In the digital era, dalliances are hard to cover up

Michael Wines / New York Times News Service /

Alexander Hamilton, Warren Harding, FDR, LBJ, Ike. Reps. Mark Souder, Chris Lee and Anthony Weiner. Sens. Gary Hart, John Ensign and David Vitter. Maybe a first lady, Grace Coolidge. And now, David Petraeus.

There would seem to be nothing new about the weakness of otherwise powerful Washington figures in the face of temptation. But that is not precisely true: The difference these days is that it is virtually impossible to get away with it.

Petraeus’ affair is but the most recent in an embarrassment of political scandals that lately have spilled into public view: Vitter, of Louisiana, was exposed in 2009 as the client of high-priced prostitutes; Weiner, of New York, confessed in 2011 to sending sexually explicit photographs to women; Ensign, of Nevada, resigned last year after admitting to an illicit affair with a staff member. Souder, of Indiana, quit in 2010 over a relationship with a staff member with whom he had taped a video promoting sexual abstinence. Lee, of New York, left office the same year after sending via Twitter a photograph of himself, shirtless, to a woman he met on Craigslist.

Says Wesley Hagood, the author of a compendium of presidential dalliances: “If they’d just pay attention and turn on the news, they’d know there’s going to be a consequence.”

Petraeus was tripped up by an FBI investigation that stumbled across his extramarital relationship. But in a digital era when the details of even average citizens are cached for public view, the odds of exposure have become exponentially greater.

Weiner and Lee employed Twitter to approach women. Vitter was again abashed this year after someone — not him, his spokesman insisted — sent and then deleted a message to @LuvMy_Kisses, the account of a young Louisiana woman. That tweet was uncovered by the Sunlight Foundation, which maintains an archive of deleted messages by American politicians.

In matters of sex, desire frequently trumps common sense. It may be no accident that recklessness is epidemic among the powerful, though: A 2001 study in the Journal of Family Psychology concluded that the incidence of extramarital affairs rises in lock step with income and education.

It used to be that sex scandals did not become scandals until their participants died. The affairs of Nelson Rockefeller, the former New York governor, became public only after he passed away while in bed with a girlfriend. The Washington press corps is famous, or infamous, for politely declining to report on the serial extramarital couplings of President John F. Kennedy, who had plenty of White House company: Hagood said his research indicates that about one-third of American presidents had extramarital affairs.

Harding made love to his mistress in a White House closet. As a powerful senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson — who called his collection of paramours a harem — commandeered a room in the Capitol for his meetings with women, said presidential historian Robert Dallek. Once in the White House, he said, Johnson installed a buzzer to alert him when his wife, Lady Bird, was approaching.

Grace Coolidge was widely rumored to have running liaisons with Secret Service agents, to her husband’s great displeasure.

President Bill Clinton, of course, goes without saying.

Hagood said that among philandering politicians, absolute power may corrupt absolutely. “They think they’re above the rules — that somehow the rules don’t apply to them, or that they have special needs that deserve to be met.” So thought Alexander Hamilton, who as secretary of the treasury began an affair with Maria Reynolds, a woman who knocked on his door and said she was fleeing an abusive husband.

Hamilton was the victim of a blackmail plot; Reynolds’ husband extracted $1,000 from him by threatening to expose the affair. After it eventually became public, Hamilton published what was then regarded as a shockingly detailed account of his mistake, and expressed bitter recriminations. It was, he said, “morally impossible I should have been foolish as well as depraved enough to employ so vile an instrument” for what he said were “such insignificant ends.”

Petraeus walked in Hamilton’s footsteps Friday, saying he “showed extremely poor judgment” and adding, “such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.” By resigning, he took what seems to be the preferred course of action after such revelations; most politicians either quit or are ousted by voters. Vitter, who continues in Congress, is the rare exception.

Whether resignation is always necessary is another matter. Hamilton is lionized as one of the republic’s greatest statesmen. Despite the revelation of his many affairs, Kennedy recently was rated the best of the nine most modern presidents in a poll of Americans, Dallek said.

“You can’t get away with it now,” he said. “But the public seems to discount these things.”