WITH Northern Ireland now being jolted by a couple of sex scandals, maybe we should ask why our politics have remained strangely free of such scandals? The whole thing undoubtedly has a lot to do with hypocrisy.
We did have a massive sex scandal in this country, and it took essentially a century to get over it. That was the one involving Charles Stewart Parnell whose ghost haunted Irish politics for more than a century.
His affair with Kitty O’Shea was essentially an open secret in its day. He was living with her long before she divorced her estranged husband who had been exploiting the whole thing to secure his own political preferment with the help of Parnell.
The bishops knew about it, but they kept quiet until the whole thing was publicised. Then they pulled the rug from under Parnell in order to play the hypocritical role of suddenly being shocked. For decades afterwards it seemed our politics were haunted by the ghost of Parnell as our politicans were terrified of the bishops.
While Pope John Paul II was in Ireland in 1979 there were rumours that President Paddy Hillery was having marital problems as a result of an affair. As soon as the Pope left, Hillery called in the national press and denied the rumours.
More than 50 years earlier Eamon de Valera had adopted a comparatively similar tactic. In the 1920s there were rumours about the Long Fellow’s relationship and his secretary, Kathleen O’Connell. They had travelled throughout the US together and rumours that they were having an affair found their way into the press.
Michael Collins arranged for Sineád de Valera to join her husband in the US in an effort to kill these stories in 1920, but this turned into a disaster. “The visit to America was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made,” Sinéad recalled. “I derived neither profit nor pleasure from my visit.”
Opponents later accused de Valera of starting the civil war and murdering Michael Collins, so any suggestion that he had ever played away from home seemed like particularly mild stuff.
But de Valera stunned the Dáil in November 1928 by accusing his opponents of spreading such stories. “My wife was supposed to have had to leave the country and live abroad because she could not live with me,” he said. “I was supposed to be living with two or three other women.”
“I never heard that before,” WT Cosgrave interjected in amazement.
“It was part of a campaign – everybody knows it was part of a campaign,” de Valera continued. “As long as people pander to that sort of thing, and inspire it, you are not going to have any respect here for the so-called will of the people. It went on not merely from platform and in private, but it was spoken from the pulpit; it came from the altar. I myself was told by a lady in Chicago that a bishop told her that my wife had to go over to America in order to keep me straight there because I was associating with women.”
Back in 1884, when Parnell was the uncrowned king of Ireland, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke the news that Grover Cleveland, a bachelor who was running for President of the United States, had a 10-year-old son named Oscar Folsom Cleveland. “Yes, it’s true,” Grover replied when asked by the press. He had been paying for the child’s upkeep over the past 10 years.
The Republicans tried to embarrass Cleveland with the slogan: “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” When they persisted with the chant after Cleveland won the election, the Democrats used to respond: “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
Ironically in the half-century after the start of the American civil war, Cleveland was the only Democrat elected to the White House.
After President Woodrow Wilson’s wife died in 1915, he soon began a relationship with a rich widow, Edith Bolling Galt. This set tongues wagging because his wife was not dead even a year.
The Washington Post tried to report the relationship discreetly by suggesting the president had spent the evening entertaining Mrs Galt,” but somebody made an appalling typographical error and printed “entering” instead of “entertaining.” This paper was actually withdrawn, but the story got out.
Wilson remarried in the White House. Some of the media had fun with the relationship, with reports like “When the president proposed, she nearly fell out of the bed.”
After US President Warren G Harding died in 1923, a former mistress, Nan Britton, wrote a memoir, The President’s Daughter. She claimed that Harding was the father of her daughter. The US Congress and the FBI tried to block the publication of her book for a time, so it became a runaway bestseller.
Harding had been a notorious philanderer. His wife, Florence, supposedly caught him with another woman in flagrante delicto. They reportedly fled into a White House closet and the secret service had to rescue them as Florence was trying to break down the door with a hatchet. She could have done some real harm if she got at the president with that hatchet – look at the damage Elin Woods did to Tiger with a nine iron!
Franklin Roosevelt had his fatal stroke while he was closeted with his long-term mistress, Lucy Mercer, but it was hushed up. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy was a serial adulterer, as was Lyndon Johnson, but the latter did so many other shady things that a sex scandal would only have seemed like a diversion.
Johnson was no mean hand at planting sordid stories about others. He liked to tell of the Texas politician who asked his aides to spread the word that his opponent was having sex with a pig.
“Nobody would believe that,” one aide replied. “I know,” said the politician, “but we might get the son of a bitch to deny it.” Here it seemed de Valera and Hillery set a trend by openly denying rumours.
CHARLIE Haughey’s affair with Terry Keane was an open secret. Scap Saturday made light of it, and she spent years fuelling the rumours with her cooing about “Sweetie” in her column before she finally told all on the Late Late Show in a fit of pique. By then just about everybody knew and nobody really cared.
Other American presidents were also involved in adulterous affairs. Dwight Eisenhower had a famous tangle with a Cork woman during the Second World War and Richard Nixon allegedly had a Chinese mistress, but neither affair developed into a scandal.
Presidents seemed immune before Monica Lewinsky came along. Her problem was that she didn’t keep her mouth shut.
She was blabbing to “a friend” that she couldn’t get Bill to go all the way.
In comparison with his Republican persecutors – Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, and Henry Hyde – Clinton was a mere choirboy. When they went after him, however, they became fair game themselves because they were thundering hypocrites.
In this country there has also been contempt for the hypocrites, especially the episcopal and clerical hypocrites who did not live up to the standards they readily prescribed. Maybe our politics aren’t as exciting, but we have enough problems without such hypocrisy, too.
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