To be sure, Eisenhower had a romantic side, too. On Valentine’s Day he surprised Mamie by wearing his “love bug” boxer shorts embroidered with little hearts. Anthony reports the first lady enjoyed sharing their bed because she could “reach over and pat Ike on his old bald head.”
I know it is hard to think about some of our wizened old presidents having sex. But after all, the White House was their home, and these people had to learn to live on public display. One morning Harry Truman’s wife Bess told a White House staffer: “[W]e have a little problem … It’s the president’s bed. Do you think you can get fixed today? Two of the slats broke down during the night.”
Some first ladies didn’t need to be so coy. When reporters asked Betty Ford how often she expected to sleep with her husband Gerald after he became president, she responded, “As often as possible.”
No one has trouble believing that a strapping, young John F. Kennedy had a healthy, if not runaway, libido. Anthony has written extensively on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and says that she was well aware of his philandering and, yet, the first couple were still intimate.
At noontime each day, the Kennedys closed themselves off in their bedroom for an hour, a tradition that remained up until his assassination in 1963. “Before leaving the White House,” Anthony writes, “she placed a plaque on the bedroom mantel stating that she and her husband ‘lived’ in that room.”
‘I Can’t Wait to Leave’
Of course, sexual scandals are not unfamiliar to the White House, especially in recent years. Some of our past leaders tried to insulate themselves with what might be considered hysterical prudishness.
James and Sarah Polk were all business. “No vacations, card games, horse races, billiards, dancing and — on Sundays — no music,” is how Anthony describes Sarah.
Dancing was actually banned, although Sarah did start the tradition of playing “Hail to the Chief” when the chief executive enters the room.
In 1849, after one term, Polk couldn’t wait to leave. He wrote, “I feel exceedingly relieved that I am now free of all public cares. I am sure I shall be a happier man in my retirement than I have been during the four years I have filled the highest office.”
Anthony duly notes that 103 days later Polk died.
James Buchanan, the bachelor president (who some historians speculate was gay) also couldn’t wait to exit. His message to incoming President Abraham Lincoln: “If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house as I am leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in the country.”
Problem Kids On top of all the other pressures, there’s the kids to think about. Only 10 presidents and first ladies had no living children while in the White House. “One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president!” Franklin Roosevelt said. “It’s a terrible life they lead.”
Roosevelt’s elder cousin, Theodore, put it a little more bluntly, telling folks he could either be president or control his daughter but he “couldn’t do both.”
The notion of the problem child goes back to the very beginning of White House history. John Adams once said, “My children give me more pain than all my enemies.” His son Charles suffered from alcoholism and eventually died during his brief stay in the White House.