15 years ago this month, then-President Bill Clinton was impeached by the US House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. The root of the trouble was, of course, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Though Clinton was later acquitted by the Senate, the trial sparked questions about the blurry line between private and public misconduct. But Americans have been puzzling over just where to draw that line for centuries. So in this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian look back over other scandals in American history, exploring the public response and the legacies they’ve left behind.
Talking with their guests, the hosts rediscover some of the scandals that captured earlier generations’ imaginations – like a lurid tale of adultery and infanticide at a 1790s Virginia plantation called (no joke) “Bizarre.” Or the 19th century Beecher-Tilton trial, in which a celebrity preacher was accused of seducing his best friend’s wife. And in more recent years, the serious congressman whose affair with an exotic dancer helped end his career, and helped change Washington too. Along the way, they consider what has constituted a scandal in American history and how public attitudes toward them have evolved.
View Full Episode Transcript
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. It’s been 15 years since the American people first heard this now infamous denial.
BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
BRIAN: In December, 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached after his inept attempts to explain away an affair with a White House intern. Clinton was roundly mocked for questioning the meaning of the word “is.” But other politicians have gotten equally creative in their attempts to avoid scandal. Take Congressman Wilbur Mills, for instance. Caught with a stripper in DC in 1974, he distanced himself, literally.
JULIAN ZELIZER: The US Park Police pull over a car. And the car is stopped. And a woman runs out of the car. And she jumps into the Tidal Basin.
BRIAN: A History of Sex Scandals, this week on BackStory.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh. And I’m here with Peter Onuf.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.
ED: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: In the late 1860s, Henry Ward Beecher was, perhaps, the most famous man in America, a reformer, an editorialist, but most of all a preacher. Every Sunday, some 3,000 people would flock to hear the sermon at his mega-church in Brooklyn. He was a rock star.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: He’s writing novels. He’s appearing in advertisements. He’s traveling the world. He’s as wealthy as any minister ever needed to be.
ED: This is Debby Applegate, author of a biography of Henry Ward Beecher. She says Beecher also had a reputation as a bit of a ladies’ man. Rumors about affairs with parishioners had circulated for decades. But they had never quite been proven.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: I think people said, well, he’s overly friendly. Yeah, he’s a little flirtatious. Boy, don’t people seem to have a crush on that man? But how could he possibly be doing that? There’s no way that a man of that power and that fame with that many eyes on him could possibly be cutting those kind of corners.
BRIAN: In 1870, that began to change. A member of Beecher’s church, Elizabeth Tilton, told her husband Theodore that she had had an affair with Beecher. Pretty soon, the gossip spread within the church.
ED: At first, the pastor’s alleged affair wasn’t considered fit for public conversation. But that was about to change.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Well, in 1872, a magnificent wild card enters the picture, a woman named Victoria Woodhull.
BRIAN: Victoria Woodhull was a radical. She wore her hair cut short like a man’s, had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and campaigned for women’s suffrage.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: But not just for the vote, but also for divorce, for birth control, for what was called then free love, which we now call American culture, I’m pretty sure, but the idea that you should be able to love who you wanted, whenever you wanted, without benefit of clergy or marriage. And these things were all anathema to most Americans. At the minimum, they were very, very controversial.
ED: In 1872, Woodhull was running for US president on the Equal Rights Party ticket. And since Beecher was a very prominent, liberal minded reformer, Woodhull thought he could give her campaign a boost. So she asked for his endorsement.
BRIAN: Now, Beecher was an advocate for women’s suffrage. But all this stuff about birth control and free love, well, that was just a little extreme for the pastor of such a prominent church.
ED: So Beecher refused to endorse her. And that’s when Woodhull got mad.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: She decides, to hell with this. She’s going to take Henry down. Because to her mind, he is the ultimate hypocrite. Here’s a man who seems to be practicing free love. Here was a man who preaches to 20 of his mistresses every Sunday, as people like to say. But he refuses to stand up for the principle of free love in the press.
BRIAN: Woodhull, in addition to being a presidential candidate and a clairvoyant also ran her own newspaper. And she desperately needed money. So in November, 1872, she published a salacious story alleging not only that Beecher was having an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, but that the two performed, quote, terrible orgies in front of the Tilton children.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: And when she does, it is like a bombshell has gone off. All the other papers can now pick it up. All the people in his church go absolutely out of their mind with frustration and anger. And then the whole thing explodes.
BRIAN: Today on the show, the American obsession with scandal. 15 years ago this month, President Bill Clinton was impeached following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Though Clinton was later acquitted the trial sparked questions about the line between private misbehavior and public misconduct.
ED: Now Americans had been puzzling over just where to draw that line for centuries. So today’s show, we’ll explore some of the scandals that have so captured Americans’ imaginations. And throughout, we’ll be asking this question, why have Americans been so fascinated by sex scandals throughout our history?
PETER: But first, let’s return to the Beecher-Tilton scandal of the 1870s.
