That’s the sound of a really good presidential scandal once it makes the papers and reaches your average guy or gal on the street. It’s usually followed up with “How could this guy, the president, be so stupid?” or “How could he be so stupid that he actually got caught?”
The measure of a good scandal is the look on the president’s face at the moment he gets nailed. Then comes the denial, the st-st-stuttering attempt to explain, or the dance to place blame on the back of someone else. And that’s when the show starts to get good.
Let’s define a good scandal, shall we? Essentially, there are two types:
1. The first begins with an event or set of circumstances that is not very important yet is easily described in a few words or sentences and is easily blown out of proportion by the press. From a consumer’s point of view, this type of scandal is one that leave us all with an insatiable desire to know more. And every time another fact or angle is added to the story, it sounds even more ludicrous or surreal or dumb than it did before, driving us to want to know even more.
2. The second type of scandal is more serious. It usually involves a serious breach of security or confidence or trust, yet is equally as dumb.
Bill Clinton’s two-hundred-dollar haircut on a runway at LAX was a good scandal of the former variety. Barack Obama’s handling of Benghazi and George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina are two very good examples of the latter.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON’S BLACKMAILING MISTRESS
It just goes to show you that you don’t have to be president to create a presidential-sized scandal.
Just ask Alexander Hamilton, a guy who was secretary of the treasury and might have become president one day if Vice President Aaron Burr hadn’t killed him first.
When it came to politics, Hamilton may have been smart. But as the following story shows, when it came to having an affair, he was a real sucker.
“An amazingly scandal-free administration”
* * *
“I have my disagreements, say, with President Obama, but President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him. He’s chosen people who have been pretty scandal-free.”
—Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks
In a Nutshell, Hamilton Was Set Up
It was a beautiful plan, one created by a sultry and seductive woman named Maria Reynolds (yet another of our fearless leaders finds himself compromising his virtue with yet another woman named Maria) and her husband, James, who was a con man. It worked like this:
• First, Maria paid a visit to Hamilton at his office and told him a long and tragic tale of being deserted by her husband.
• Next, she lured him back to her house for a tryst—for which Hamilton paid her handsomely. The payment, no doubt, was Hamilton’s way of helping Maria deal with the financial aspect of her desertion plight.
• Now the plot thickened … for in walked Maria’s husband.
Hamilton Has a Problem
From a blackmailer’s perspective, it doesn’t get any better than this—Hamilton had a wife, a reputation, and a future in politics to protect. And here is where James and Maria Reynolds proved they were not your common low-life blackmailers wanting to make a quick buck and run. No, what they had in mind for Hamilton was a long-term financial plan.
James Reynolds’s initial reaction to finding his wife with another man was one of shock and horror—his wife was taken from him! His home was broken! His heart would never heal! (Of course, Reynolds was only acting; this was all part of a larger plan.)
On second thought, James Reynolds said to Alexander Hamilton, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing after all. You seem to like Maria, she seems to like you, and she seems to be in a better mood after she has seen you. If you’ll just pay me a thousand dollars, you can sleep with my wife any time you like, and no one has to be any wiser.
The attraction was mutual—James and Maria liked Hamilton’s money, and Hamilton was infatuated with Maria. The affair continued for almost a year.
After Hamilton paid him the first thousand dollars James Reynolds of course continued to ask for more. Hamilton paid it, at times even borrowing money from friends to keep James and Maria happy.
The World According
to James Reynolds:
“You took advantage of a poor Broken harted
woman…. You have acted the part of the
most Cruelest man in existence…. Now Sire
you have bin the Cause of Cooling [of] her
affections for me.”
—James Reynolds, before
Hamilton paid him off
“I find when ever you have been with her, she
is Cheerful and kind, but when you have not
in some time she is Quite the Reverse.”
—Reynolds, after Hamilton paid him off
And Baby Makes Four
This cash-for-sex relationship with James and Maria Reynolds continued for almost a year until Maria got pregnant and threatened to kill herself. To Hamilton, this looked like a smart time to bow out. However, James Reynolds saw things differently: he decided it was the perfect time to ask for more than money—this time he tried to blackmail Hamilton into giving him a nice, cushy government job.
This is where Hamilton drew the line. His personal life was his own to make a mess of, he reasoned, but to his credit, he was completely unwilling to compromise his position or the public trust.
