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The John Edwards of 1884?

Sex Scandals in Presidential History

New America Media, Paul Kleyman Posted: Sep 24, 2009

Editor's note: Political sex scandal wasn't invented by Bill Clinton or John Edwards, EthnoBlogger and NAM Elders beat editor Paul Kleyman maintains. Grover Cleveland was doing it before the turn of the century.

The revelation that former presidential candidate John Edwards is admitting his paternity of the child that hes denied since last year piles on to the bipartisan peccadillos of exposed political disappointments, from Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the faded news cycles of the 1990s, to Eliot Spitzer and Larry (wide stance) Craig more recently.

But dont despair over your fallen-around-the-ankles favorite politico. He are she scandals far behind? is merely advancing a grand old American tradition. The Edwards news reports last week had me reaching for one of my favorite volumes of American presidential history of recent years past my copies of John Adams and Nixonland to the delightfully dicey Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics (Morrow, 1998) by Gail Collins of the New York Times.

If John Edwards has you shaking your head (or rubbing your hand with glee, depending on your political leanings), he had nothing on that 19th century scallywag, Grover Cleveland.

Grover Cleveland? Yes, indeed. The portly bachelor governor of Ohio and Democratic candidate for the presidency evidently had charms not evident in his girthful image. His campaign against Republican James G. Blaine has been called the one of the nastiestand among the closest -- in American history.


When the baby Cleveland scandal broke in a Buffalo, N.Y., paper, subsequent coverage led some antecedent of Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann at the Cincinnatis Penny Post to call the bloated Romeo a MORAL MONSTER in one all-caps headline. Not as sharp as todays NAZI, but it does have a does have a satisfying lilt of indignation to it.

Clevelands harlot, as the press labeled her, was Maria Halpin, known for her flightiness in Ohio social circles. When news surfaced that shed borne his child out of wedlock, the Cleveland campaign, the 19th-century press leapt onto the story.

Cleveland Cartoon.jpg

(A note on the photo: Candidate Grover Cleveland's paternity scandal inspited the rhyme, "Ma, Ma, where's my pa?/ He's gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.")

Deflecting her claims that hed fathered her infant son, Cleveland, declined to acknowledge or deny his paternity. But also he issued no disclaimers to the name shed given the boy Oscar Folsom Cleveland. (Oscar Folsom had been Clevelands law partner.) The Cleveland press machine seeded the media with suggestions that the offspring might have issued from the prosperous loins of one of two married friends, one of then the late Folsom, whose reputations he was willing to protect out of the goodness of his heart.

How big of him -- except that when Halpin failed to quite down, the candidate pulled strings to have her sent away to treat her drinking problem. (Collins doesnt footnote the name of that eras Betty Ford Clinic). And he persuaded a friend to adopt the boy. When Halpin returned and tried to reclaim her son, Collins reports, Cleveland paid her off with $500. (Ill leave to others the calculation of how much this would be in 2009 dollars.)

Cleveland was especially distressed by the unsavory publicity, because he had his eye on Frances Folsom Oscars teenage daughter.

The bloggers and Fox News equivalents of the day were daily widely plentiful newspapers, a relatively medium 125 years ago, so that urban centers often had 10 of them competing for readers attention.

And what was the scandals effect on the 1884 race for the White House?

True to American politics, Collins wrote, Cleveland, regarded was considered so honest he was dubbed Grover the Good. But after his exposure for moral turpitude, he fell behind in the 1880s version of the polls to the eminently corrupt Blaine. The standard bearer of the party of Lincoln had previously been outed for influence peddling. As a member of Congress for Maine, hed been caught sending solicitation correspondence admonishing recipients to burn the letter after reading: the Rod Blagojevich of the day. Blaine, however, was inching ahead in his guise as a good family man.

Then Clevelands troops were able to get an endorsement from none other than the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who abhorred Blaine. What swung the election, though, was an incident that would have been on YouTube today. Blaine failed to repudiate a widely reported supporter who introduced him at a rally in New York State by insulting Catholics. Cleveland took New York by the width of a white collar.

Oh, yes. Maria Halpin eventually dropped out of sight. The little boy was raised by a kindly physician and become a prominent doctor, who never married.

Unlike John Edwards, Grover Cleveland was elected Presidency of the United States twice -- in 1884 and 1892. In late 1886, he married Frances Folsom, age 21. Their daughter was quickly tagged Baby Ruth, whose name adorns a popular candy bar to this day.

Then there was Woodrow Wilson, who inspired the most infamous typo ever published in The Washington Post. The starched and taciturn Yankee had already engaged in an affair while serving as president of Princeton University. Sadly, Wilsons wife would die after he took the white House in 1912. But before long he found himself charmed by Edith Bolling Galt. He drew snickers in local media for involving himself with a 43-year-old widow.

Utterly smitten, Wilson entertained her frequently at the White House. Soon after the became engaged, Collins wrote, The Washington Post ran a social item with an infamous typo: The president spent much of the evening entering Mrs. Galt. Collins continued, The inner circles of Washington believed it had to be the work of the publishers wife, the irrepressible Mrs. Mclean.

And there you have it. Collins book and a bit of historical Googling will tell you that theres nothing new under the political sun or at least under the sheets.

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