Public Nuisances

Scandal in the White House in Times Past

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION looms on the horizon, and already the nation's great organs of opinion--and occasionally of fact--are gearing up to serve the commonweal and, ever so quietly, their own biases.

Already we are told that Herman Cain--the non-politician seeking the Republican nomination--had two untoward incidents in the 1990s with ladies who were not his wife…or maybe he did not. He pleads innocent. His wife does too. Then there is Governor Rick Perry. He has appeared hesitant on the debate platform. First, he said he was fatigued. Then he explained he is a bad debater, and so what? Ours is not a parliamentary system, and the only time a candidate's ability to debate is exigent is during election time. After that, a candidate's powers of debate matter about as much as a candidate's facility with chopsticks. Judgment, decisiveness, managerial skill, and experience are what matter. Witness the pitiable floundering of the Obama administration.

As for speaking in public, one can use a Teleprompter, as our present chief executive does. At least he did, until the truck carrying the presidential Teleprompters disappeared and with the truck went the presidential seal too. President Barack Obama really liked his presidential seal, and I publicly plead with the scoundrels who took the truck to give the seal back. Or perhaps the infamous Koch brothers could buy our president a new one.

At any rate, the presidential season is upon us so I expect to discover many shocking things in our public-spirited press. Though I must say, ancient charges of sexual indiscretion by Cain startle me. When similar charges (and much else) were revealed two decades ago about President Bill Clinton in The American Spectator, my colleagues in the press were horrified. A tacit bond of good taste had been broken. Boys will be boys. They all do it. What is it that people have about this thing called sex? Has the Spectator no shame?

Ah well, at any rate there is a lot of hypocrisy in reporting politics. Still, it is a presidential race that faces us, and I have decided to look into what other journalists have through the years noticed as scandalous about our presidents. A veritable mother lode appeared in the July 1928 American Mercury, edited by the great editor and man of letters H. L. Mencken. The piece was not written by Mencken but by his much-underesteemed colleague, George Jean Nathan, a drama critic but also a historian of Americana. If he were on the scene today and he could stand the indignity, I think he would make an excellent talking head, though the audience would need constant recourse to the dictionary and to a book on etiquette. Nathan was a well-educated gentleman and was very amusing,

According to Nathan, "James Monroe used toothpicks in the presence of his guests, and Andrew Jackson relished smelly cheeses so greatly--he served them regularly at his White House dinners--that the ladies sitting near him at table had to use extra large fans. John Quincy Adams perspired copiously and, after wiping the beads from his face, would dangle his wet handkerchief to and fro, spreading moisture over everybody about him." Moreover, Nathan sniffed, "Zachary Taylor was a victim of chronic indigestion." Millard Fillmore, so frequently compared nowadays with the present incumbent in the White House, "would frequently doze off and snore gently in the presence of his guests." Even the war hero, President U.S. Grant, was not insulated from the journalists' scorn. Grant, "like a good Methodist…used often to hit the bottle in private and to show up nicely enameled." Also, he smoked pungent cigars and "liked to blow rings at persons with whom he was talking." Can you imagine such indiscretions today? President Grant did not even go out to the Rose Garden to blow his rings!

We are doubtless going to read in the press in the weeks to come more shocking tales about the candidates--at least the Republican candidates. President Obama is a saintly man, though he rarely attends church and has Solyndra and other green projects on his mind these days. So there will be no whiff of scandal about him. But as for the rest of the candidates, I hope readers will take refuge in history and be reassured that no president today would smoke in the White House or, like Zach Taylor, burp.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.