James, on the other hand, figured that if he couldn’t get a government appointment or any more money out of Hamilton, then he could certainly earn some cash by taking the entire story to Hamilton’s political enemies in Congress.
Hamilton Spills His Guts
On December 15, 1792, Democrat Alexander Hamilton responded to a knock at his door and opened it to discover three Republican congressmen—James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenburg, and Abraham Venable—standing on his doorstep and ready to string him up.
James Reynolds, it seems, not only told these three congressmen about Hamilton’s affair, but he also led them to believe Hamilton had used government funds to pay him off. As Hamilton saw it, if he was going to avoid hanging right there or public humiliation later, he had to convince the three guys in his living room that, while on a personal level his actions were immoral, he hadn’t done anything to compromise his position as secretary of the treasury. And the only way Hamilton could see to convince these guys, his political enemies, was to tell them every last detail of the affair and to document his story with a well-laid paper trail. Hamilton’s story was so convincing and so well-documented—he had signed receipts for money borrowed from friends, signed receipts he had given to James, and love letters he had received from Maria—that the three congressmen could in no way doubt his story.
The three congressmen heard him out. As much as they would have liked to use the story to destroy him, they were concerned that a scandal of this nature, involving such a high-ranking member of the government when the Union was so young, could destroy the people’s confidence in their leaders and their nation—and so all three agreed to carry Hamilton’s story to the grave.
Hamilton’s story remained secret for six years until a written transcript of his confession was leaked to the press and published. Hamilton quickly retaliated with his own published response that, interestingly, went on to become a bestseller.
The Reynolds wrap-up
* * *
Here’s how the saga of James and Maria Reynolds ended:
• Maria eventually divorced James and married another con man.
• Maria’s attorney for her divorce was none other than Aaron Burr.
• Maria was not only an adulteress; she was also a bigamist. It seems she got married again thirty minutes before Burr got her divorce finalized.
Everything we know about [bad] karma we learned from Vice President Aaron Burr:
* * *
• He was the first presidential candidate to lose the presidency by a vote of the House of Representatives.
• Next, he was passed over by his own party for reelection as vice president.
• Finally, that lug Alexander Hamilton called him “despicable” and “dangerous” and, well, what else could Burr do but challenge him to a duel and kill him?
• But what goes around comes around: Aaron Burr died in 1836 at the age of eighty a forgotten man without a cent to his name in a hotel on Staten Island in New York City.
But wait! There’s more!!
* * *
• Did we mention that he may have been responsible for the rumors about an affair with James Madison’s wife Dolley. (We did mention it; see Chapter Two.)
• And let’s not forget the rumors that Burr fathered an illegitimate son named Martin Van Buren. Van Buren, of course, unlike his pop, actually made it all the way to the White House. (You can find out more about this is Chapter One.)
• You’ll find out lots more about VP Aaron Burr in Chapter Eleven.
Was James Buchanan America’s first gay president?
Was William Rufus Devane King America’s first gay vice president?
Were the president and the vice president having an affair?
Confused? Read on …
AMERICA’S FIRST GAY PRESIDENT AND VICE PRESIDENT?
America’s First Gay “First Couple”?
This is a story of sexual intrigue that involves a president, a vice president, and a fiancée.
Although they were president and vice president during different administrations, James Buchanan and William Rufus Devane King may have been the first gay men to occupy the executive offices of the United States of America. They met as members of Congress. King was elected to the Senate from the state of Alabama at the age of thirty-three in 1819. Buchanan was elected to the Senate from the state of Pennsylvania at the age of forty-three in 1834.
From the moment they met, they were inseparable. For years, they were known as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy” or “Mr. Buchanan and his wife” and King was often referred to as “Mrs. B.” or “Buchanan’s better half.”
Did Buchanan’s Fiancée Kill Herself When He Told Her the News?
At the age of twenty-eight, Buchanan was engaged to Anne Coleman, who died suddenly of mysterious causes. The truth of her death remains unknown, but many historians believe she committed suicide.
This much is known: Buchanan never became romantically involved with another woman for the rest of his life.
Or … Was James Buchanan “Outed”?
