Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
Only a few of you may know the names Kay Summersby or Lucy Mercer. But I’ll bet most of you will recognize Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky.
These pairs of women are generations apart, but they speak to critical differences in those generations. Once we were a nation of understanding, and discreet, adults. Now we are a hypocritical society of YouTube voyeurs.
Once, we brought presidents to the brink of impeachment for matters of political principle, true high crimes and misdemeanors. Today’s members of the Congress – filled with miscreants, adulterers and worse, we now know – decided that someone else’s philandering was among the crimes worthy of impeachment.
Let me hasten to say that I am not excusing philandering or adultery by either sex, but recognizing that both are facts of human life. Indeed, the greatest heroes of our Bibles, the people who wrote the seventh commandment, engaged in adultery. A recent best-selling novel questions Christ’s celibacy.
As Christopher Hitchens writes in an essay on the commandments in the April Vanity Fair, despite the biblical admonitions, adultery was and “continues to be a great source of misery and joy and fascination...It (adultery) perhaps does not deserve to be classed with murder, theft or perjury.”
If that were the case (as charged against Bill Clinton) the men who took essentially the same oath as Clinton (to uphold the laws) would be or should be standing trial –Governor Mark Sanford, Senator John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, John Edwards. All of them betrayed the public trust if not their oaths.
But here is an essential difference among most of them; their lovers, with few exceptions, couldn’t keep their liaisons to themselves. They did more than kiss-and-tell. They went to publicists knowing full well their stories might ruin the man with whom they had had sex.
Lewinsky, the most tawdry of them all, saved a semen stained dress as proof of her encounter with Clinton so she could cash in on the publicity. The wonder is that Clinton had the poor taste to choose someone like her who, in more ways than one, couldn’t keep her mouth shut. Maybe his poor judgment should have been the impeach able offense.
Similarly, Ensign is charged with having tried to pay off the husband of the woman with whom he, Ensign, was having an affair. The husband, a member of the senator’s staff, threatened to (and finally did) go to the press.
Spitzer’s lady, a call girl known as Kristen now running for office, was really Ashley Dupre, who bared herself and humiliated Spitzer via MySpace after Spitzer resigned.
And although Edwards was out of office, consider the conduct of his liaison, Rielle Hunter, posing for sexually provocative photos with the child Edwards now acknowledges. Questions: What sort of mother is she? What sort of judgment did Edward demonstrate in choosing this person?
Consider the case of the aforementioned Kay Summersby, the Irish daughter of a of a retired British army officer who was in her thirties when she joined the British Mechanised Transport Corp and drove an ambulance during the blitz. In 1942, she was assigned to drive Major General Dwight Eisenhower, who eventually got five stars and became the European Commander.
With Eisenhower’s help, Summersby became an American citizen and a driver in the Women’s Army Corps. Although the men close to Eisenhower must have known something, not until years later – in her second memoir in 1975 after Ike’s death – did Summersby confirm that she did have an affair with her boss during the years 1942-1945. Summersby had been married and divorced when she met Eisenhower and in 1952, when Ike ran for the presidency, she remarried her ex-husband, a stockbroker and lived quietly on Long Island until she died of cancer in 1975, the year her tell-all memoir was published.
Sure, Eisenhower was not yet president when they their affair. But had Summersby flaunted their relationship, he could have been embarrassed, even relieved of command, which would have been disastrous for the European war effort. President Truman, who learned of their affair, did intervene to save Eisenhower’s marriage. Reporters, if they knew of the relationship, like Summersby, did what was expected in those days - they said nothing.
Similarly, Lucy Page Mercer, from prominent Maryland and Virginia families, was hired by Eleanor Roosevelt as her personal secretary in 1913. In 1918, Eleanor discovered through love letters her husband’s affair with Mercer. And although Eleanor gave her husband an ultimatum never to see her again, Lucy Mercer was with FDR when he collapsed and died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.
But it was not until 1966, in a memoir written by a Roosevelt aide, that the romance confirmed. Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who was married to a New York socialite when she spent time with Roosevelt, never spoke of their relationship. She died of leukemia in 1948.
Since Thomas Jefferson’s liaisons with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings (which some historians deny), presidents or would-be presidents have had affairs. A woman named Nan Britton claimed to have been one of Warren Harding’s mistresses, but she waited until four years after his death. John F. Kennedy is strongly alleged to have had a record number of mistresses for his time in office, including Marilyn Monroe.
There is a story, which I know to be true, that Lyndon Johnson came to the bed of a guest at his ranch one night and told her, “This is Your president.” She resisted his advances. And the sainted Ronald Reagan was having an affair with Nancy Davis when he was married to Jane Wyman.
Who is to be condemned for these relationships? Brilliant, complex political leaders like Roosevelt have what I call self-winding egos that need reassurance wherever they can get it - especially if, like Roosevelt, they bear almost superhuman burdens. Ike, I think, needed Summersby to get through a time when he was responsible for so many lives and nothing less than the destiny of Europe.
The women they chose were not FaceBook bimbos and I would suggest they were more liberated in their time than those who seek their 15 minutes of shame.
One more provocative thought. I think I’d prefer a president who is sexually satisfied. But I would hope he or she would pick a partner worthy of the office.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: What I Know About Joy