BRIAN: To understand just how explosive Victoria Woodhull’s allegations were, you have to understand who Henry Ward Beecher was in American culture. He was the son of Lyman Beecher, also a famous preacher. But while Lyman went in for fire and brimstone, Henry focused on the love of Jesus.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: It’s hard now to appreciate, now that we, of course, think of Jesus Christ as the center of Christianity. Well, Jesus was second, by far, to God in the older scheme. Now that we think of churches as supposed to be a place of love and joyous celebration. Well, that was not at all what churches were early in the 19th century.
And some people loved it, right? Some people thought this was a new vision of self-fulfillment. It was a new vision that religion was meant to make you happy here on Earth, not just to save you from a lake of fire after death.
ED: Not every one liked this new focus on love. Some called it the gospel of gush. They said that Beecher should spend a little less time on love and a little more time on God’s law.
So you can imagine what those critics thought when newspapers began printing stories about the alleged affair with Elizabeth Tilton. Here was the proof, they said, that Beecher’s re-imagined Christianity was a recipe for moral decline.
BRIAN: This whole disagreement about theology got a highly public airing when Theodore Tilton, Elizabeth’s husband, sued Beecher for what was then called criminal conversation and alienation of affection, basically adultery. When the trial opened in January, 1875, it was the biggest story since Lincoln’s assassination.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Now this is where things really explode. Once you’re in the legal courts, well, then the press is there in packs. Every single day, hundreds and hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people crowding outside the courthouse trying to get inside. You had to have tickets. You have vendors. You have people hawking food, hawking little pictures of the various principles in this–
BRIAN: T-shirts? Are there t-shirts yet?
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Actually, I’d never thought about that one. And in fact, what’s funny is it becomes a tourist venue in its own way, that people come from out of town. Celebrities come.
In fact, one of the loveliest things about this as a story is how many people felt the need to comment on this scandal. I mean, there are widows writing into Henry to say they’re going to kill themselves if they find out that he’s guilty. There are people who are being committed to insane asylums because they’ve been driven mad by reading about the scandal. People are in fist fights.
BRIAN: And this is beyond Brooklyn and New York. This is national.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Oh, it’s by far. It’s an international scandal.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: It is covered in all the English speaking papers across the world. Clearly, people are very divided on it because the evidence, in fact, looks pretty damning. And yet his denials are so sincere and so heartfelt. And how can this lovable man done so wrong? So it really is quite a moment where people have nothing to go on except their faith. And whatever their faith was before, whatever they thought about Beecher before, that’s a big part of how they’re deciding now that he’s in trouble.
BRIAN: Debby, we don’t have a ticket, but we have you. So take us inside the courtroom. You’ve describe the scene outside, in the press. Take us through some of the most dramatic scenes in this trial.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Well, every single day, Henry’s wife Eunice arrives. And that is clearly a big part of what works. If your wife shows up– I mean, I think we all–
BRIAN: Right. So nothing’s changed, right?
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Everyone who’s watched any scandals knows this.
BRIAN: You roll out the wife.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Right. Exactly. If you’ve got the wife there looking adoringly at you, it really goes a long way. Henry himself, frankly, does not do very well on cross examination. He says, I don’t know, I don’t remember something close to 100 times. Of course, the press counts every time. He looks confused and befuddled in just that kind of suspicious way that makes you think they don’t want to remember.
But then, when he’s on his direct examination, where he gets to speak, he charms the room enough that it really seems like he has turned the tide. Whereas Theodore Tilton, he may have rightness on his side, but in the end he seems crabby. He seems vindictive. Americans don’t like– we may not like hypocrisy, but we certainly don’t like vengeance.
And in the end, that was what saved Henry. The trial jury could not decide on a verdict. In the end, it was nine in favor of his innocence, three in favor of his guilt.
ED: So that’s a hung jury.
DEBBY APPLEGATE: A hung jury.
BRIAN: Was Beecher’s reputation damaged by this scandal?
DEBBY APPLEGATE: Well, he lucked out in the sense of having a hung jury. That definitely gave enough room to those who wanted to have doubt. It allowed them to continue to have their doubts. To those who already had made up their mind that he was guilty, it allowed that to continue.
But what it really meant was that he could continue to go on almost as if nothing happened. He lives for 10 more years. He never loses the support of his church. In fact, his church grows during the scandal. In fact, he makes more money in the last 10 years of his life than he did prior to it.
This is really one of the lessons, I think, is that who really suffers in these scandals? When you think of a Jimmy Swaggart or– the ones who really fall are like the Eliot Spitzers, the ones who were the scolds, the ones who– the hypocrisy is, it just stinks out loud because all they were were the people who wanted to make everyone follow the rules.
Henry was the opposite. And this is probably why it worked for Bill Clinton. He never claimed to be a man of the law. He claimed to be a man of love. He claimed that, hey, we all have flaws. Let’s live and let live. And I am as flawed as any one of you. And it just makes it so much easier to forgive someone who has, from the beginning, always said, I am no better than you.
