Murderers, cannibals -- lesbians!

America has a distinguished history of spreading scandalous rumors about its politicians, and the latest batch of White House gossip is nothing new.

By Jenn Shreve
May 1, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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Hillary Rodham Clinton might see the attacks on herself and her husband as part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." But true or false, conspiracy or no, the attacks are vicious and politically motivated, and there's nothing new about that.

During Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign, his wife died of a heart attack shortly after reading vicious attacks on her character in a partisan pamphlet called "Truth's Advocate." Grover Cleveland was dogged throughout his tenures in office by rumors that he'd fathered an illegitimate child and then abandoned both the mother and child ("Ma, Ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha"). When President Woodrow Wilson remarried in 1915, a "suspiciously" short time after the death of his first wife, Ellen, rumors spread that Wilson had killed her. John Frimont, the 1856 Republican presidential candidate, was suspected of being a cannibal.


The public's turning of a blind eye to presidential peccadilloes -- which has certainly been the case for President Clinton -- is also not without precedent. Almost every president or presidential candidate has been accused of some egregious flaw -- whether it be alcoholism, philandering or murder -- and in most cases the rumors have made little difference at the polls. The country paid little heed to Ulysses S. Grant's drinking problem, for example.

In her new book, "Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics," New York Times editorial board member Gail Collins looks at American presidential history through the gossip surrounding each administration. She also charts the shifting reaction of the media, from the enthusiastic embrace of gossip by a multitude of partisan rags to the more rigid journalistic standards that newspapers adopted when they had to answer to advertisers.

Salon spoke recently by phone with Collins from Washington, D.C.


Pundits are wringing their hands because Americans don't seem to care much about the president's sexual behavior. But your book says this is really nothing new.

What's new is the technological changes in the media and the way the political system is organized. But what is not happening, as the pundits insist, is some sort of loss of our moral compass. This is not about some dramatic change in the moral fiber of the nation.

As you point out, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland all got involved in scandals but were never punished at the polls.


And that was equally true in the 1970s, when you had all those crazy congressmen running around doing everything except sleeping with a cocker spaniel, and all got reelected; except for a couple of them whose private life was so wildly at variance with their public image, like the guy from Maryland [Robert Bauman] who was an anti-gay congressman who got caught soliciting young boys. It's also true that once they got reelected, a lot of them quit because they just couldn't stand it anymore; it was just too hard on them.

Based on your study of presidential gossip, is it possible, as Clinton has insisted, that the rumors about him and White House interns and volunteers like Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey are simply not true?


It's always possible, though rumors that have real legs always have some kernel of truth in them. More important than whether they are true is how the public sees the object of the rumor, or what's going on in the country at the time. Take Woodrow Wilson. He didn't murder his first wife, but people were upset when they realized that he wasn't sitting in the White House mourning her, that he was courting another lady. That meant that rather than sitting around worrying about World War I, he was sleeping with his fiancie. That upset people.

You write: "The gossip of every election is very much a product of the issues and anxieties of the moment." My reaction was, jeez, we must be really screwed up given the kind of gossip coming out of Washington right now.

A lot of it has to do with harassment of women, women in the workplace and stuff like that. That's why there's so much argument about how differently the accusations against Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton have been treated. It's clear that we have not comfortably worked out these issues. It's a real, live, churning thing.


I also think it's a great sign that we're
only talking about sex now. You don't hear
rumors anymore that someone's secretly a Catholic, secretly black or
secretly Jewish. Roosevelt was supposed to be a secret Jew.
Harding was supposed to be secretly black. Poor John Frémont, when he wasn't being a secret cannibal, was supposed to be a secret Catholic.

But now, Hillary Clinton's supposed to be a secret lesbian.

Powerful women always get gossiped about as lesbians. That's part of a very cosmic tradition.


In the book, you discuss the multitude of small
presses operating in small towns across the country. At the end of the book you talk about the Internet. You write: "Gossip on the Internet really is like a transcribed version of careless back fence chatter or barroom meanderings" -- but spread much faster far beyond a small town. Are we returning to this old-time, small paper rag with the Internet?

