NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Scandals involving politicians’ sex lives have been seen as fair game by journalists since the beginning of the Republic, First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler said today at the First Amendment Center.
In “Freedom of the Press: ‘A Set of Infamous Scribblers,’” second in his series of lectures exploring the history of First Amendment freedoms, Seigenthaler surveyed news coverage of sexual controversies in politics from the 1690s through the current uproar over inappropriate e-mails sent to congressional pages by former Rep. Mark Foley.
In 1690, Seigenthaler noted, the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which lasted for one day before it was closed by Colonial authorities, reported an item about the King of France having sex with his daughter-in-law.
A hundred years later, a bitter and unscrupulous publisher, James T. Callender, started the National Gazette, which, under editor Philip Freneau, reported that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had had an adulterous affair and paid hush money out of federal funds to the woman’s husband. (Hamilton, admitting the affair, denied making payments from the Treasury, and a congressional investigation found no evidence that he had.)
It was also Callender, Seigenthaler said, who raised the charge that President Thomas Jefferson had had children by his slave, Sally Hemings — an accusation that DNA evidence recently suggested was probably true. [Editor's note: The original story reported a statement that the DNA research had proven Jefferson's paternity.]
“There is no statute of limitations on press interest in presidential affairs” involving sex, Seigenthaler said in explaining the 38-year delay between Andrew Jackson’s elopement with a married woman in 1790 and a news report about it during the 1828 presidential election campaign.
Observing that “news-media interest in sex has ebbed and flowed over the decades,” Seigenthaler recounted presidential sexual escapades both reported and suppressed. These episodes ranged from extensive public reporting on Grover Cleveland’s out-of-wedlock son in the late 1800s through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with Lucy Mercer and John F. Kennedy’s with Judith Exner (neither divulged till much later) — and, of course, Bill Clinton’s relations with Monica Lewinsky, a scandal so intensely reported that many decried the news media for a “feeding frenzy.”
But sexual adventures weren’t the sole focus of today’s installment in the “Conversations with John Seigenthaler” lecture series, which began Oct. 13 and continues each Friday through Nov. 17.
The former Tennessean publisher also discussed allegations of wrongdoing made in the nation’s press against a number of U.S. presidents, starting with George Washington. The founder of the country was accused of such things as “apish mimicry of kingship” and called “a man of no talent” in the highly partisan early newspapers. Such charges led Washington to utter the statement from which today’s lecture title was taken. He told his vice president, John Adams, that “he was disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”
Were it not for a free press, Seigenthaler said, the public might never have learned about allegations that President Theodore Roosevelt was suspected of misusing government money in his drive to build the Panama Canal. In fact, Roosevelt asked the Justice Department to indict Publisher Joseph Pulitzer of The World, as well as other news executives, for criminal libel — for reporting that money had been paid improperly to Roosevelt’s relatives and friends. The indictments were later dismissed.
Nor would such scandals as Teapot Dome in Warren Harding’s administration, or Watergate in Richard Nixon’s, “have seen the light of day,” Seigenthaler said, if the press had not been free.
He asked why the nation’s founders, knowing how scurrilous the press could be, gave it freedom in the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
“Why did visionary and committed public servants give to a fallible, wrong-headed, rumor-mongering, error-prone institution — the press — such immunity to regulation? Such freedom, such power, and such power to harm?” Seigenthaler asked.
“The Founders trusted [the press] because they did not trust themselves with power,” he said.
“And for all its flaws and self-inflicted wounds, there is optimum access to news and information that is needed to inform an enlightened citizenry.”
The lecture series continues on Oct. 27; the topic is “A Dangerous Dichotomy: Freedom and Fear!”