Illicit sex has invaded the White House since Tom Jefferson's days and sometimes also the public aspects of presidential elections, but Donald Trump threatens to make sex the central issue of a presidential election.
Angry about the first debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump said from here on he will make a big issue of President Bill Clinton's infidelities, and he wondered whether she might have been unfaithful, too, though he conceded that she would have been justified.
That is a first for any presidential election, and it comes, oddly, from the most debauched political candidate in the history of public licentiousness. Trump once arranged for his future — and third — wife to pose nude for the British girlie magazine GQ handcuffed to his gold-plated briefcase on a fur rug in his private jet at New York's LaGuardia Airport, clad only in huge diamond bracelets and earrings. He said he did it to promote her modeling career.
Upon a Trump inauguration in January, British and Italian tabloids will run that picture of the new American first lady. We are still a few years away from that level of coarseness in the American media, although the racy but right-wing New York Post published more indecent pictures of a naked Melania snapped in New York for the French men's magazine Max in 1997. The Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton, another skirt-chaser, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.
This campaign will move us closer to the day when raw pictures of political wives and girlfriends will be common in the daily press, if any still exist, and not just pornographic publications. Some staid daily journal may break the mold this year or on Jan. 20 and print one of the Melania poses on the Trump jet.
Trump may renege, but last week he promised to write a whole new chapter for the annals of the sexual revolution. His chief surrogate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, explaining his and Trump's many infidelities and multiple marriages, pronounced marital infidelity to be universal. Asked if he was the right person to question either of the Clintons' unfaithfulness since he had kept a paramour in Gracie Mansion when he was mayor, he replied: "Everybody does [it]."
America's Mayor and Trump are sort of right. Presidential infidelity is not new, having long predated Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Jefferson fathered illegitimate children. John F. Kennedy was reputed to have had sex with Judith Exner, Marilyn Monroe, Blaze Starr, Angie Dickinson and others. Madeline Brown claimed to have had a long affair with Lyndon Johnson, who was alleged also to have an affair with Alice Glass until she got mad over the Vietnam War. Franklin Roosevelt's long romance with Lucy Mercer ended with his death when they were together at Warm Springs, Ga. Warren Harding was a bull around the White House, taking women into a closet. Both President Bushes endured scurrilous stories about affairs, in and out of the White House. Grover Cleveland never denied that he fathered a son with Maria Halpin, which triggered the most famous slogan of presidential campaigns, in 1884: "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha."
Gary Hart doesn't count. So disgraced was he by a journal's disclosure that he was seeing a blonde named Donna Rice, who was pictured sitting on his lap on the yacht Monkey Business, that he quit the race for president in 1988 and never ran for office again. That seems so quaint today.
When Clinton was impeached for fudging in his testimony about his relationship with Lewinsky, Trump said it was a shame. He praised Clinton as a great president for an economic record he said was far superior to Ronald Reagan's and said Clinton should never have admitted any relationship with Lewinsky and instead taken the Fifth Amendment. Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination 97 times in his divorce trial with Ivana Trump — every time Ivana's lawyer asked him whether he had had sex with girlfriend Marla Maples (his next wife) or other women. Publicly, he and Maples had acknowledged the affair, but he refused in court. A New York judge refused last week to unseal the file on the Trump divorce without his permission.
As coarse and uncensored as the media have become, they have reported only generally on such things as Trump's raunchy conversations about "buying vaginas" on shock jock Howard Stern's radio and TV show. It was on a Stern show that Trump joked that his personal Vietnam (he got repeated deferments from the draft) was his long battle to avoid getting venereal disease from all the women he slept with.
His vast evangelical following won't acknowledge it, but Trump is moving public discourse on free sex and promiscuity to the horizon of public acceptance that the famous sex therapists of the 1960s only dreamed about.