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Ed Ross | Monday, January 23, 2012

There is an interesting correlation between the most successful presidents over the past 80 years and those that have had extramarital affairs. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton all had extramarital affairs before or during their terms of office. Only Ronald Reagan appears to be the exception to the rule. Is it any wonder that voters may be willing to overlook Newt Gingrich’s affair?

You may or may not agree that Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Clinton and Reagan have been the most successful. However, Harry Truman left office with approval ratings in the 30s. Lyndon Johnson declined to run in 1968 because of the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton. And George W. Bush left office with approval ratings in the 30s amidst and economic crisis. As Barack Obama is still in office we won’t consider him.

That’s not to say that none of the less successful presidents had affairs with other women we don’t know about; just that 80 percent the five most successful did.

Of the four successful presidents that had affairs, two only had one, and two had many. Franklin Roosevelt had only one well-documented mistress, Lucy Page Mercer. It’s unclear when Roosevelt’s affair with Mercer began; the two were exchanging letters in 1918. Franklin and Eleanor were married in 1905. The affair lasted until Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Mercer was with the President the day he died. General Dwight Eisenhower’s wartime affair was with his driver, Kay Summersby. The relationships both couples had went far beyond sex. Mercer and Sommersby were trusted companions.

John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, on the other hand, had multiple affairs or trysts too numerous to mention. Kennedy’s most infamous rendezvous were with Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe and an affair that began when he was a Senator with Judith Campbell Exner that lasted into his presidency. Kennedy also used Exner as a go-between with Mafia boss San Giancana. He had many other dalliances in and out of the White House.

Bill Clinton had the affair with Monica Lewinski that led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. He also had a well-documented affair with Gennifer Flowers. Numerous other women accused him of sexual harassment and assault.

One distinction that’s necessary to make here is that only Bill Clinton was elected to office with broad public knowledge of his tendency toward extramarital affairs. While others, including members of the press, knew about Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, such information was off limits and wasn’t reported in those days. In the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War however, the private lives of public officials was fair game; and Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” as governor of Arkansas were well known.

Of course, none of this proves a cause and effect relationship between adultery and presidential leadership. It raises the question, however, what character trait is it in these men that leads them to cheat on their wives that has anything to do with their success as president?

The trait that jumps out at me in this regard is boldness. It takes a lot of boldness for a public official or a general to carry on an affair with another woman, knowing how disclosure of that relationship could destroy his career. It takes a similar kind of boldness for a successful President to make the risky decisions that often are necessary in domestic and foreign affairs.

This brings us to Newt Gingrich. He’s definitely a man of bold ideas; and he is a self-admitted adulterer, having, at a minimum, carried on an affair with his third wife Callista, then a member of his staff, while he was married to his second wife, Marianne. But does this mean he would make a successful president?

Now, I can almost feel many women reading this column seething in disgust at the idea that infidelity is a trait associated with successful presidents. I’m not suggesting that at all. To paraphrase Texas Governor Rick Perry, you have to wonder if a man who will deceive, or attempt to deceive, his wife will deceive the voters. Of course the voters are easier to deceive than wives. Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton were all very much aware of their husband’s infidelities.

Nevertheless, given Newt Gingrich’s victory in the South Carolina primary after his exchange with CNN debate moderator John King over Newt’s second wife Marianne’s scathing indictment of him in an interview with ABC’s Brian Ross, you have to wonder what went through voter’s minds as they processed the information about Newt’s character.

The conventional wisdom is that South Carolina debate audience’s reaction to Gingrich’s exchange with King had more to do with mainstream media bias than Gingrich’s character. It’s highly doubtful that ABC would have interviewed Marianne or that King would have challenged Gingrich had he been a Democrat. Nevertheless, there was an undertone of who cares about Newt’s sex life, and, after all, he married Callista.

Has the knowledge of Roosevelt’s, Eisenhower’s, Kennedy’s, Clinton’s, and other past presidents relationships with other women immunized future presidents and presidential candidates from criticism of their extramarital affairs if they’re otherwise perceived to be effective leaders? Beyond that, does the fact that a presidential candidate such as Newt Gingrich led a secret life endow him with a mystique as it did with Bill Clinton?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions; but I ask them because they are worth pondering as Republicans enter the voting booth in the remaining primaries, and, should Newt win the nomination, in the general election.


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