The Logistics of Presidential Adultery

The Washington Times could hardly contain its excitement: “A former FBI agent assigned to the White House describes in a new book how President Clinton slips past his Secret Service detail in the dead of night, hides under a blanket in the back of a dark-colored sedan, and trysts with a woman, possibly a celebrity, at the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington.” For Clinton-haters, Gary Aldrich’s tale sounded too good to be true.

And it was. The not-so-Secret-Service agent’s “source” turned out to be a thirdhand rumor passed on by Clinton scandalmonger David Brock. Those who know about White House security–Clinton staffers, the Secret Service, former aides to Presidents Reagan and Bush–demolished Aldrich’s claims. Clinton couldn’t give his Secret Service agents the slip (they shadow him when he walks around the White House), couldn’t arrange a private visit without tipping off hotel staff, and couldn’t re-enter the White House without getting nabbed. (Guards check all cars at the gate–especially those that arrive at 4 a.m.)

Even so, the image resonates. For some Americans, it is an article of faith: Bill Clinton cheated on his wife when he was governor, and he cheats on her as president. But can he? Is it possible for the president of the United States to commit adultery and get away with it? Maybe, but it’s tougher than you think.

Historically, presidential adultery is common. Warren Harding cavorted with Nan Britton and Carrie Phillips. Franklin Roosevelt “entertained” Lucy Rutherford at the White House when Eleanor was away. America was none the wiser, even if White House reporters were.

Those who know Clinton is cheating often point to the model of John F. Kennedy, who turned presidential hanky-panky into a science. Kennedy invited mistresses to the White House for afternoon (and evening, and overnight) liaisons. Kennedy seduced women on the White House staff (including, it seems, Jackie’s own press secretary). Kennedy made assignations outside the White House, then escaped his Secret Service detail by scaling walls and ducking out back doors. If Kennedy did it, so can Clinton.

Well, no. Though Clinton slavishly emulates JFK in every other way, he’d be a fool to steal Kennedy’s MO d’amour. Here’s why:

1) Too many people would know. Kennedy hardly bothered to hide his conquests. According to Kennedy mistress (and mob moll) Judith Campbell’s autobiography, those who knew about their affair included: Kennedy’s personal aides and secretary (who pandered for him), White House drivers, White House gate guards, White House Secret Service agents, White House domestic staff, most of Campbell’s friends, a lot of Kennedy’s friends, and several Kennedy family members. Such broad circulation would be disastrous today because:

2) The press would report it. Kennedy conducted his affairs brazenly because he trusted reporters not to write about them. White House journalists knew about, or at least strongly suspected, Kennedy’s infidelity, but never published a story about it. Ask Gary Hart if reporters would exercise the same restraint today. Clinton must worry about this more than most presidents. Not only are newspapers and magazines willing to publish an adultery story about him, but many are pursuing it.

For the same reason, Clinton would find it difficult to hire a mistress. A lovely young secretary would set off alarm bells in any reporter investigating presidential misbehavior. Says a former Clinton aide, “There has been a real tendency to have no good-looking women on the staff in order to protect him.”

3) Clinton cannot avoid Secret Service protection. During the Kennedy era, the Secret Service employed fewer than 500 people and had an annual budget of about $4 million. Then came Lee Harvey Oswald, Squeaky Fromme, and John Hinckley. Now the Secret Service payroll tops 4,500 (most of them agents), and the annual budget exceeds $500 million (up 300 percent just since 1980). At any given time, more than 100 agents guard the president in the White House. Top aides from recent administrations are adamant: The Secret Service never lets the president escape its protection.

So what’s a randy president to do? Any modern presidential affair would need to meet stringent demands. Only a tiny number of trusted aides and Secret Service agents could know of it. They would need to maintain complete silence about it. And no reporters could catch wind of it. Such an affair is improbable, but–take heart, Clinton-haters–it’s not impossible. Based on scuttlebutt and speculation from insiders at the Clinton, Bush, Reagan, and Ford White Houses, here are the four likeliest scenarios for presidential adultery.

1) The White House Sneak. This is a discreet variation of the old Kennedy/Campbell liaison. It’s late at night. The president’s personal aides have gone home. The family is away. He is alone in the private quarters. The private quarters, a k a “the residence,” occupy the second and third floors of the White House. Secret Service agents guard the residence’s entrances on the first floor and ground floors, but the first family has privacy in the quarters themselves. Maids and butlers serve the family there, but the president and first lady ask them to leave when they want to be alone.

The president dials a “friend” on his private line. (Most presidents placed all their calls through the White House operators, who kept a record of each one; the Clintons installed a direct-dial line in the private quarters.) The president invites the friend over for a cozy evening at the White House. After he hangs up with the friend, he phones the guard at the East Executive Avenue gate and tells him to admit a visitor. He also notifies the Secret Service agent and the usher on duty downstairs that they should send her up to the residence.

A taxi drops the woman near the East gate. She identifies herself to the guard, who examines her ID, runs her name through a computer (to check for outstanding warrants), and logs her in a database. A White House usher escorts her into the East Wing of the White House. They walk through the East Wing and pass the Secret Service guard post by the White House movie theater. The agent on duty waves them on. The usher takes her to the private elevator, where another Secret Service agent is posted. She takes the elevator to the second floor. The president opens the door and welcomes her. Under no circumstances could she enter the living quarters without first encountering Secret Service agents.

