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REFLECTIONS: Philandering

SaulFriedman75x75 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.

Category_bug_reflections 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


Well Saul, I think you are sticking your neck out on this one. On the one hand I was dismayed at the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton for his sexual misdemeanors, on the other hand I am a little dismayed at the defense of male sexual misdemeanors as being not nearly as important as perjury or betraying the public trust. That the women you mention behaved badly is probably true. That the men you mention behaved badly seems to be not quite as bad in your eyes.

I am human and I recognize that very few of us are perfect, I certainly am not. I have committed a few moral misdemeanors myself and will no doubt commit a few more before life's end. I agree with you that we should not hold our politicians to an impossibly high standard, but I do wonder how we can trust people who feel they can commit moral misdemeanors in one area of life. Are their moral standards such that they will always tell the truth and be trustworthy and sincere on matters of importance to voters, but considerably laxer in the area of sexual behavior?

Also, is there not a certain arrogance and sense of entitlement on the part of male politicians who engage in sexual activity with women of considerably lower levels of power and society? Do I really want to encourage that?

This issue is of more than passing interest to me since the councillor for my city ward has recently been caught out in a sexual misdemeanor and while what he did was not illegal or particularly dramatic (he is unmarried and childless), it does seem to be the tip of an iceberg of arrogance and political ambition. Do I really want to re-elect this person in the upcoming civic election?

I've got to say I agree with Annie on this.

This is an issue about women as well as men and I think you are brave to write about it at all. We have come into a period where 'affairs' are more condemned than they were for years. Even the French, who supposedly are more 'liberated' about such thinking are full of horror and gossip about their leader and his wife-- are both having affairs. It seems to me that it should be a private issue between the individuals, not public information and whether Sarah Palin has an affair or heaven forbid Nancy Pelosi,it's not something for a media that has become tabloid.

That said, I am amazed at the quality of women these guys are choosing as they blow their story up in the media and want fame for something most would be ashamed of. It's about the media more than the men choosing quality or not quality women as John F Kennedy was supposedly having sex with about anybody who would do it but who reads their stories. Thanks for that.

What's the relevance of the post to this blog community? If a link between philandering and the aging male is the topic, I missed it.

It's interesting to me that in both Saul Friedman's piece and in the comments, all writers take it for granted that the famous male in question did the choosing. Why? Because he was famous and powerful? I would think that exactly as is the case with sports and show-business celebrities, those attributes make bedding the man a challenge for a certain kind of woman. I would also say that the 24-7 nature of the media's need for fodder in our time has greatly increased the market for such stories, "incentivising" sexual partners of both genders to capitalize on their connection.

Oh, it's a crime for a man to go philanderin'
And fill his wife's poor heart with grief and doubt
Oh, it's a crime for a man to go philanderin'
But...with a little bit of luck
With a little bit of luck
You can see the bloodhound don't find out!

Warren Harding had a girl friend and Grover Cleveland married his mistress.

I think Saul's point is that this stuff is commonplace and hardly the public's business: There's no correlation between philandering and the success of a presidency. FDR was a great president, Ike was near great, Warren Harding was one of the worst. Jefferson, whose exploitation of a slave represented the worst of the peculiar institution, was indispensable to the creation of the country. We wouldn't have known about Bill Clinton had the blue-nose Republicans not amplified Linda Tripp's betrayal of a friend.

I will admit that I get a sense of schadenfreude anytime Republican misdeeds are revealed, but that's because this exposes hypocrisy, which is never a bad thing.

Personally, I don't know how they do it. I wouldn't know how to philander if my life depended on it. Great word, though.

When I read your post today the name Kay Summersby went right to my heart. It was as if I knew her and now someone is finally speaking of her. I don't know how many have every read her book but it was one of the most moving and touching books I have every read. I still have that book. It is an amazing story of love, courage and hearbreak. This was not the likes of what goes on today. This was a quiet women who stood not by his side but slighlty behind a great man's. I truly believe that whatever history has to say of her I believe she made a difference to him. War is terrible, decisions that weighed on him, troops that looked to him. He looked to her and she came through. No press conferences, just a step behind. But he knew she was there, behind him and that made a difference.