I think that's exactly it. In the 19th century there were all these little weenie papers. In a place like Marion, Ohio, where Warren Harding came from, there would be five or 10 papers in this little bitty town. In large cities there'd be tons of newspapers. A lot of them didn't have many staff and weren't well financed, so they weren't that worried about their long-term credibility with advertisers. They were just trying to get enough attention to get through the week. I think there's
a lot of that now. Whenever you have a lot of small, competitive media out there you tend to get a very loud dialogue with people shouting and trying to get attention, which is what's happening now.

That doesn't say much about the journalistic possibilities of the Internet.

I do find a lot of the chat stuff, the political chat, scary. But I also remember reading that when John Calhoun was a
kid living in some plantation in the middle of nowhere he'd had one copy of one issue of a newspaper that he read over and over and over again. Whatever gossip and inaccuracies were in that one copy of the newspaper, John Calhoun took to heart and memorized. With all this different stuff coming at you on the Internet, it's probably healthier in the long run. People are not racing out mad
as dogs because they heard one rumor that Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster, or something.

You write that before radio and film
and TV, politicians were our celebrities. Now it seems we've come back to that. You can't go a week when there isn't some movie being
released with a Bill Clinton-type president in it.


The line is certainly blurred. That's because the political parties have fallen apart, so politicians have to sell themselves.
They need media attention and have to do whatever it takes to get media attention. And because people are not as interested in politicians as they are in singers, actors and
other entertainment celebrities, they have to put up with a lot more abuse.

Bill Clinton is a real pioneer in that. He so often resuscitates his
career by going on TV and making people feel
comfortable with him. But in the process of doing that, he also lost some of the dignity that politicians used to have when
they were more remote. If you want to be that accessible -- talking about your underwear on MTV -- you're inevitably going to lose protection from the more outrageous forms of discourse.

You write about Grover Cleveland, who was wrongly
accused of fathering and abandoning a child, and cite a Rev. Ball who kept pushing the rumors. "Behind almost every gossip-driven campaign," you write, "there lies a figure like Ball, someone who is willing to work full-time spreading and improving upon
the scandal." Is Kenneth Starr a modern-day Rev. Ball?

[Laughs] I was in Pittsburgh on the book tour, where Richard Mellon Scaife, the
right-wing guy who funds so many of these things, lives and owns a newspaper. Everybody there wanted to talk about him as the Rev. Ball. Everyone finds their own Rev. Ball in this one. There are several candidates. [Rep.] Dick Armey [R-Texas] looks like he wants to be Rev. Ball.

There are a few presidents who seem to be made of rubber. Franklin Roosevelt, for example. The press didn't report on his health problems; the press didn't report that Kennedy was screwing around and had Addison's disease.


The health thing seems to me in many
ways a whole lot more serious than the sex stuff. The idea that Kennedy was in Europe, negotiating with the
Russians, at a time when he was on all these drugs and in absolutely
unbearable pain when he wasn't taking mood-altering painkillers, is just amazing to me. That's the kind of gossip that people really ought to know. It's just incredible to me that the media were willing to overlook it.

Is it because health was considered too private?

For a long time it was. Now it's not, although it can be pretty embarrassing. I can understand why Eisenhower was taken aback when
the doctors started reporting his bowel movements to the entire nation. News: The president is regular! Now there's a much higher expectation about what you are allowed to know about the president.

How does the press choose to protect someone in office?
You're covering the president, you know what he's doing --


You don't always know what he's doing. The reporters I
talked to all thought Kennedy was having affairs, but they didn't
know with who; it was all very vague. They certainly didn't think there was the mass screwing around that we hear about now. And the same thing happened in Clinton's first term. People speculated
about whether he might be straying but you didn't hear specific
allegations. When people hinted at it they were sort of scoffed at. It was only Ken Starr and Paula Jones' lawyers coming forward with legally definable events that forced
this discussion out.

Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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