Presidents and Their Mistresses: Who Cares?

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President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by admirers as he takes a dip on Aug. 19, 1962.
Corbis

THE GIST

- JFK is just one in a long line of commanders in chief who were involved in sex scandals.

- Today, the public is much more likely to hear the gossip while politicians are in office.

- Americans have generally become more accepting of bad behavior by presidents.

Newly released details about John F. Kennedy's torrid affair with White House intern Mimi Beardsley have brought new attention to a long history of bad behavior in the White House.

From Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, presidential scandals are as American as baseball and apple pie.

But times have changed, along with attitudes and technologies -- rapidly decreasing the time it takes for the public to find out about what their leaders have been up to in the bedroom.

PHOTOS: Unpresidential Moments in History

Instead of learning about long-term mistresses and affairs with prostitutes from memoirs decades after a president's death, we hear about lewd text messages during political races, and we get news of sex with interns while presidents are still in office. Meanwhile, the public's thirst for gossip has only grown more voracious. And the mainstream press has become much more willing to deliver all the dirty details.

Together, these developments have given Oval Office gossip the power to affect politics in real time. What's still unclear, however, is whether presidential philandering actually harms a candidate's prospects or a leader's legacy. Even after a scandal is exposed, many politicians go on to enjoy successful, even heroic reputations.

"We're more forgiving than a lot of people might imagine and we have always been so throughout American history," said Doug Wead, presidential historian and author of "All The President's Children."

"Sex is a part of life, and corruption is always a part of power, and wherever there are men, these sorts of things have always happened and they probably always will. This is a phenomenon that transcends cultures and religions and nations."

Long before America was born, Wead pointed out, kings and other leaders have been exploiting their authority to take whatever or whomever they want, with endless examples of mistresses and bastard children throughout English and French history.

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