Presidential affairs: How have allegations of sexual impropriety affected American politics?

When you look at the history of it, a strange pattern emerges.

Porn star Stormy Daniels.
Porn star Stormy Daniels. Credit: Getty Images.

At least 19 women have accused President Donald Trump of sexual assault, harassment, or misconduct, a particularly glaring black eye in light of the #MeToo movement. The latest is that we, the public, may actually hear the sordid details of trysts with porn star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.


One wonders about the impositions of presidents past, and how their alleged dalliances altered the political landscape. What can we learn from these incidents and what are the implications for President Trump? Such accusations hearken back even to our first president. While some had merit others were mere smear tactics. Here are the weightiest incidents.

Thomas Jefferson

An artist’s impression of Sally Hemings, the mistress and slave of Thomas Jefferson. Was their relationship consensual or was she coerced? Credit: YouTube.

Thomas Jefferson was the first to be directly accused in a newspaper of having an affair, with Sally Hemings, his slave. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, when DNA testing confirmed these allegations. Hemings bore Jefferson six children and their descendants are still around today. Even though the scandal garnered a lot of attention, it failed to sink Jefferson.

Rumors circulated even before the 1802 piece, penned by former Jefferson ally, journalist James T. Callender. The president’s Federalist opponents republished the accusation several times, but Jefferson never suffered any backlash from it. One reason is the outlook on slavery and race at the time, another that Jefferson had positive deniability, as everyone in his family and those closest to him, swore such a thing was both physically and morally impossible.

Grover Cleveland

Anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon, 1884. Credit: Library of Congress.

The lead up to the 1884 presidential election erupted in a scandal over an illegitimate child, fathered by then candidate and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. As a result, Republican operatives spread a chant meant to assassinate his character, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” After his victory, supporters responded, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”


The two-term president was rumored to have had an affair 10 years earlier, with 38-year-old Maria Halpin, in Buffalo, New York. He was 37 at the time. The event was particularly scandalous given the outcome—she gave birth to a son, Oscar, and even gave him the surname Cleveland. Shortly after, she was placed in a mental asylum, while the child was taken away and adopted by another family.

Rather than deny the affair, Cleveland’s Democratic allies smeared Halpin’s reputation, saying she’d been casual with her affections and who knows whose child it was. It helped that Cleveland was a bachelor at the time. The truth may be darker still. The book, A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, reveals an affidavit signed by Halpin that claims she had fought off Cleveland’s advances. According to her, he responded violently and forced himself upon her. Halpin was released from the hospital soon after and although she was interviewed several times, she never wavered on her son’s paternity.

Warren G. Harding

President Harding with his wife Florence and father, Dr. George T. Harding, 1920s.

President Harding’s administration was considered one of the worst in the nation’s history. It was rife with scandal, bribery, and corruption. He also admitted to a number of affairs, including with Carrie Fulton Philips, the wife of his friend, James. With Nan Britton he’d even fathered an illegitimate daughter. Republican operatives worked to shield the president from the press and his rivals, as well as to hush those he’d had intimate encounters with.

His wife, Florence Harding, was all too keen of her husband’s involvements and may have even put a stop to them, herself. Harding died in office in 1923 of ptomaine poisoning,  attributed to spoiled crabmeat. But there’s a rumor that Mrs. Harding poisoned him herself. What’s extraordinary are his love letters. All 1,000 pages of them, containing off-color poems, romantic musings, and erotic imaginings, each addressed to Ms. Philips between 1910 and 1920, have since been released by the Library of Congress.

John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy laughing during a press conference, August 9, 1963. Credit: Getty Images.

Although his White House was nicknamed Camelot, the goings-on behind-the-scenes were more like a classic porn than a historical fantasy. Besides dalliances with White House secretaries, JFK’s lovers included Blaze Starr, Angie Dickinson, and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe. Mimi Alford, who worked in the White House Press Office, wrote a book about her love affair with the president, many years afterward. At the time she was just 19 years-old and claims she lost her virginity to the president.

There are those JFK supporters who claim the medication for the rare and painful condition he had, Addison’s disease, may have caused him to have been more amorous than he normally would have. The press at the time kept quiet about his affairs, perhaps because the White House press core was an all-boys club, or maybe they protected the president’s reputation in light of the Cold War.

In any event, he might have paid the price for hound dogging. J. Edgar Hoover earned himself immunity from Kennedy's tampering with the FBI, by keeping tabs on his love conquests. Moreover, some conspiracy theorists believe Kennedy’s assassination occurred due to his affair with the stunning Judith Exner Campbell. She was at the time also romantically entwined with the powerful Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton shakes hands with then-intern Monica Lewinski at a White House holiday function. This photo would later be submitted as evidence in the Starr investigation. Credit: Getty Images.

Perhaps the most famous case in modern history, Bill Clinton was accused of sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, with a sexual act said to have actually occurred in the oval office. What many miss is that Clinton wasn’t impeached due to his tryst but for lying about it under oath. As with Andrew Johnson in 1868, the Senate acquitted Clinton of his impeachment.

A 1998 Gallup Poll—the same year the president admitted impropriety, found that the American public was surprisingly tolerant of presidential extramarital affairs. The presidential incidents mentioned here seem to bear this out.

To learn more about the political price JFK may have paid for his impropriety, click here.

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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