BRIAN: Debby, this scandal sounds like it was the scandal of the century, at least among non-political scandals. Why did it have so much resonance for Americans in the 1870s?
DEBBY APPLEGATE: I think because Henry Ward Beecher really represented in his personal life, and his family history a transition from an older, puritanical way of approaching morality, your relationship with God to what we would think of as a modern way of approaching all of those things. So that part of what it is is here’s a man who represents modernity. Here’s a man who represents the loosening of rules.
Is it true that that’s a slippery slope towards just being a libertine, being able to do whatever you want regardless? I don’t know that we’ve decided that. But at the time, it was very much undecided. That was very much a real, live debate. And so when he was accused of this, it was a chance for everyone to debate it out loud at the top of their lungs.
[MUSIC – “YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART”]
ED: Debby Applegate is a biographer and historian. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher is called The Most Famous Man in America.
PETER: It’s time for a quick break. When we return, we get a crisis management guru on the line to give advice to some unusual clients– 19th century presidents.
BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re looking at America’s history of scandal.
ED: These days, there’s a whole profession devoted to helping politicians weather scandals. Take Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, for example. And here at BackStory, we couldn’t help thinking that a couple of politicians from the 18th and 19th centuries might have benefited from Ms. Pope’s assistance. So we called up a real-life crisis management guru to ask for a little help on their behalf.
JOHN HELLERMAN: My name’s John Hellerman. I’m a co-founder of Hellerman-Baretz Communications, a Washington DC-based crisis communications firm.
BRIAN: Welcome to BackStory, John.
JOHN HELLERMAN: Nice to be with you.
BRIAN: We got a ton of crises over the course of American history.
PETER: It is American history.
BRIAN: Exactly. More than we know what to do with. So give us the formula for handling crises.
JOHN HELLERMAN: Well, in general, I think gossip and the rumors and what not sort of exist because of an absence of information. And so one of the key ways to deflate rumor and gossip in some of these types of scandals is to just fill the obvious void of information with as much information as you can that is favorable to your side’s messaging. A lot of times, you can’t hope to make something better. But you can hope to make it boring and go away. And that’s–
ED: Not on BackStory.
BRIAN: He, Ed, Peter, this guy’s billing us. So I think we really got to get down to business here.
JOHN HELLERMAN: A lot.
BRIAN: And I’m just going to turn to Peter Onuf and have him throw the first one at you.
PETER: I want to start with my man, Thomas Jefferson. And you may have heard, because this is a scandal that has reverberated through the centuries, about Sally Hemings, his slave-mistress and the mother of many children. Here it is. It’s a guy named James Callender who is a, well, ne’er-do-well, somewhat low-life journalist from Britain. And he hears about the Sally Hemings liaison.
He’s the guy who put some things in the Richmond Register and reprinted in some other papers. This could be the start of something big. I want you to advise me as Jefferson’s living embodiment what to do about it.
JOHN HELLERMAN: Well, I think that he does have a lot going for him, obviously, as famous a politician as he was at the time. There’s obviously a lot of people that want him to succeed and do well.
PETER: That’s right.
JOHN HELLERMAN: He’s a man of stature. And so as a communicator, I’d be looking to leverage his stellar reputation against the allegations of Callender.
PETER: And John, we should be clear– and I know I’m going to get some hate mail for this– that he did have this relationship.
JOHN HELLERMAN: Yeah. And that’s a very important thing to know when you’re dealing with these things because lots of times you’re making judgments about the information that the client is sharing with you. So when clients aren’t forthcoming, they really don’t have access to your best guidance and advice.
PETER: Right. OK. So I’ve just dished the dirt on myself. And I need help. Yep.
JOHN HELLERMAN: So I think my first piece of advice to him would be figure out who can speak on your behalf and vouch for your credibility and reputation. But fundamentally, I would also be trying my best to communicate with Sally and make sure that she’s on the same page as I am about keeping it as quiet as possible.
PETER: Same parchment, yeah.
JOHN HELLERMAN: I mean, the goal is, again, to make it boring enough so it goes away so that I’m able to do what I need to do.
ED: So, Peter, what did Jefferson actually do? Did he take John’s good advice?
PETER: He stonewalled it, though he certainly had lots of testimonials that was part of the whole culture of the Democratic Party celebrating him as a great and good man. And that should be kept in mind that, in our terms, this is a hopelessly racist culture, North and South. And people simply did not take too seriously the idea of sexual depredation against somebody you owned or a servant or anything like that.
JOHN HELLERMAN: And as unfortunate as that is, I think he had that going for him.
ED: So I’ve got a harder situation here, John.
PETER: Yeah, go for it, Ed.
JOHN HELLERMAN: All right.
ED: It’s 1884. We now have massive printing. We have the telegraph. We’ve got rapid spread of news. And I’m the campaign manager for a guy named Grover Cleveland, a remarkably popular and accomplished politician. But rumors are circulating that Cleveland, a bachelor, fathered a child out of wedlock. And he allegedly put the child in an orphanage and forced the mother into an insane asylum.
