact the woman in question said he assaulted her.
On the contrary, no one seems to have challenged Gary Hart’s monkey business as anything but consensual; likewise with House Ways and Means chairman Wilbur Mills’s affair with a stripper remembered as the “Tidal Basin Bombshell” (long story).
Then there was Senator Bob Packwood. An ethics committee investigation yielded “a comprehensive ten-volume report numbering 10,145 pages,” issued in 1995, documenting what committee chairman Mitch McConnell called Packwood’s “habitual pattern of aggressive, blatantly sexual advances, mostly directed at members of his own staff or others whose livelihoods were connected in some way to his power and authority as a Senator.” That sounds pretty categorical.
As for Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, neither president invented the art of brazening out a sex scandal, but they have surely mastered it.
Scandal took on a whole new form in the case of Anthony Weiner—and to my mind the book would have had a much interesting narrative progression if it ended with his story rather than Trump’s. As it is, closing the narrative with page after page of Trump’s sex scandals proves not just nauseating but anticlimactic.
Weiner’s meteoric rise in New York political circles seemed for a time like the prelude to a national career, but in a series of incidents between the early and mid-2010s, he sent X-rated messages and selfies via social media to various women. The first scandal was embarrassing. The second, in which he used the screen name Carlos Danger, was abjectly humiliating. The third was felonious: in what proved to be his undoing, he was convicted of sexting a teenage girl. He did time for that one, and when it came time to try writing a tell-all memoir, no publisher was interested.
“People who thrust themselves into the limelight,” writes Martinez, “and especially those politicians who seek elective office to effect public policy, must establish a brand that reflects the values and beliefs of their constituents, assuming they want to succeed and make a good name for themselves. Public figures who gratify their own interests and desires at the expense of the common good risk becoming, like Weiner, a punchline to a sick, sad joke.”
But Martinez also recognizes that a lack of self-control is insufficient explanation for Weiner’s behavior. Most of the scandals treated in the book involve concealment and a sense of what the electorate will tolerate. In rare cases such as Edwin Edwards (or, with less wit about it, Donald Trump), the politician knows he can get away with quite a bit, and he does.
But Weinergate, as it inevitably became known, unfolded in a very different cultural landscape: one in which the risk of exposure is roughly 100 percent, with a corresponding likelihood of self-destruction. Martinez guesses that Weiner’s behavior involves some degree of self-loathing or desire for punishment or failure. That seems plausible. The closest any of the other scandals came to it was Harding’s insistence that his paramour keep the letters from Jerry even after she offered them to him to destroy. They were not known to the public until well after his death.
Weiner had every reason to expect the worst to happen and to define his career. He went right ahead. This may be the shape of scandals to come.