I’m no expert on presidents behaving badly. But since former Pres. Bill Clinton brought up two other former presidents as though to explain why he didn’t resign from office over his misconduct with a White House intern, maybe it’s worth looking broadly at presidential sexual mischief.
In the context of the #MeToo movement, with multiple men being accused (and usually guilty) of sexual harassment and worse offenses, the question naturally follows: Which president was the biggest womanizer — Donald Trump? Bill Clinton? Lyndon Johnson? John F. Kennedy? Or maybe we need to go clear back to Thomas Jefferson?
Our current president is frequently and deservedly lambasted for his treatment of women and his extramarital affairs. And we’re all aware of the many accusations against Clinton. Recently, Clinton pulled in two other presidents when he was pressed on the NBC Today Show about his lack of direct apology to Monica Lewinsky for his behavior two decades ago. Clinton asked if womanizing presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson should have resigned over their sexual peccadillos.
Besides that bunch, I’m sure there were other presidents who succumbed to the lusts of the flesh. But I don’t know about them. I assume historians have delved into the sex lives of past presidents. They certainly have scrutinized Thomas Jefferson, who is thought to have had a long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, producing six children.
There are, of course, various levels of unacceptable behavior, including for presidents, ranging from inappropriate comments, to consensual extramarital affairs, to unwanted advances and touching, to sexual harassment and assault, and outright rape.
And is it relevant to say, well, this happened 20 (or 30 or 50 or 200) years ago, in a different time and place, with different expectations and standards of behavior?
Donald Trump clearly has had several consensual affairs while married. He has clearly treated women disrespectfully and is accused of inappropriate behavior approaching sexual assault. Bill Clinton had several affairs and is accused of outright rape, in addition to sexual assault.
In the Johnson and Kennedy years, reporters seldom wrote about presidential sexual activity, although there were accusations and even a paternity lawsuit in Johnson’s case. According to his biographer, Johnson once bragged that he’d “had more women by accident than Kennedy ever had on purpose.” That was a remarkable statement, considering that Kennedy had multiple affairs, including one with a White House intern. He said on several occasions that if he didn’t have sex every day he got a headache. Both Kennedy and Johnson had affairs with women on the White House staff, women with whom they were in a position of power and could fire or demote.
I am by no means excusing Trump’s behavior by looking back at past presidents. But those presidents should also not be excused because it was a different time and place. Certainly, for the women involved, it was just as degrading and hurtful – perhaps more so.