And the Republicans are really running with this. And they actually have a taunting cheer out on the hustings. Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? What should I do about this? It’s so embarrassing, and so, more importantly, so damaging to his political future.
JOHN HELLERMAN: Right. Well, I think he’s facing something pretty difficult because I imagine that there’s a lot of people that likely know the truth. But I think as a typical crisis response would be to get people who know him and are friendly to him and his cohorts to be the ones out in the public realm discussing this and denying it on his behalf. And then tactic number two is to try and– as sort of evil as it sounds– impugn her reputation–
ED: Ah, yes.
JOHN HELLERMAN: –while continuing to suggest is high reputation, and to become her victim.
ED: And you know, that’s just what he was, we believe, in 1884, if we’re a Democrat. But the thing is, there is this baby. And it’s widely known that there is a baby. But he says, following your script, yeah, but she was a loose woman. And, you know it could have been any number of men who were the father of that child. But I, Grover Cleveland, am stepping up and taking responsibility that may not even be mine. So it shows that–
JOHN HELLERMAN: Likely it is mine.
ED: Yeah, exactly. I’m a great guy. And the fact that I put the child in an orphanage at my own expense and the fact that I paid for her to go to a mental institution just shows you what a wonderful guy I am.
PETER: Oh, Grover, you’re so good, yes.
ED: It also shows you what scum she is, right?
JOHN HELLERMAN: Right, well you have to get it to the point where no one is interested in listening to her.
ED: And I think that’s what happened. The rest of her life, she remained silent.
BRIAN: Let’s go to Washington, DC, in 1994. Mayor Marion Barry, three-term mayor–
JOHN HELLERMAN: Oh, boy.
ED: That’s all the time John has today.
BRIAN: Hey, you’re not going to quit, are you? This is Mayor–
JOHN HELLERMAN: There’s video. There’s video. You guys, there’s video.
BRIAN: That’s right. He’s a three-term mayor. He is caught in a sting operation smoking crack cocaine in a DC hotel with a former girlfriend. So Barry goes to jail on a misdemeanor charge for six months, that something like 12 other charges are dropped. Barry gets out of jail. He runs successfully for city council in 1992. But he promises that he’s not going to run for mayor. And in ’94, we want to run for mayor.
PETER: OK, now you’re hired, John.
BRIAN: And by the way, Barry used to be a great civil rights activist. So this should be pro bono.
JOHN HELLERMAN: Well, again, yeah– I’ll take it pro bono.
BRIAN: Thank you.
JOHN HELLERMAN: There’s other things going on here besides the scandal, right? This is his history as a civil rights leader. So you have a hero that really can’t do any wrong. I mean, this would have been the big asset that I had in my pocket, not only the fact that he’s a hero, but just the fact that no one trusts the police.
BRIAN: You got it.
JOHN HELLERMAN: And so, I mean, I would be counseling him to do exactly what he did, which is to put this onto the police as them being out to get him.
BRIAN: Yeah. He ran as the guy who was defending DC against those intruding outsiders, starting with the FBI.
JOHN HELLERMAN: And people trying to get him out of office because of his impropriety were just trying to keep him from doing good for all his constituents.
BRIAN: And he did good as a fourth-term mayor.
JOHN HELLERMAN: That’s right. And he won.
BRIAN: John, thanks so much for joining us on BackStory.
PETER: Yeah, you’ve been great, John. Really enjoyed it.
JOHN HELLERMAN: This was a lot of fun. It’s interesting to think about.
BRIAN: John Hellerman’s award-winning firm is Hellerman-Baretz Communications.
ED: And now, the story of a personal scandal that led to major reforms in Congress, the Tidal Basin Scandal of 1974.
BRIAN: To understand this story, you’ve just got to know how Congress worked. For most of the 20th century, the most powerful congressmen were committee chairs, usually Southern Democrats. They benefited from a seniority system. And because the Southern Democrats had safe seats, they tended to rise to the top of the chain in that seniority system.
ED: But in the early 1970s, a new generation of democratic lawmakers felt that the Southern committee leaders were too powerful and too resistant to issues like civil rights. The reformers were looking for an opportunity to revamp the seniority system.
BRIAN: That opportunity came in the form of a scandal involving the chair of the influential Ways and Means Committee in Congress. His name was Wilbur Mills. And he was one of the most powerful people in Congress. Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton, says that Mills was a guy known for being a button-down fiscal conservative.
JULIAN ZELIZER: And he was someone also known for not having much of a life, someone who didn’t really enjoy the social circles of Washington.
BRIAN: He’s the guy they say slept with the tax code under his pillow, right?
JULIAN ZELIZER: Yeah, that was the rumor about him and his friends and associates who worked with him. Even if that wasn’t true, it was kind of true. So when you come to October, 1974, there was few people you would expect to be involved in shenanigans near the Tidal Basin in Washington as Wilbur Mills.
BRIAN: And what happened at the Tidal Basin?
JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, on October 7, 1974, at about at 2:00 in the morning, the US Park Police pull over a car, a Lincoln Continental that was speeding right near there. And the car is stopped. And a woman runs out of the car. And she jumps into the Tidal Basin. And the police arrest her. And they arrest the people who are in the car.
And one of the people in the car turned out to be Wilbur Mills. And the woman was known as Fanne Foxe, the Argentine Firecracker. She was a local stripper in Washington, DC. Her actual name was Annabelle Battistella. And she was 38 years old and, it would turn out, was having a relationship with Wilbur Mills.
BRIAN: How old was Mills at the time, Julian?
JULIAN ZELIZER: He was in the 60s. He was a senior member and married to his high school sweetheart named Polly. At the time, people who him knew something was wrong with him. He had grown his hair uncharacteristically long. And he was not part of the Age of Aquarius. And he also had a few moments where he was seen slurring his words.
So the story breaks out. And Wilbur Mills, at first, his administrative assistant denies that he was on the scene. But quickly that’s impossible to do.
So Mills, within the next few days, admits that he is having problems, that he’s drinking too much, and that he’s become addicted to painkillers that he had been taking for back pain that he had for a while. He says he was just friends with Fanne Foxe. And he’ll actually go and speak to his constituents in the second district of Arkansas on October 17. And he’ll apologize to them and his family.
And rarely did Mills ever worry about reelection. He had a safe seat. He was loved by his constituents. But instantly, there’s speculation. How will this harm him in his reelection bid? But in fact, the appeal worked. And in November, they reelected him with about 60% of the vote. And one month after the scandal first broke, it looked like he was going to stay in this position of power.
BRIAN: So what happens next?
JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, then the story only gets worse. So that election is very significant in political history. It’s the election of the Watergate Babies, legislators like Gary Hart and Henry Waxman, who come into office and they are determined to clean up the way that the president does his business. And they also want to reform Congress. They want to take on all the old bulls of Congress, the Southern senior committee chairs.
And Wilbur Mills was one of the main targets. And they had never really been able to get to Mills because he had so much power. So that’s the atmosphere.
And then in early December, the story takes a very unusual turn. Fanne Foxe, the stripper, has become a celebrity of sort. And she has her first public performance. And it takes place in Boston in a place called the Silver Slipper.
BRIAN: You couldn’t possibly know this, Julian, but I literally used to work across the street from the Silver Slipper.
JULIAN ZELIZER: That is really funny.
BRIAN: My first job in the Massachusetts Welfare Department. And my girlfriend at the time– and don’t draw any wrong conclusions from this– literally worked above the Silver Slipper.
JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, it was something of an institution in Boston. And because she was performing, the place was absolutely packed. And the press was there just to cover this event. And she comes out. And seconds after she walks out, to the surprise of everyone in the room, Wilbur Mills stumbles onto the stage–
JULIAN ZELIZER: –clearly drunk, and starts to pull her off the stage. They’re taking pictures covering every minute of this. And the following day, newspapers around the country have pictures of a drunken Mills walking on and off the stage with this stripper. And from that moment on, it was pretty clear that his career is hurt.
He initially tells reporters, this won’t ruin me. Nothing can ruin me. But most people disagreed. And literally the day after this happens, a lot of the younger Democrats are saying, that’s it. It’s time for him to step down. They put pressure on Mills to step down, which he does.
And the Democrats actually reform the Ways and Means Committee as well. Days after the second part of the scandal breaks, they strip the Ways and Means Committee of some of its powers that it had used for decades to assert authority over other parts of the House.
BRIAN: Yeah, it sounds like, in this case, what was a personal scandal really ended up being a stimulus for some major structural changes.
JULIAN ZELIZER: Yeah, there are many reforms that pass in early 1975. The Democrats remove several other senior committee chairmen from their positions of power. Congress passes other kinds of reforms, sunshine reforms that make more of the legislative process open to public scrutiny. They’ll also institute new ethics rules.
So there’s several reforms. They’re not all directly related to Mills. But Mills’ scandal is a real shock to the system and created more of an opportunity for the new reformers, the Watergate Babies, to move forward.
BRIAN: Do you think that scandal is kind of crucial to getting the public vested in this, interested in it?
JULIAN ZELIZER: It’s absolutely crucial. So when reformers wanted to reform the Ways and Means Committee before the Wilbur Mills scandal, part of the reason they had so much trouble, it wasn’t an issue that a lot of people cared about. It’s hard for a voter to understand the procedural power of the House Ways and Means Committee and why that makes a difference. But when you’re talking about a powerful chairman who is involved in sexual escapades and who’s not taking his job seriously, it becomes something that interests Americans much more.
One of the most important parts of the ’70s was there was a real movement focused on reform. You had all these groups like Common Cause, like Ralph Nader. You had many Democrats and moderate Republicans who spent a lot of time trying to push for reforms in politics. So when these scandals broke, they basically had a proposal on the table.
