Rob Christensen

When the press kept politicians’ bad behavior quiet

In 1940, the Brown family visits Raleigh to receive New York World's Fair credentials from Gov. Clyde Hoey.
In 1940, the Brown family visits Raleigh to receive New York World's Fair credentials from Gov. Clyde Hoey. News & Observer

With websites and airwaves filled with stories of the alleged sexual misdeeds of such politicians as Roy Moore, Al Franken, John Conyers and Joe Barton, as well as numerous journalists and Hollywood types, one might think the United States has suddenly become unhinged.

But as former President Harry Truman liked to say: “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”

What is new is that women are coming forward with the stories of harassment, they are being listened to, and corrective action is being taken.

But men behaving badly is a very old story, one that rarely became public in the past unless it showed up in divorce proceedings or a police blotter.

There was an unwritten rule in the past that the private lives of politicians stayed in private. So President John F. Kennedy’s affairs were not reported until years after his death.

One of the best examples of the press’s blind eye was the 1944 presidential election in which both Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and his Republican challenger Wendell Wilkie had mistresses.

“Wilkie was a ladies’ man and he looked for romantic flings,” according to his biographer Steve Neal.

Even though he remained married, Wilkie fell in love with Irita Van Doren, a leading New York book editor, and the two practically lived together, traveled together, and were invited to the homes of friends and business associates.

Contemptuous of sexual hypocrisy, Wilkie even held a press conference in Van Doren’s New York apartment.

“Everybody knows about us – all of the newspapermen of New York,’’ he told friends. “If somebody should come along to threaten to embarrass me about Irita, I would say, go right ahead. There is not a reporter in New York who doesn’t know about her.”

No reporter ever wrote about Wilkie’s affair.

His wife remained loyal to Wilkie, saying, “I can find more pleasure in walking down the street with him than in anything else I know.”

No reporter wrote about Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s rumored affairs in 1968 either. After the campaign, McCarthy and his wife Abigail separated.

“Many presidential campaigns had such rumors, but in those days, the unwritten rule of the news media was that those stories were off-limits,” writes Lawrence O’Donnell in his new book, Playing With Fire. “Reporters allowed politicians to have private lives.”

Politics, like show biz, has always had a sexual buzz about it for several reasons. Sexual affairs are often as much about ego as hormones, and people who put themselves forth for public office usually have healthy egos. To get elected, they often are attractive in some way – whether it’s physical appearance, charm or force of personality. And there is opportunity: long hours away from home, often on the road, often surrounded by young aides of the opposite sex.

The state legislature in Raleigh has long been a hothouse of sexual gossip, with the atmosphere of an out-of-town sales convention as lawmakers left behind their small towns and wives – the legislature has long been male-dominated – for free food and booze provided by lobbyists and lots of young aides. I don’t hang around Jones Street much any more, but when I did, there was also plenty of gossip about who was sleeping with whom and of secretaries having to dodge aggressive, handsy bosses. Occasionally, stories would make the rounds that a lawmaker had been quietly called on the carpet for roving hands with underage pages.

Most of this never made the news in the age before blogs and social media. Sexual peccadillos are difficult to prove, and the press corps tended to be male-dominated. Reporters tended not to write about the private lives of lawmakers. If a legislator showed up obviously drunk for a Monday night session – a common occurrence – it never made the papers.

There were plenty of sexual harassers in the past.

Clyde Hoey was one of the most popular political figures of mid-20th century North Carolina, winning election as governor in 1936 and serving in the U.S. Senate from 1945 to 1954.

He was a corporate lawyer and a conservative Democrat who was both an old-fashioned stemwinder and a Bible-thumper. He was a Sunday school teacher at Raleigh’s Edenton Street Methodist Church, his lessons broadcast on radio statewide.

Bobby Baker, a South Carolinian who recently died, rose to become a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, but he started out as a young Senate page.

One of his jobs as a page was to collect paychecks for secretaries in order to protect them from Hoey’s roving hands.

“The secretaries used to call me in the cloakroom because back then we always got paid in cash twice a month,” Baker recalled in his memoirs. “They’d say, ‘Is that son of a bitch (Hoey) out there by the water fountain?’ Because what he would do, when a pretty girl would come by, he’d call her over and then he would try to play with her breasts.”

But Hoey’s image in the state was pure as the driven snow, because no reporters ever wrote about his misbehavior.

An example is the letter that Gov. Kerr Scott received from Jake M. Furr Jr., a land surveyor from Troy in June 1950.

“If you desire to be a good Democrat, a Christian Gentleman, and all that pertains; I refer you to Mr. Clyde Hote (Hoey), a Gentleman, a Christian, an emblem of Jesus Christ who was crucified by a block vote 2000 years ago.”