Before choosing its notorious "All the News That's Fit to Print," The New York Times had as its slogan, "It does not soil the breakfast cloth." That's because lots of late 19th-century newspapers soiled away with tales of vice.
Like many of you, I have mixed feelings about George W. Bush's performance in office, but let us now praise what's now being taken for granted: He has not soiled the Oval Office as his predecessor did—and that comes to mind because it's almost 10 years since Bill Clinton's admission on Aug. 17, 1998, that he had an "inappropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton was the most literal presidential soiler, but not the only one—and that's important because adultery is generally a leading indicator of faithlessness to the nation. Throughout the 20th century small betrayals in marriage generally led to larger betrayals, and leaders who broke a large vow to one person found it easy to break relatively small vows to millions.
Take Woodrow Wilson, please. He covered up so well his affair with a paid-off Mary Hulbert Peck that he was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910 and president in 1912, both times running as a candidate of private and public integrity. Adultery and its continued cover-up contributed to a theological transformation in Wilson: Once he liberated himself from one commandment, he began regarding that one about lying as a suggestion as well.
The new Wilson won reelection in 1916 with the effective slogan, "He kept us out of the war," while privately telling cabinet members, "I can't keep the country out of the war." One month after his second inauguration, Wilson led the United States into World War I. Soon after the war he had a major stroke that left him unable to exercise the duties of the presidency, but Wilson, his aides, and his second wife lied and claimed that he was able to work. They kept up the pretense throughout Wilson's last year and a half in office.
Or consider the case of Warren Harding, whose sexual cover-ups (he hid his affairs with Carrie Phillips and Nan Briton) were leading indicators of a corrupt administration. And let's look at Franklin Roosevelt, who covered up affairs with Lucy Mercer and Missy Le Hand, then used the same techniques to cover up affairs of state. (Turner Catledge of The New York Times told friends that Roosevelt's first instinct was always to lie; sometimes in midsentence he would switch to accuracy because he realized he could get away with the truth in that particular instance.)