And that’s what was special in some ways about the ’70s period. We are not in that period anymore. And the danger is that as Americans keep learning about scandal, they think that much less about their political leaders. But we don’t follow through with reforms that will revitalize their confidence in government.
BRIAN: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of Governing America, the Revival of Political History.
ED: Well, I have to admit I’ve not really thought about Wilbur Mills since the time of Wilbur Mills. And I didn’t think about it that much then. That was a very bizarre thing for a young person to watch faintly.
PETER: Well, the Tidal Basin has never been the same since.
ED: Well, now that I have thought about Wilbur Mills, it makes me think of a deeper thought, which is, as any listener of BackStory knows, there’s certainly no shortage of failure and scandal and personal meltdowns earlier in American history. So what I’d like to know is, why did it take until Wilbur Mills’ particular meltdown that a scandal became a real catalyst for reform? So, Peter, why didn’t scandal lead to political change in the early period?
PETER: Well, it’s not that we don’t have bad actors in the early period. There is– bad or worse than we are. They drank a lot more. And they did all kinds of nasty stuff.
But their miraculous work at Philadelphia created a constitution which was like a perfect machine. It was going to produce good results. It was the system that mattered.
And even if the human material is faulty, even if they’re all sinners– because we know we’re all sinners in the 18th century– that’s why it’s a miraculous system. It must be God-given because it’s enabled sinners to govern themselves freely.
BRIAN: So, for fallible humans to get in and start reforming it would be a terrible mistake.
PETER: Exactly. And it’s the confidence in the system that’s crucial. And I think that’s what we got in the Wilbur Mills scandal, is a constitutional crisis.
ED: You’re talking about Watergate.
PETER: Yeah.. And that’s the context now for a loss of confidence in those formerly semi-sacred office holders who got a free pass, effectively, because they were our office holders.
BRIAN: OK, Peter, I buy your point. But that is not the impression I get of Gilded Age politics.
PETER: No no, no.
BRIAN: And that’s not the impression I get of what happens during the Civil War when the Constitution, in essence, is ripped to shreds.
ED: No, you’re right. I don’t think that people can have the same faith in the pristine perfection of the Founders that they did before the Civil War tore things apart. But they found something else to put in its place. And strangely enough, it was the political party.
The machine was working so tightly that you had to be a real scandal for your party to turn against you. And so I think you had a really closing of the ranks, Brian, that kept the party press from saying anything against the candidate. And I think that kind of discipline really kept the consequences of scandal under control.
BRIAN: Yeah, and I would only add one thing in terms of explaining, well, why poor Wilbur? Peter’s already put his finger on one element. That’s a true constitutional crisis in Watergate.
But the other is what’s often known as the Fourth Estate. There’s media which is not quite into the 24/7 news cycle, but is just super-sized and energized by something called investigative reporting that does really come out of Watergate. Where do we get 60 Minutes from? How do we start going undercover to investigate auto mechanic fraud? Well, it all goes back to Watergate. Poor Wilbur stumbles into that buzz saw of a surgeon–
ED: Yeah, they didn’t have to investigate him. He was onstage.
BRIAN: An emerging feeding frenzy, as one political scientist has called it, of investigative reporting. And these things just get repeated.
PETER: Well, and we say, power corrupts. And that’s become the mantra of our understanding of modern politics. Any time somebody’s got a chance, he’s going to abuse that power.
BRIAN: And I do think that Julian put his finger on a brief moment where we understood that power corrupts. But we also believe this is the remnants of that idealism of the ’60s. We believe that we could–
PETER: Yeah, I think that’s right.
BRIAN: –make these reforms that would return us to that moment when the Constitution protected us against the fallibility of man. It’s time for another short break. But don’t go away. When we get back, a 1793 murder trial hangs on one simple question, how much can you trust slaves and women?
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re marking the 15th anniversary of the Clinton impeachment with a look at the way sex scandals have been understood throughout American history.
ED: Let’s turn now way back to the beginning of the Republic when scandalous information moved a little bit differently than it does now.
BRIAN: On a fall night in 1792, screams rang out in the darkness at the elite Virginia home of Randolph Harrison. The screams came from Harrison’s teenage cousin Nancy Randolph, who was visiting the Harrison estate along with her sister and brother-in-law Richard. The whole household woke up and ran up to Nancy’s guest room to see what was the matter.
But the door was bolted. Her brother-in-law Richard and a slave were inside. When Richard came out, he said Nancy was just feeling under the weather.
The next morning, Nancy said that she was better and everything was fine. But it wasn’t. A scandal was brewing.
ED: The Harrison slaves began to spread rumors that Nancy had given birth that night. They said the child had been murdered and that Richard had disposed of the body on a wood pile. Even worse, Richard was pegged as the child’s father, the seducer of his own sister-in-law.
BRIAN: The rumors spread quickly through elite Americans’ letters. It was a tabloid story in a pre-tabloid world– sex, infidelity, and murder. And it threatened the honor of one of the most influential and well-connected families in Virginia.
