Sex, Lies, and Major Headlines

While candidates' moral failings are big news, many voters forgive them their sins.


Descendants of Thomas Jefferson, including those from his liaison with Sally Hemings, gather at Monticello in 1999.

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At one point, his Republican opponents arranged for some women to show up at a Cleveland speech with children in tow, the kids shouting, "Ma, Ma, where's my pa?" It was an attempt to heckle and harass Cleveland by raising the adultery issue. His fellow Democrats took pleasure in altering the chant: "Ma, Ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!"

Gary Hart. A two-term senator from Colorado, Gary Hart was in a great position to win the White House in 1988. He had run an unsuccessful but strong campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1984, losing to former Vice President Walter Mondale, and emerged as the leader for '88. But many reporters thought Hart was too enigmatic and self-absorbed to be president. For a long time, he declared great swaths of his personal life off limits to the media, raising reporters' suspicions. But eventually, frustrated by the endless questions, he invited journalists to follow him, saying they would "be very bored."

Hart's campaign was shattered when he was caught by the Miami Herald in a Washington townhouse with a 29-year-old part-time actress and model named Donna Rice, while his wife, Lee, was out of town. Herald reporters, it turned out, got a tip about the rendezvous and had staked out the residence as if they were cops on criminal surveillance. Despite Hart's insistence that he didn't have sexual relations with Rice, incriminating information mounted. Not only was his credibility challenged, but critics said he showed bad judgment in associating with a woman young enough to be his daughter in the middle of a presidential campaign—especially amid criticism that he was a womanizer.

Hart suspended his campaign but began to reconsider. The capper came when the National Enquirer published a photo of Rice, holding a cocktail glass, sitting seductively in Hart's lap at a dock. It turned out that previously they had joined a few others on a trip to Bimini aboard a chartered yacht called "Monkey Business." The photo showed a grinning Hart wearing a T-shirt that said "Monkey Business Crew." His presidential dreams were over.

Bill Clinton. The issue hit like a whirlwind at the start of the 1992 campaign when the Star, a supermarket tabloid, reported that a part-time nightclub singer named Gennifer Flowers had said she'd had an affair with Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. The national news media picked up the story, and it reverberated across the country.

Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, initially denied the accusations at a news conference, but the story kept building. He took a big gamble and appeared on the CBS TV show 60 Minutes, with Hillary sitting next to him, and acknowledged "causing pain in my marriage." But he again denied the Flowers accusations. Clinton went on to win the '92 election.

Of course, after he won a second term, the House impeached him after he lied under oath about having an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Senate declined to remove him from office. By the end of his administration, most Americans thought he was doing a good job as president, even if they had problems with his private character.