Imperfect Politicians, Cleveland through first Roosevelts

American politicians’ scandals and foibles

Grover Cleveland: first to be publicly accused of sexual impropriety

Stephen Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, the only one to serve two non-consecutive terms in the White House.

Only two politicians have risen so rapidly from obscurity to the presidency as Cleveland: Woodrow Wilson went from being the disgruntled president of Princeton University to being President of the United States in two years. Barack Obama rose from “community organizer” to president in about the same length of time.

Cleveland avoided service in the American Civil War by paying a Polish immigrant $150 to serve in his place. He was elected and served an unremarkable term as sheriff of Erie County, NY, and returned to his private law practice in 1873. He was elected mayor of Buffalo, NY and began his service in January of 1882. A Democrat, Cleveland quickly made a name for himself as a “reformer,” fighting graft and throwing political hacks from their do-nothing jobs. He did so well that the New York Democratic Party nominated him for governor, and he was elected to that office in November 1882, eleven months after becoming mayor.

Cleveland was sworn in as New York Governor in January 1883 and continued to build a reputation for fighting political corruption, clashing colorfully with the Tammany Hall machine in New York City. His reformer image brought him to the attention of the national Democratic Party, which nominated him for president at its 1884 convention in  Chicago. He defeated Republican James G. Blaine in November and became President of the United States in March 1885, three years and two months after becoming mayor of Buffalo.

Cleveland, still a bachelor at age 36, began a relationship with a widow named Maria Halpin in 1873. Halpin became pregnant and gave birth to a son, whom she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland, on September 14, 1874. Cleveland did not want to marry Halpin, and he and his friends put out the story that not even she was sure who the father was. Cleveland did, however, take on responsibility for the financial support of the child.

Halpin supposedly became an alcoholic subsequent to the birth of Oscar, and was committed to an institution for treatment. Cleveland then arranged for the child to be adopted by a childless couple. That at least is the story Cleveland and his friends told.

His having supposedly fathered the child did become a campaign issue in the 1884 elections, with Republicans chanting a ditty: “Mama, Mama, where’s my Paw? Gone to the White House Haw, Haw, Haw.”

Cleveland’s story held up for century and a quarter, but in 2011 a writer named Charles Lachman published a book called “A Secret Life: The Sex Lies and Scandal of President Grover Cleveland.” Lachman claimed that Cleveland and his cronies had slandered Halpin and that he had fathered her child by what “would in another era be classified as date rape.” Lachman turned up an affidavit by Halpin which claimed Cleveland had sexually assaulted her “by use of force and violence without my consent.”

Those who really know what happened in Buffalo in 1873-1874 are long dead. In any case, Cleveland qualifies as the first president to have been publicly accused of sexual impropriety.

Warren Harding: affairs, mistresses and illegitimacy

The exploits of Warren Gamaliel Harding are rather well-known, having been the subject of books, movies and speculative conversation for a hundred years. Harding, the country’s 29th president is well-known for his long time affair with at least one married woman, and his supposedly having kept a young mistress named Nan Britton, by whom he fathered a child.

In a book published after Harding’s death in 1923, Britton told of having had sex with Harding in the White House while standing up in a coat closet. Britton claimed Harding had promised to provide for their child, but that his widow Florence refused to honor the commitment after he died. It is known that Florence hired secretaries after Harding’s death to help her gather and burn a considerable amount of his correspondence, much of it supposedly love letters to various women.

Alice Longworth Roosevelt: a simple philosophy of hedonism

The first Roosevelt to create a sex scandal was not a president, but the daughter of a president. Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth was the oldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt, who supposedly said of her, “I can run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

A woman who would be considered gorgeous by any standard, Alice was a handful from a very early age. Driving cars, smoking cigarettes, drinking, seducing whatever man caught her fancy, Alice had an unabashedly good time being a “bad.” While TR was president Alice married Congressman Nicolas Longworth III in a White House ceremony. Longworth, was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and as much a sexual adventurer as Alice. Their marriage was what might have been described in more recent times as an “open” one. It was rather openly acknowledged that Senator Edgar Borah of Idaho, not Longworth, was the father of Alice’s only child. Wags referred to the child, whose name was Paulina, as “Aurora Borah Alice.” Alice maintained her wicked sense of humor even in the matter of naming her child: she had intended to name the child “Deborah,” a not so veiled reference to her paternity, but decided otherwise.

Alice remained a colorful and powerful fixture in Washington, D.C. until her death at age 96 in 1980. She remained influential in presidential politics and delighted in numerous affairs with men of various ages that she found attractive.

In her old age she referred to herself in a nationally televised interview as a “hedonist,” and said, “I have a simple philosophy. Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. And scratch where it itches.” Alice always had fun and apparently delighted all, except for those that she skewered with her wicked sense of humor.

She frequently said and had embroidered on a pillow in her Washington home the words: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”



More on Politicians:

Part I, Imperfect politicians, babies and bathwater?


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