ED: Clearly the Randolphs needed to do some damage control. BackStory Producer Andrew Parsons tells us what happened next.
ANDREW PARSONS: In the spring of 1793, 22-year-old Richard Randolph had problems. He was struggling to run the plantation he had inherited and prove his worth as an upstanding Virginian. He had already dropped out of three elite universities. And now people were calling him a murderer and an adulterer. Historian Chris Doyle says Richard tried an early version of PR, a letter to the public in the Virginia Gazette.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: He said in the newspaper that he would prefer a gentleman to state charges against him publicly and then he could challenge him to a duel. And in the absence of that, he says he’ll even conduct a public debate in letters to the editor of the Virginia Gazette. And he will repudiate any charges that anybody wants to make against him.
ANDREW PARSONS: Honor was everything in the 1790s. And Richard was willing to die to defend it. The problem was no one was accusing him in public. The story was being whispered behind closed doors. So with no one to duel or debate, Richard went to plan B. He’d go down to the county courthouse and turn himself in, trusting he’d be exonerated.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: It’s a terrible plan. Yeah, it’s really an awful plan. But he’s not left with a clean solution to this problem.
ANDREW PARSONS: Richard was promptly arrested. And after a week in jail, he was hauled into court to defend himself against the charge of murder and infidelity. By this point, much of elite Virginia had been following the scandal. So there was an audience in the courtroom. And Richard came prepared to dazzle them.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: He was lawyered up really, really well when he came into this case, basically assembling a legal dream team in the 1790s– the living legend Patrick Henry. And the other member of his defense team was John Marshall of all people, the guy who would go on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I mean, who wouldn’t kill to have these two guys in your corner defending you?
ANDREW PARSONS: Richard seemed pretty guilty. He was in the room when Nancy was heard screaming. He was seen leaving the house with a baby. And there was even blood on the wood pile where he supposedly dumped the body.
But he had one thing going for him. Who was doing the accusing? One group was slaves. They were considered untrustworthy and were barred from taking the stand in Virginia anyway.
The other was women. And the lawyers made it clear that they were just gossips. When one of Nancy and Richard’s cousins, Mary Page Randolph, took the stand to testify that she knew Nancy was pregnant, Patrick Henry just painted her as a sneak.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: She peeked through a keyhole into Nancy’s bedroom to watch her undress to see that, in fact, she was pregnant. And Henry had a field day with this. He asked Page which eye did you look through the keyhole with? And the whole courtroom burst out laughing. And then he said, good God, deliver us from eavesdroppers.
ANDREW PARSONS: It was a bizarre trial, considering Richard never would have been there if he hadn’t turned himself in to clear his reputation. In the end, the judges cleared him of any wrongdoing. But it didn’t change anything. Most people still thought Richard was guilty. Even Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State at the time and related by marriage to the Randolphs, wrote to his daughter Martha that he thought Richard was guilty.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: When you have Thomas Jefferson writing letters to his daughter saying that he thinks Richard is a seducer, this is not going to go over well in a state where basically all the elite people know each other. And Thomas Jefferson’s word counted for a lot.
ANDREW PARSONS: Richard Randolph continued to be ostracized and struggled to maintain his plantation. He only lived a few more years and died at the age of 26 after battling a severe fever. In his will, he made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with Virginia’s planter elite. He freed all of his slaves, leaving his wife Judith with almost nothing.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: So it’s almost as if Richard can’t get back into the club of elite Virginian slaveholders, he’s going to, as a parting gesture, disassociate with them completely and accuse them of hypocrisy and tyranny.
ANDREW PARSONS: So did Richard actually commit murder and infidelity? In 1814, nearly 20 years after the scandal, Nancy Randolph wrote a very public letter setting the record straight. She confessed she had been pregnant, but not by Richard. It was his younger brother Theo who was the father. And Theo died just months before the incident.
She also said Richard helped cover up not a birth, but a miscarriage on that night in October, 1792. Chris Doyle says it isn’t clear whether this is the final word. But that’s not what really matters anyway.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: I don’t think we’re ever going to really know what happened in that manor house in October of 1792. And what matters in this particular case isn’t so much who did what, how the parties tried to create truth.
ANDREW PARSONS: And the truth that leaders like Thomas Jefferson saw was bigger than the scandal itself. An irresponsible spoiled kid like Richard Randolph really represented an uncertain future.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: There’s a real question in Virginia about whether the traditional Virginia gentry, those 40 famous families that monopolized politics, whether those families were equipped to rule anymore. And here was a young guy who seemed like he was way out of his depth as a 21-, 22-year-old guy trying to run a tobacco plantation by himself. He didn’t seem to have a good handle on his slave labor force or on the women under his charge.
ANDREW PARSONS: It was a “kids these days” concern. But at the dawn of a new nation, that mattered.
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: After all, I mean, it’s going to be this young generation of Virginians who allegedly were supposed to solidify the Republic in experiment in Virginia and the United States. You needed a moral, virtuous elite and a moral, virtuous electorate to make a republic run successfully. And Richard was a very disturbing and worrying sign to older people like Jefferson.
