New York, Nov. 11: Alexander Hamilton, Warren Harding, JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton. Maybe a first lady, Grace Coolidge. And now, David H. Petraeus.
There would seem to be nothing new about the weakness of otherwise powerful Washington figures in the face of temptation. But that is not precisely true: the difference these days is that it is virtually impossible to get away with it.
Petraeus, the military commander and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), resigned on Friday after admitting an affair with a woman later identified by Obama administration officials as his biographer.
His is but the most recent in an embarrassment of splashy political scandals.
“It shocks me how people continue in this type of reckless behaviour, ,” said Wesley . Hagood, who wrote a compendium of presidential dalliances. “If they’d just pay attention and turn on the news, they’d know there’s going to be a consequence.”
In a digital era when the details of even average citizens are cached for public view, the odds of exposure have become exponentially greater. The Sunlight Foundation, which uncovered an explicit Twitter message by Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, maintains an archive of deleted messages by American politicians.
Once, sex scandals did not become scandals until their participants died. The affairs of Nelson Rockefeller, the former New York governor, became public only after he died while having sex with a girlfriend. The Washington press corps is famous, or infamous, for declining to report on the serial extramarital couplings of President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy had plenty of White House company: Hagood, the author, said his research indicates that about one third of American Presidents have had extramarital affairs.
Harding, the former President, made illicit love in an Oval Office coat closet. As a senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, another President, commandeered a room in the Capitol for his meetings with women, said the presidential historian Robert Dallek. As President, he said, Johnson installed a buzzer to alert him when his wife, Lady Bird, threatened to interrupt one of his conquests.
Grace Coolidge was widely rumoured to have running liaisons with Secret Service agents.
President Bill Clinton, of course, goes without saying.
Curiously, many scandals burst open in part because powerful men usually are rotten at picking mistresses.
Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of America, as secretary of the treasury began an affair with Maria Reynolds, who had pleaded for his help in fleeing an abusive husband. Hamilton went to her apartment to give her $30, but after being led to her bedroom, “it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary compensation would be acceptable”, he later wrote.
Reynolds was blackmailing him, and her husband extracted $1,000 by threatening to expose the affair. It eventually became public anyway, and Hamilton expressed bitter regret. It was, he wrote, “morally impossible I should have been foolish as well as depraved” for what he called “such insignificant ends”.
Whether resignation is always necessary — or even wise — is another matter. “We suffer from an overabundance of Puritanism mixed with hypocrisy,” Marina Ein, a publicist, wrote on Friday.
Hamilton went on to be lionised as one of the republic’s greatest statesmen.