The Logistics of Presidential Adultery

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July 25 1996 3:30 AM

The Logistics of Presidential Adultery

Could Clinton Cheat?

The Washington Times could hardly contain its excitement: "A former FBI agent assigned to the White House describes in a new book how President Clinton slips past his Secret Service detail in the dead of night, hides under a blanket in the back of a dark-colored sedan, and trysts with a woman, possibly a celebrity, at the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington." For Clinton-haters, Gary Aldrich's tale sounded too good to be true.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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And it was. The not-so-Secret-Service agent's "source" turned out to be a thirdhand rumor passed on by Clinton scandalmonger David Brock. Those who know about White House security--Clinton staffers, the Secret Service, former aides to Presidents Reagan and Bush--demolished Aldrich's claims. Clinton couldn't give his Secret Service agents the slip (they shadow him when he walks around the White House), couldn't arrange a private visit without tipping off hotel staff, and couldn't re-enter the White House without getting nabbed. (Guards check all cars at the gate--especially those that arrive at 4 a.m.)

Even so, the image resonates. For some Americans, it is an article of faith: Bill Clinton cheated on his wife when he was governor, and he cheats on her as president. But can he? Is it possible for the president of the United States to commit adultery and get away with it? Maybe, but it's tougher than you think.

Historically, presidential adultery is common. Warren Harding cavorted with Nan Britton and Carrie Phillips. Franklin Roosevelt "entertained" Lucy Rutherford at the White House when Eleanor was away. America was none the wiser, even if White House reporters were.

Those who know Clinton is cheating often point to the model of John F. Kennedy, who turned presidential hanky-panky into a science. Kennedy invited mistresses to the White House for afternoon (and evening, and overnight) liaisons. Kennedy seduced women on the White House staff (including, it seems, Jackie's own press secretary). Kennedy made assignations outside the White House, then escaped his Secret Service detail by scaling walls and ducking out back doors. If Kennedy did it, so can Clinton.

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Well, no. Though Clinton slavishly emulates JFK in every other way, he'd be a fool to steal Kennedy's MO d'amour. Here's why:

1) Too many people would know. Kennedy hardly bothered to hide his conquests. According to Kennedy mistress (and mob moll) Judith Campbell's autobiography, those who knew about their affair included: Kennedy's personal aides and secretary (who pandered for him), White House drivers, White House gate guards, White House Secret Service agents, White House domestic staff, most of Campbell's friends, a lot of Kennedy's friends, and several Kennedy family members. Such broad circulation would be disastrous today because:

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2) The press would report it. Kennedy conducted his affairs brazenly because he trusted reporters not to write about them. White House journalists knew about, or at least strongly suspected, Kennedy's infidelity, but never published a story about it. Ask Gary Hart if reporters would exercise the same restraint today. Clinton must worry about this more than most presidents. Not only are newspapers and magazines willing to publish an adultery story about him, but many are pursuing it.

For the same reason, Clinton would find it difficult to hire a mistress. A lovely young secretary would set off alarm bells in any reporter investigating presidential misbehavior. Says a former Clinton aide, "There has been a real tendency to have no good-looking women on the staff in order to protect him."

3) Clinton cannot avoid Secret Service protection. During the Kennedy era, the Secret Service employed fewer than 500 people and had an annual budget of about $4 million. Then came Lee Harvey Oswald, Squeaky Fromme, and John Hinckley. Now the Secret Service payroll tops 4,500 (most of them agents), and the annual budget exceeds $500 million (up 300 percent just since 1980). At any given time, more than 100 agents guard the president in the White House. Top aides from recent administrations are adamant: The Secret Service never lets the president escape its protection.

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