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Words

Presidential Affairs

Secrets and scandals in the White House

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When it comes to our elected officials, nothing is surprising anymore.

Sent to do a job, they look like adults but often act like children with plenty of time to get into mischief. They profess to have our best interests in mind and about that, we sometimes wonder. Is there something they’re not telling us?

Secrets are nothing new in politics, and neither are scandals. And in Robert P. Watson’s book Affairs of State, readers will see that that’s been going on for decades.

Let’s start at the beginning, with George Washington.

It’s hard to imagine America without his influence, but Washington himself was influenced not only by politics, but also by women.

His first attempts at courtship were rebuffed, mostly because Washington set his sights on women who were socially above him. Later, when he met the Widow Custis, he saw opportunity to raise his status and proposed to her at their third meeting. Still, by all accounts, he and Martha had a happy marriage—despite that our first President may have also had two mistresses.

Our third President was quite the ladies’ man, too. Watson says Thomas Jefferson enjoyed dancing and flirting and fell in love at least once before he married his dear wife, Martha. After her death, he remained unmarried but not unloved. Historians and family members still argue about his final romance, one with a slave woman who may have bore Jefferson four children.

America’s only bachelor President, James Buchanan, was engaged to be married but his heart wasn’t in it and he let the situation dwindle. When his spurned fiancé committed suicide, he used her death as an excuse for never marrying. Still, historians believe that Buchanan experienced deep romance—with another man.

We like to think of Abraham Lincoln as taciturn and reserved, but though many thought him “homely,” he was charming and popular with women—so popular, Watson says, that a prostitute once offered to extend him credit.

John Tyler married a woman his children hated. Andrew Jackson’s wife was, briefly and accidentally, a bigamist. James Garfield was consumed with “sexual urges and biblical notions of sin.” And Grover Cleveland robbed the cradle.

Of the 44 Presidents we’ve had in office, Watson says, a mere five are above reproach when it comes to a sex scandal. A few of the rest are in this book.

Though Affairs of State is ostensibly about presidents from 1789 to 1900, Watson starts earlier and goes later than that, but you really won’t mind. Everything is put into perspective compared to modern times, and Watson makes it very interesting to see how something “scandalous” then could be so tame today. Conversely, it’s interesting to see how, alas, so little has changed.

Historians and Washington pundits will get a lot out of this book, but I also think readers looking for something politically fun (for once!) will like it, too. If that’s you, then you’ll find Affairs of State to be a nice surprise.

SVCR Don McLean
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