I think Annie said it best. What galls me most about it about are the "holier than thou/my God's better than yours" conservative types who wave their religious banner and then as ask us to forgive them. Right.

I remember what my daughter, the same age as Monica, said at the time of the Lewinsky debacle when I was ranting about her mother saving the dress. "Mom, you would have been in D.C. so fast to drag my stupid butt home I wouldn't have known what hit me --but not until you had a 'few' nasty words with Bill who is the same age as you. And the dress would have been shredded during a lecture on disrespecting my family and my God. The press would never have known."

One of the things that bothers me most today is everyone's seemingly burning need to air their "dirty linen" in public.

WOW!!! I used to think that philandering was like philanthropy...donating what could be given away for the public good. Today, I guess the need for cheap thrills in everyday life is the reason for the "hot scoops" of those eager to pursue breaking the 7th Commandment. MYOB use to be the watch word of my youth...maybe it should be that of the publicity hounds. OYE VAY!!!

Hey Saul, do you like having your neck out there. LOL How about presidents keeping it in their pants? I know....not the way most folks think. I didn't think that way in the 60's myself, but I can't imagine Presidents like Truman not living that way.

I will stick my neck out even further: Lucy Mercer and Kay Summersby performed a great public service; the bimbos of today have no substance and do nothing to enhance or strengthen the politicians they service. They are simply whores, not lovers or counselors, etc.
In South Africa the old time racist Afrikaaners who held out to the last were said to be verkrampt--uptight, connstpated. I wonder if the leaders of the GOP--including Snowe--need a little sex to loose their verkrampt politics.

spoken like a true guy! i'm not too prudish, but i think those who want to fool around should avoid marriage. period. but most of us want it all. and what about the wives? most forgive their husbands, and aren't those guys lucky! and, saul, bimbos? shame on you. women are women, dignified or not. and, yes, arrogance and entitlement are not becoming in anyone.

At the time the seventh commandment was first conceived or I might say "written in stone", women were considered to be part of a husband's chattels.
As such, if a man possessed another's wife he was guilty of "theft" aka "adultery.

Now, in the 21st century where women are free agents and capable of making decisions about their own lives without needing hubby's approval. What's all the fuss?

Those of us on the left can still get a kick out of watching official representatives of the so-recently-dubbed Moral Majority trip over, philanderers...after all the posturing they did in the Clinton years. When there's no political future in the Holier Than Thou platform, this particular form of circus will die away; most fads burn themselves out through overexposure.

Saul, you are always so spot on. Great article.
Most of us have lived to see the way the world has changed so drastically ... in the past century just as our parents and grandparents did in their generations. I'm just sad to see the loss of civility and common courtesty in both our private and public lives. Really miss that part!

"the most tawdry of all" was young, she was counseled by Tripp to keep the dress, she thought of herself as a lover not a whore, did not have the judgment to understand the degree to which he was abusing his position in taking advantage of what she presented - he was the adult in the equation - he was impeached for lying under oath, not philandering - and the "tawdry" label is yet another example in a continuum of mysogynist social history where Eve carries the weight of blame as temptress. In your column you question the judgment of latter day men as reflected in the women they chose as opposed to the character that the conduct of these men reflects: lack of discipline and betrayal. In this they are no different than the men of yore.
Truman understood that.

*yawn* This posting but furthers the spreading of sexual nonsense for which we so becry "the media". Sorry, Saul. I am, in general, a great fan of yours.

This relates more to today based on where someone lives. Did you all see the article on the spurned wife who sued her ex husband's mistress? Despite the husband saying he'd begun affairs two years after they married and continued through the whole 30+ years, despite the 'other' woman not having a lot of money, the results of the lawsuit was a $9 million settlement. Basically saying it was NOT the fault of the husband but that seductress 'other' woman who didn't look any more attractive in photos than the wife. Alienation of affection suits are possible in nearly 10 states. North Carolina where this suit happened has the most-- 200 of them a year.

No one has mentioned this, but what if that elusive emotion we call "love" was part of the formula in those relationships - like that of Eisenhower and Summersby?

I don't mean the usual tabloid hollywood version of the word either.

That is what jumps out at me in reading your post, Saul.

And Mama Gump's wisdom shines: stupid is as stupid does....

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