In his latest book, Affairs of State, historian Robert Watson educates and titillates with documented tales of “love, sex and scandal” by U.S. presidents from 1789 through 1900. But as a standing-room crowd discovered during a recent presentation at West Boca library, the director of American Studies at Lynn University also has done his homework when it comes to modern masters of presidential peccadilloes.
Watson delighted the more than 100 people in attendance with stories of Thomas Jefferson’s involvement with Monticello slave Sally Hemings and Abraham Lincoln’s little-known encounter with a prostitute—as well as sordid details from the prodigious body of work assembled by John Kennedy.
“We know that there were two young women, quote-unquote secretaries, with White House code names ‘Fiddle’ and ‘Faddle,’” Watson told the audience. “They [regularly] came to the White House for ‘lunch,’ had a threesome with the president, and then Kennedy would go back to work. ...
“... During the Cuban missile crisis, a young secretary comes walking in with the latest telegraph. Kennedy turns to his aides and says, ‘Find me her name.’ Then he says to the people in the room, ‘Gentlemen, we may yet avoid war here today.’ What’s he thinking about in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis?”
Watson, who spent parts of the past decade researching the book, calls Affairs of State among his favorite of the 30-plus works he’s published. The popular professor and local TV political commentator spoke with Boca Raton about sex and the presidency.
What does history teach us about the ability to lead—and an inability to remain faithful? Does one impact the other?
We’ve had presidents like Millard Fillmore, happily married and faithful, but who were rotten presidents. We’ve had men like Woodrow Wilson, unfaithful, who were pretty good presidents. And all points in between. So I'm not sure we can lump one in with the other.
I don’t know that political leaders are any better or worse than the rest of us. I’d like to think they’re better; I try to hold my political leaders to a higher ethical standard. And I do think we should raise the bar. I’m willing to forgive the local baker more than I am a political leader.
The higher up you go on the ladder, there’s more room to fall. There’s also more opportunities for misbehavior. [Politicians] like Bill Clinton have a constant need for affirmation—and an adoring legion of sycophants. I’m uncomfortable when people just want to say hello. I can’t imagine walking into a room and having women put their hotel keys in my pocket. But that’s part of what comes with leadership—power. And high political power is the greatest enticement. These people are rock stars.
Have your feelings changed about certain presidents because of what you now know about their personal lives?
I was shocked that Woodrow Wilson had affairs. Wilson was a professor, very straight-laced and cerebral; he was not a back-slapper. So he was one of the last people that I expected to have affairs.
Also, I was appalled at just how reckless Kennedy was. We all know about Kennedy; it’s part of pop culture. But I didn’t know the extent. Multiple women every day, threesomes. I mean, the man was sleeping with the mistress of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana—how reckless is that? Kennedy would stop at a hotel on the way to an event to be with prostitutes. He wouldn’t let the Secret Service clear the room; he’d just walk in, and there would be two women, waiting for him.
The night of his inaugural—Jan. 20, 1961—JFK is with Angie Dickinson. Jackie is tired, she goes back early, and JFK takes Angie to the top-floor penthouse. The night of the inaugural? From respect for the office to respect for your wife to the dangerous situations he put himself in, the man was a beast.
Is the TMZ atmosphere we live in impacting pursuit of the presidency by talented people who just don’t want to deal with such invasiveness?
We all have something in our past that could be misconstrued or taken out of context. And we’ve all said and done things we’d like to have back. Our best and brightest may not be running because of this. When anyone runs for public office now, they have to think, “What’s my worst dirty laundry? And how do I feel about that being on the evening news?” Does someone want to put his family through that?
[Still], as Henry Kissinger once said, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
I once spoke with the former finance chair for Gary Hart. He told me that when Hart was running for president [in 1987], he reverted to being a teenager. Women were coming out of the woodwork, and Hart was just losing his mind.
Once, he said, there was a fundraiser for Hart to meet some top Democratic donors at a swanky hotel in New York. Hart walks into the room with the flight attendant—she's in full uniform—from the incoming flight. The finance chair says, “My god, these people are ready to take out their checkbooks. What are you doing?” Hart, he said, saw nothing wrong with it.
Everybody was telling him how great he was, and how he was going to be the next president—and it got to him.