Sex and Politics in American History

The campaign for governor of New York is getting slimy

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NYPL Digital Collection
    Grover Cleveland

    The campaign for governor of New York is getting slimy.

    Even as press reports disclosed that Republican candidate Carl Paladino had fathered a “love child” a decade ago, Paladino indignantly charged that Cuomo had love affairs outside of his marriage -- and journalists hadn’t reported on that.

    It may sound like strange -- and ugly -- doings. But, if you examine the history of politics in America, it’s par for the course. It started with some of the founding fathers.

    Back in Thomas Jefferson’s day, the third president was accused of having an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Alexander Hamilton had an affair with a Mrs. Maria Reynolds. He gave her husband a $1,000 bribe to gain access to the woman. The affair didn’t help Hamilton’s political career.

    Jackson’s enemies accused him of living in sin with his wife, Rachel, because the couple didn’t know that her divorce had not been finalized.  Ultimately, he married her legally -- but she died of a heart attack and Jackson blamed it on the innuendoes from people who tormented her.

    When Democrat Grover Cleveland ran against James Blaine in 1884, the Buffalo Telegraph carried a story that Cleveland had an illegitimate child with a woman named Maria Halpin. Blaine supporters chanted:  “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?  Going to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”   Cleveland quickly admitted it was true and was elected despite the attacks.

    And, more recently, during the White House years of Bill Clinton, there were abundant charges of sexual misconduct too. It didn’t affect the trajectory of Clinton’s political career.

    Professor Evan Cornog of Hofstra University’s School of Communication is author of a book on presidential elections titled “Hats in the Ring.” He thinks the standards of society have changed over the decades.

    “Moral attitudes have evolved,” he told me. “It’s rare not to have at least one divorce in a candidate’s life. Divorce doesn’t have such a big impact on the electorate.

    “The standards of privacy have changed too. Thus, the lives of women are under greater scrutiny by the press and politicians.” An example is the media feeding frenzy involving Sarah Palin’s daughter.

    Cornog added: “Technological advances have made it easier to follow candidates and report on their activities. There’s been an effort by some sports clubs and gyms to restrict the use of cell phones or other electronic devices to avoid taking advantage of people in public life, including politicians and candidates.”

    In an age when the media operate with a philosophy of “anything goes; anything is fair game” it’s especially hard for politicians to avoid being pounced on.                      

    The Paladino-Cuomo confrontation has the potential of descending to a new low, if not of falling into an abyss.