ANDREW PARSONS: And if elites like Richard Randolph couldn’t keep it together, then who would run the country after the Founders were gone?
ED: Andrew Parsons is one of our producers.
PETER: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the American obsession with scandal. As always, we’ve been inviting your comments on the topic. And one of our listeners left an interesting thought on our website. I got a comment here from Courtney in Los Angeles, guys. Let me read it to you.
Benjamin Franklin kept mistresses and was involved in the Hellfire Club without much rebuke. Grover Cleveland in the 19th century raped and impregnated a woman. She was left publicly shamed and her baby was taken away from her. And ultimately, she died in poverty and in shame. JFK had famous mistresses.
However, when we get to Clinton, he almost loses his job for his consensual affair. With the recent New York mayoral election, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer were almost public jokes for thinking that they could make a comeback after their scandals. I almost wonder if the denunciation the public now ascribes to figureheads is a backlash for the lack of blame we’ve pinned to our public figures in the past.
Are we re-appropriating the fault from the less powerful person– that is, the woman– to the more powerful, the man? Or is our society simply more critical these days?
So guys, that’s a long and interesting question. And I think it boils down to this. Who is responsible for scandals? There always have been scandals. Who gets the blame? And has that changed? And why has it changed?
ED: Courtney asks about Grover Cleveland. And strangely enough, that actually is a very interesting case. I’m not sure that people would normally associate Grover Cleveland and something interesting. But I’m going to tell you that it is.
But before that, somebody else we might not think of as associated with sex scandals, which was Andrew Jackson. Because when Jackson was running, the great scandal that his opponents counted on to keep him for being elected was the fact that he had married a woman, Rachel, who was actually married to another man. And so they called it bigamy. But they’re really talking about Andrew Jackson is consorting with a loose woman.
Now as it turned out, Rachel dies during the early days of the Jackson presidency. And Jackson blames the scandalmongers for saying that to suggest that she was an adulterer and a loose woman was an outrageous. So that becomes a huge scandal. If you think about before the Civil War, that would have been the role of a blame-worthy woman in the eyes of their opponents.
So 50 years later, things haven’t really changed that much. Grover Cleveland is running for president of the United States. A Buffalo newspaper of the Republicans unearth a story about Grover Cleveland fathering a child with a woman, Maria Halpin. And he admits it. Yes, I did.
And some people have said, well, he was actually just covering for other men who also slept with her, but who were married. But the fact remains that the child was put into an orphanage. Maria Halpin was admitted to a mental institution. And though historians debate whether or not Cleveland raped Halpin, she could hardly have been in a less powerful position.
BRIAN: Yeah, Ed, and the tendency continues in the 20th century, or at least for much of the 20th century. We do things a little differently. We just sweep all of this stuff under the rug.
I mean, it’s pretty well known that Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy were all having affairs– Kennedy, lots of affairs. But we just, in the 20th century, swept those under the rug. It had become so commonplace to disaggregate a person’s personal behavior if they were a powerful man in politics.
All of that changes with the emergence of the feminist movement– really, the emergence of a second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. You have women making their case very effectively– and they’re joined by a lot of men– who say, look, power doesn’t just reside in the Oval Office or in the Supreme Court. Power is actually constituted in the relationships between men and women. And that’s where there’s real inequality.
ED: The political is personal here.
BRIAN: Exactly. The personal is political. And if we’re really going to understand politics, we need to follow power wherever it resides.
PETER: hosts, I think Courtney’s really onto something. And if we look at the big picture, what we see is a double standard. And that double standard goes back to the Rachel Jackson case. Because what was really at stake there was Andrew Jackson’s wife and her status as a wife.
ED: That’s right.
PETER: And if you called that into question, then you are attacking him. Throwing mud at a woman is really besmirching the reputation of a guy. And Rachel, at least, had status. And the people were willing to support Andrew Jackson on this. This backfired on his opponents.
In the case of Maria Halpin, this is a woman without status. I think that’s the crucial thing. So no holds barred, you could say anything you want about her. Now maybe you can get at Grover Cleveland. But what is so apparent in retrospect is that the woman, as a woman, as a human individual with rights and with dignity, she doesn’t exist. And that’s what we have now in the wake of second-wave feminism.
BRIAN: So when powerful politicians prey on women sexually, this becomes not just something for the gossip columns, but something that is headline news and has everything to do with politics because it is about the imbalance of power between men and women.
[MUSIC – “YOU’RE NO GOOD”]
PETER: Well, that’s it for today, folks. But we’ll be waiting for you online. Pay us a visit at backstoryradio.org and let us know where you would draw the line between private misbehavior and public misconduct. As always, you can find a lot of other BackStory extras on our Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages. Our handle is BackStoryRadio. Don’t be a stranger.
ED: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Jes Engebretson, Nina Earnest, and Andrew Parsons. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator. And Jamal Millner is our engineer. Our intern is [? Abe Shank. ?] BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE VOICE: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.