A day after Anne’s death, Buchanan sent a letter to her father:
My Dear Sir:
You have lost a child, a dear, dear child. I have lost the only earthly object of my affections, without whom life now presents to me a dreary blank. My prospects are all cut off, and I feel that my happiness will be buried with her in the grave. It is now no time for explanation, but the time will come when you will discover that she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it. My feelings of resentment against them, whoever they may be, are buried in the dust. I have now one request to make, and, for the love of God and of your dear departed daughter whom I loved infinitely more than any other human being could love, deny me not. Afford me the melancholy pleasure of seeing her body before its internment. I would not for the world be denied this request.
I might make another, but from the misrepresentations which must have been made to you, I am almost afraid. I would like to follow her remains to the grave as a mourner. I would like to convince the world, and I hope yet to convince you, that she was infinitely dearer to me than life. I may sustain the shock of her death, but I feel that happiness has fled from me forever. The prayer which I make to God without ceasing is, that I yet may be able to show my veneration for the memory of my dear departed saint, by my respect and attachment for her surviving friends.
May Heaven bless you, and enable you to bear the shock with the fortitude of a Christian. I am, forever, your sincere and grateful friend,
Anne Coleman’s father returned the letter unopened.
Will the “Real” Story Behind Anne Coleman’s Death Ever Be Known?
At one point in his seventies, James Buchanan seemed ready to reveal the details of his relationship with her and the cause of her death. He told a friend he had deposited documents at a bank in New York that would explain his relationship with Miss Coleman.
Unfortunately, after Buchanan died his executors found a handwritten note with the documents instructing them to destroy the papers without reading them … and they followed his instructions to the letter.
Or so they said.
But if they didn’t do as Buchanan asked and they did read the documents before they destroyed them, they sure kept their mouths shut tight about what they knew. Nothing new about Buchanan’s love life, other than rumors and speculation and innuendo, has ever been revealed.
THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCOHOLIC AND THE DYING MAN
A Further Scandal Involving William Rufus Devane King
While running as Franklin Pierce’s vice-presidential candidate, King didn’t do a single day of campaigning.
Why? Because he was holed up in Havana dying of tuberculosis.
President-to-be Franklin Pierce wasn’t in much better shape: He was such a heavy drinker that Republicans would taunt him by calling him “a hero … of many a well fought bottle.”
Although Pierce was able to control his drinking well enough to make it through four years in the White House, King didn’t have the same luck. He was so sick that he didn’t even make it back to Washington for his inauguration. Instead, by a special act of Congress, he was allowed to be sworn into office in Cuba—in fact, he’s the only executive officer of the United States who has ever been sworn in on foreign soil. King died six weeks after taking office and didn’t spend a single day of his vice-presidential term in the capital city.
WARREN G. HARDING GETS EXISTENTIAL
When it became apparent that the charming, handsome Ohio newspaperman Warren Harding was to be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, a group of party heavies whisked him into a “smoke-filled” hotel room to grill him about his past and any skeletons he might have to hide. When asked directly, Harding responded by dismissing himself from the room for a break. He was gone for close to ten minutes, and when he returned he told the waiting Republicans there wasn’t anything he was hiding that would surface later and harm his reputation.
Perhaps Harding misunderstood the question. While the party bosses wanted to know if he had any skeletons to hide, Harding must have thought they just wanted to make sure all his skeletons were well hidden.
“Whatcha got to hide, Warren G. Harding?”
* * *
• A mistress named Carrie Phillips
• Another mistress named Nan Britton
• An illegitimate daughter named Elizabeth Ann Britton
“Where’d you go, Warren G. Harding?”
Of course, you might choose to believe he was so excited at the prospect of being nominated president that he had to make a quick trip to the bathroom. Most historians, however, figure he slipped out to make a few phone calls. To his mistress. Or mistresses. To beg for their silence.
It worked too. Until Harding dropped dead.
MISTRESSES: THE WARREN G. HARDING WAY
How to Find ’Em
Option #1: If you’ve got friends and they’ve got wives, why bother looking anywhere else?
Carrie Phillips was the wife of Harding’s good friend Jim Phillips. The Harding-Phillips affair lasted for fifteen years.
Option #2: Let her come to you.
Harding and Nan Britton first met when she was a young teen. He owned The Marion Star, and she had a secret schoolgirl crush on him and wrote short bits of news for his paper about the activities and students at her school.
Seven years later, when she was twenty-one and living in New York and he was a fifty-one-year-old senator, she contacted him and asked if he could help her get a job.