Let us pause for a moment to demolish two of the splashier rumors about White House fornication. First, the residence is the only place in the White House where the president can have safe (i.e. uninterrupted) sex. He can be intruded upon or observed everywhere else–except, perhaps, the Oval Office bathroom. Unless the president is an exhibitionist or a lunatic, liaisons in the Oval Office, bowling alley, or East Wing are unimaginable. Second, the much-touted tunnel between the White House and the Treasury Department is all-but-useless to the presidential adulterer. It is too well-guarded. The president could smuggle a mistress through it, but it would attract far more attention from White House staff than a straightforward gate entry would.

Meanwhile, back in the private quarters, the president and friend get comfortable in one of the 14 bedrooms (or, perhaps, the billiard room). After a pleasant 15 minutes (or two hours?), she says goodbye. Depending on how long she stays, she may pass a different shift of Secret Service agents as she departs. She exits the White House grounds, unescorted and unbothered, at the East gate. The Risks: A gate guard, an usher, and a handful of Secret Service agents see her. All of them have a very good idea of why she was there. The White House maid who changes the sheets sees other suspicious evidence. And the woman’s–real–name is entered in a Secret Service computer. None of this endangers the president too much. The computer record of her visit is private, at least for several decades after he leaves office. No personal aides know about the visit. Unless they were staking out the East gate, no journalists do either. The Secret Service agents, the guard, the steward, and the maid owe their jobs to their discretion. Leaks get them fired.

That said, the current president has every reason not to trust his Secret Service detail. No one seriously compares Secret Service agents (who are pros) to Arkansas state troopers (who aren’t). But Clinton might not trust any security guards after the beating he took from his Arkansas posse. Also, if other Secret Service agents are anything like Aldrich, they may dislike this president. One Secret Service leak–the lamp-throwing story–already damaged Clinton. Agents could tattle again.

2) The “Off-the-Record” Visit. Late at night, after his personal aides and the press have gone home, the president tells his Secret Service detail that he needs to take an “off-the-record” trip. He wants to leave the White House without his motorcade and without informing the press. He requests two agents and an unobtrusive sedan. The Secret Service shift leader grumbles, but accepts the conditions. Theoretically, the president could refuse all Secret Service protection, but it would be far more trouble than it’s worth. He would have to inform the head of the Secret Service and the secretary of the Treasury. The president and the two agents drive the unmarked car to a woman friend’s house. Ideally, she has a covered garage. (An apartment building or a hotel would raise considerably the risk of getting caught.) The agents guard the outside of the house while the president and his friend do their thing. Then the agents chauffeur the president back to the White House, re-entering through the Southwest or Southeast gate, away from the press station. The Risks: Only two Secret Service agents and their immediate supervisor know about the visit. It is recorded in the Secret Service log, which is not made public during the administration’s tenure. Gate guards may suspect something fishy when they see the car. A reporter or passer-by could spy the president–even through tinted windows–as the car enters and exits the White House. The friend’s neighbors might spot him, or they might notice the agents lurking outside her house. A neighbor might call the police to report the suspicious visitors. All in all, a risky, though not unthinkable, venture.

3. The Camp David Assignation. A bucolic, safer version of the White House Sneak. The president invites a group of friends and staffers–including his paramour but not his wife–to spend the weekend at Camp David. The girlfriend is assigned the cabin next to the president’s lodge. Late at night, after the Hearts game has ended and everyone has retired to their cabins, she strolls next door. There is a Secret Service command post outside the cabin. The agents on duty (probably three of them) let her enter. A few hours later, she slips back to her own cabin. The Risks: Only a few Secret Service agents know about the liaison. Even though the guest list is not public, all the Navy and Marine personnel at Camp David, as well as the other guests, would know that the presidential entourage included an attractive woman, but not the first lady. That would raise eyebrows if it got back to the White House press room.

4. The Hotel Shuffle. The cleverest strategy, and the only one that cuts out the Secret Service. The president is traveling without his family. The Secret Service secures an entire hotel floor, reserving elevators and guarding the entrance to the president’s suite. The president’s personal aide (a man in his late 20s) takes the room adjoining the president’s. An internal door connects the two rooms, so the aide can enter the president’s room without alerting the agents in the hall. This is standard practice.

Late in the evening, the aide escorts a comely young woman back to the hotel. The Secret Service checks her, then waves her into the aide’s room. She emerges three hours later, slightly disheveled. She kisses the aide in the hall as she leaves. Someone got lucky–but who? The Risks: The posted Secret Service agents might see through the charade. More awkwardly, the aide would be forced to play the seamy role of procurer. (He would probably do it. Kennedy’s assistants performed this task dutifully.)

In short, presidential adultery is just barely possible in 1996. But it would be extremely inconvenient, extremely risky, and potentially disastrous. It seems, in fact, a lot more trouble than it’s worth. A president these days might be wiser to imitate Jimmy Carter, not Jack Kennedy, and only lust in his heart.