Tim Scott's bachelorhood puts spotlight on how few US presidents have been single

Experts say the presidential spouse's role has been key, too -- but is changing.

September 27, 2023, 5:10 AM

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is one of the relatively few people who has ever run for president of the United States. If elected, he would join an even more elite club -- as one of only three White House occupants to never be married at the time he took office.

Scott's bachelorhood isn't directly on the ballot in the same way his policies on the economy and abortion are.

But it's become a headline-making topic on the campaign trail and, historians and experts told ABC News, it reflects the political ramifications of having a partner even as society's attitudes around relationships have shifted through the years.

Scott, a Republican, has a standard answer for the curious or the chatty, including anonymous sources who claimed to the news website Axios that the matter was affecting potential donors.

"I'm dating a lovely Christian girl," Scott enthusiastically said in Iowa at the Faith & Freedom Coalition's fall banquet earlier this month when state Attorney General Brenna Bird asked him in an interview, "Other than your mama, is there any special lady in your life?"

That echoes what he told Fox News earlier in September -- "God has blessed me with a smart, Christian woman" -- and what he told The Washington Post in an interview also this month, when he said a friend at church connected them.

Denise Gitsham, a former administration staffer for President George W. Bush and a "good friend" of Scott's, said in a recent podcast appearance that Scott's past girlfriends have included a beauty queen and that his current girlfriend is the screensaver on his phone.

Scott said on Fox News that he intends to introduce the woman he is dating "at some point." (His campaign, asked to comment for this story, referred ABC News to his interview with the Post.)

"I have been very protective of my family and my loved ones," he told the paper. "I signed up for this. If we make it, she will be signing up for it as well, but at least then she'll know what she's getting into."

The country has only elected two single presidents, and neither in modern history: James Buchanan in 1856 and Grover Cleveland in 1884.

Cleveland actually got married in the White House -- the only president to do so -- while Buchanan never married and ultimately transferred most of the first lady's duties to his niece, a then 26-year-old named Harriet Lane.

But their personal lives were likely not seen by the public in the same way as today. For example, for about 40 years before Buchanan's time in office, there had been a string of widowers in the White House.

PHOTO: James Buchanan, on Sept. 28, 1859, by artist George Peter Alexander Healy.
James Buchanan, on Sept. 28, 1859, by artist George Peter Alexander Healy.
(Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

"Public perceptions around marriage, and particularly our politicians who were unmarried, have changed," Dr. Thomas Balcerski, author of "Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King" and an associate professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, told ABC News.

One could argue that having a first lady is actually more of a modern concept, Balcerski said.

"What's occurred is that the presidential couple has emerged as a really important unit for a politician," he said. "And without that presidential spouse, without the modern first lady at his side, a president is weakened."

The role of presidential spouse is entirely ceremonial -- not prescribed by the U.S. Constitution or the country's other founding documents. Still, first ladies have traditionally served as chief hostesses at state functions; as diplomatically important counterparts in forging relationships with other world leader couples; and as informal but influential advisers to their husbands, the president.

South Carolina's other Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, ran for president in 2016 and his single status was, as with Scott, a topic that followed his candidacy. He proposed that there would be a "rotating first lady" role shared by his sister and some of his friends.

Eleanor Roosevelt "was the eyes and ears of the White House" while her husband was in office, according to Kate Anderson Brower, author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies."

She would go out and encourage then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who grew up wealthy, to take up issues that were affecting people who were more disadvantaged, Brower said. Decades later, Nancy Reagan served as something like husband Ronald Reagan's "human resources department," determining who was going to be given access to the president.

PHOTO: Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan dances with former First Lady Nancy Reagan in this undated file photo.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan dances with former First Lady Nancy Reagan in this undated file photo.
Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidental Library/Getty Images

More recently, then-first lady Hillary Clinton used her role to advocate for major domestic policies in husband Bill Clinton's administration, including a failed health care reform proposal.

President Joe Biden's wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is the first first lady to also keep her job -- as a college English teacher -- outside the White House.

There are benefits in having someone share the immense stress and that comes with being in the Oval Office, experts said. Representatives from ​the historic site that marks Cleveland's birthplace in New Jersey told ABC News that according to Allan Nevins' book of Cleveland's collected letters, "Cleveland experienced some pangs of loneliness in his first year at the White House."

On Sept. 15, 1885, a few months into his first term, Cleveland wrote to Wilson Bissell, a politician from New York: "If I did not keep one of the waiters here I should be absolutely alone in the upper part of the house."

In modern times, Brower said, "Michelle and Barack Obama are a great example of a first lady who really helped the president get to where he was." Brower, however, notes that Michelle Obama gave "not only ... the emotional support, but also raising their children and taking this kind of backseat in her own career for him."

Brower believes that a highly visible spouse may not be needed to win a presidential election going forward. She cited the tiny role that Melania Trump has so far played in Donald Trump's 2024 campaign. (He recently said his wife is a "private person" but "she'll be out there.")

Balcerski, the author and professor, said a president's family around the White House can bring its own complications. He pointed to Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden's younger son, who is facing firearm charges that he denies and has been dogged by controversy over his past business dealings. Other presidents have also had to deal with relatives and children involved in scandal.

"There's always gonna be the baggage that comes with having a wife and kids and maybe hopefully someday a husband and kids," Balcerski told ABC News.

PHOTO: Committee ranking member Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) arrives for a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Sept. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Committee ranking member Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) arrives for a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Sept. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the Iowa banquet this month, Scott said his approach to relationships was shaped by his upbringing. "As a guy who was raised in a single parent household, mired in poverty, I understand the devastation when a family breaks up. I live with the consequences of a father who was not there," he said. "I made a commitment to make sure that never happened in my life."

Sue Ewalt from Mason City, Iowa, told ABC News of Scott's bachelorhood that she didn't "really think it's a big issue myself. I heard about it the other day and it just shouldn't be an issue. It's his personal thing."

America is increasingly a single country -- about 46% of people are unmarried, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau -- and Balcerski believes voters are "ready" to elect another single president.

"We're ready, again, is how I would say it. We've been ready, we were ready, we will be ready," he said. "We will adapt to the changing family structure, to the changing social world of our times."

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