He could and he did. He took her to a hotel, rented the bridal suite, and offered her a job as his mistress.
Ironically, Nan Britton was a virgin at the time—but that didn’t last long. Soon she and the senator were meeting at various hotels and eventually in his Senate offices. After he was elected president, they met regularly in a White House closet and in the homes of various Harding friends.
How to Hide ’Em
Option #1: Send her away … for life, if you can.
Imagine you’re the head of the Republican National Committee and you discover your presidential candidate lied to you about mistresses in that smoke-filled room. Quick! What do you do? How do you keep the press (and the American public) from finding out?
One way: Send her far away to a place where the press will never find her. And send her away for life, if you can.
Believe it or not, this worked with Carrie Phillips. When Harding’s campaign manager offered her $25,000 on the spot and $2,000 a month (in 1920 dollars!) to take a long vacation until Harding left office, she took him up on the deal and stayed away until after Harding died.
Option #2: Tell her you love her.
Given the amount of attention that Harding heaped upon Nan, there was no way she was going to ruin a good thing by squealing to the press.
Harding sent Nan hundreds of explicit love letters, letters that ran as long as forty pages in length. Ironically, given Harding’s background as a newspaperman, he often chose a pencil and little pieces of scrap paper on which to pour out his deep feelings of love and passion.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO NAN AND ELIZABETH ANN BRITTON?
The one good thing you could say about Harding was that he really knew how to make friends and how to keep them. The fact that he could get both of his mistresses (and a host of others) to remain quiet about his clandestine affairs during the two and a half years of his presidency was nothing short of a miracle.
Once he died, however, all bets were off. Take the case of Nan Britton. Of course Harding supplied her with money. Of course he told her he loved her. Of course he led her to believe that he would marry her when his wife died. But he ended up dying before his wife did, and no money was set aside for Nan or their daughter. So Nan took matters into her own hands.
First, she tried contacting Harding’s family for child support, but they shooed her away. So she naturally did what all good Americans do when in similar straits: she wrote a book. It was called The President’s Daughter, and it was published by the Elizabeth Ann Guild. Elizabeth Ann, of course, was the name of Nan’s daughter by Harding, and Britton claimed she would use the money from the sale of the book to help other unwed mothers and illegitimate children.
She must have been able to give others a lot more help than Harding ever gave to her—the book was a runaway bestseller and was made into the movie Children of No Importance in 1928.
An illegitimate father
* * *
Although Elizabeth Ann looked a lot like him, Harding had absolutely no desire to see her. In fact, Nan Britton reported in her book that she could barely get Harding to even look at a photo of her.
Elizabeth Ann was Harding’s only child.
Postscript to the Warren Harding story
* * *
Among historians, it is almost universally accepted that Harding was one of the worst presidents in history.
From the moment he lied about his past in that hotel room, the tone was set for a presidency beset with more lies, corruption, favoritism, and general ineptitude.
The truth about the corruption and favoritism of his administration began to seep out while he was still in office. Financial scandals were uncovered, and members of his cabinet resigned and even committed suicide. But the real truth about Harding’s presidency wasn’t exposed until after he died. (Or after he was perhaps, as rumors go, murdered by his wife.)
ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT TO THE WARREN HARDING STORY:
Did Mrs. Harding Murder the President?
Most experts say no, but the rumors continue to linger to this day.
Warren and Florence Harding were in the presidential suite at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Mrs. Harding was reading a very favorable story about Harding to him in the Saturday Evening Post. He had not been feeling well for a few days, following a 15,000-mile cross-country speaking tour that even included the far-away territory of Alaska, where no president had ever gone before.
Mrs. Harding read to him the favorable story. His last words were, “That’s good, go on,” and then he dropped dead.
As you’ve seen here in these pages, President Harding’s personal and professional live were both a mess. When Mrs. Harding refused an autopsy for her husband, the president, it set off rumors that still circulate today that she poisoned her husband because of his cheating, or because it seemed like an easy way to clear away all of the messes that her husband and his friends and his lovers had created in her life.
PRESIDENT JACKSON & THE PEGGY EATON AFFAIR
Neither of your authors has ever been president, but we do have one piece of wisdom to share with you should you ever wind up with the job: don’t ever let your domestic or foreign policy be determined by friends and their domestic problems, as President Andrew Jackson once did.
