The Mark Sanford scandal is all over the news. Tales of John Edwards’ affair are now old hat, and Eliot Spitzer’s pecadillos have almost faded from memory. When tales of Bill Clinton’s infidelity broke, it filled the news for months. In the general scheme of things, leaders who cheat are vilified, mistrusted and people do their best to run them out of office.
Yet America’s history is full of statesmen who had affairs. George Washington — perhaps our most revered figure — had liaisons with a variety of women during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson is said to have carried on an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. Benjamin Franklin had a lusty appetite as well. Still, all of these men are rightfully regarded as great leaders and patriots.
Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, was fiercely loyal to his wife, and he is regarded by some as the worst president in American history.
Of course, some will say, that was more than 200 years ago. The values of the time were different, and it was normal for powerful men to take a mistress. In modern times, however, there is no way that voters should trust a leader who cheats on his wife.
Let’s look at some examples from the 20th century to see if there is a correlation between a leader cheating on his wife and being a poor president.
Franklin Roosevelt is widely regarded as one of the best Presidents in American history. He led us through the Depression and World War II. Despite being disabled by a bout with polio, he managed to carry on a long-term affair with Lucy Mercer.
Dwight D. Eisenhower is often regarded among the 10 best presidents. He was Allied commander in World War II, and he also had a mistress while abroad.
John F. Kennedy is still a very popular president, and his assassination is one of the shared tragedies of American history. He has since become well-known for his womanizing.
On the other hand, Richard Nixon never was caught in a marital crisis. Instead, he expanded the war in Vietnam and was forced to resign by the Watergate scandal.
Jimmy Carter remained faithful to his wife, yet his handling of the Iran hostage crisis and the weakening economy caused him, with Nixon, to be rated among the 10 worst presidents.
George W. Bush, unlike his predecessor, has avoided any scandals from marital infidelity. Instead, he has started a war in Iraq and maintained near-record lows in popularity ratings for unprecedented lengths of time.
So there are three examples of modern presidents who had affairs and are regarded as good or great leaders, and three examples of presidents who were faithful to their wives and yet are poorly regarded as presidents.
This does not prove that all presidents who cheat are better leaders. That would require an exhaustive study of all 43 presidents, whether they had affairs (information that is often lost to history) and then a careful evaluation of which leaders were the best.
But these examples are enough to make an impression. It certainly appears that many of our great leaders had mistresses, and that several of our less-successful presidents did not. This raises the question: Are there one or more character traits that influence men to both be powerful leaders and have affairs?
The traits that make good leaders are hard to pin down. Many people would suggest honesty and integrity, yet those seem to contradict marital infidelity. In a way, this claim is the one under scrutiny in these examples.
Flexibility or adaptability is very important as a leader, and that same ability to change to fit the circumstances might influence one to cheat. Great leaders are often more interested in practical concerns than rigid ideologies. Maybe it is this interest in concrete matters that allows them to set aside conventional morality in pursuit of both their national goals and their own pleasure.
If it is true that there is a correlation between marital infidelity and good leadership, why is it that so many voters are adamant about punishing leaders for their indiscretions? Mark Sanford was humiliated, Eliot Spitzer resigned from office, Gary Hart lost his chance to run for president, and Bill Clinton was impeached.
One possibility is that any leader who is competent enough to handle the complex business of governing should be competent enough to hide his affair. If a leader cheats and is caught, then he must not be competent enough to manage more complicated endeavors.
There are several examples from history of the danger of failing to hide an affair, but one involving Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson is particularly interesting.
Prior to 1795, Hamilton was the first secretary of the treasury and is credited with founding many of the nation’s important financial habits and institutions, including the first national bank and the U.S. Mint. In 1791, however, he began an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds. The affair was exposed by journalist James Callender. After news of the affair became public, Hamilton was forced to resign and never held public office again.
The tale does not end there. Impressed with his attacks on Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson hired Callender to attack President John Adams. Callender was jailed for sedition and eventually pardoned by Jefferson. Callender expected a federal post for his troubles when Jefferson was elected in 1800, but Jefferson refused. Callender turned his formidable scandal-hunting powers toward Jefferson and accused him of fathering a child with his slave Sally Hemmings, a claim that has tarred Jefferson’s reputation even to this day (historians still debate whether or not it was true).
So here are two leaders who were having affairs and brilliantly conducting matters of state. It was only after their dalliances were discovered that they received the opprobrium of the public.
Still, it does not seem that most people (or any) apply the rationale of “competent leaders can hide affairs; if he gets caught, he’s not competent” to judging these events. Instead, they refer to honesty and morals, qualities that are thought to make good leaders. So how is it that so many great leaders cheat?
Perhaps voters should come up with a different criterion. The next time they vote for a candidate, they shouldn’t vote for the one with the least skeletons in his closet. They should vote for the one that hides them the best.
This article appeared previously on Heretical Ideas.