It all started with President Jackson’s friend Senator John Eaton of Tennessee. Senator Eaton had a friend named Peggy Timberlake. Peggy Timberlake had a husband named Captain Timberlake.
Since Captain Timberlake spent a lot of time at sea, Peggy would often get lonely. In fact, she was what they used to call “a woman of ill repute.” The truth is she had a bad reputation with townfolks before Senator Eaton came around—and hanging out with the likes of him didn’t help.
One day, Captain Timberlake washed up dead. And President Jackson, with the scandalous affair and death of his own wife, Rachel (see page 35), very much on his mind, urged his friend Senator Eaton to make an honest woman of the now-widowed Mrs. Timberlake. The senator took the president’s advice.
So far, so good.
Now, in a totally unrelated move, President Jackson appointed Senator Eaton to the position of secretary of war. While there was no real dispute about Eaton’s qualifications to serve in the position, all the society ladies of Washington were appalled. Why? Because if Senator Eaton became secretary of war, it would mean a woman with the former Mrs. Timberlake’s virtues, as a result of her new husband’s appointment, would necessarily have to be allowed to become a member of the Washington wives’ inner circle of friends.
Jackson, meanwhile, discounted all the rumors about the new Mrs. Eaton’s past and discounted the talk of a Washington Wives revolt. Instead he ordered all members of his administration to order all their wives to treat the new Mrs. Eaton with all the dignity and respect her position deserved.
One woman who refused to abide by the president’s order was the wife of his own vice president, John Calhoun. President Jackson was so frustrated by Mrs. Calhoun that he called on her at home himself with the intention of delivering the order to her face. However, the will of President Jackson was no match for the will of Floride Calhoun. Not only did she ignore the president’s order to treat Mrs. Eaton with respect, but she gave an order of her own: she told her butler to show the president to the door.
It never occurred to President Jackson that his entire cabinet could come unraveled over a scandal involving so small a domestic issue as the reputation of one appointed member’s wife. But it did. Given the circumstances that led to the undoing of his own beloved wife’s reputation and her death from a heart attack shortly afterward, this entire episode was particularly troubling to President Jackson.
Determined to put things in order and set matters right, President Jackson held a formal dinner for all of his cabinet members and arranged for Peggy Eaton to sit in the seat of honor beside him. The move was intended to send a message to the wives of the other cabinet members. Meanwhile, Mrs. Eaton’s choice of attire for the evening didn’t do much to help the president’s cause; she wore a low-cut dress that covered only one shoulder, which only served to feed the flames of controversy.
President Jackson refused to call a single meeting of his cabinet as long as their wives refused to treat Mrs. Eaton as one of their equals. Therefore, instead of cabinet meetings Jackson held what his enemies called “Kitchen Cabinet” meetings—meetings with trusted friends and advisers who did not hold high public offices but were highly valued and trusted by President Jackson. They were called the Kitchen Cabinet because they usually met in the White House kitchen and snuck in and out through the back door, passing relatively unnoticed.
Peggy Eaton, President-Maker?
The guy who benefited the most from the Eaton affair was President Jackson’s secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. He was one of the few members of Jackson’s administration who could afford to be polite and courteous and attentive toward Mrs. Eaton without risking reprisals at home from his own wife. He was, after all, a widower.
It was Van Buren, in fact, who finally solved the “Petticoat War,” as it was called, since the women of Washington were unwilling to let their cause die. His solution: that the president should replace the entire cabinet, letting the pro-Eaton members (like Van Buren and Eaton himself) resign before dismissing the remaining anti-Eaton members. Once he was free of the other members, the president could choose a new Peggy Eaton–friendly cabinet and give his friends Eaton and Van Buren new appointments that were sure to please.
Jackson repaid Van Buren for his brilliant political solution by guaranteeing him his nomination for vice president in the next election.
Was Jackson’s reasoning sound?
* * *
When Eaton confided in Jackson about Peggy Timberlake’s checkered past, the president pointed out that “your marrying her will disprove these charges, and restore Peggy’s good name.”
Jackson may have been the first
to have an informal cabinet
but he wasn’t the last:
Teddy Roosevelt had a Tennis Cabinet,
Warren Harding had a Poker Cabinet, and
Herbert Hoover had a Medicine Ball Cabinet
because he liked to toss one of the heavy balls
around while he talked.