New course at community college focuses on U.S. presidential scandals

Commander in chief, leader of the free world, POTUS (President of the United States) — these are common monikers for the U.S. president.

Yet after taking Patrick Heline's class on presidential malfeasance, one might come up with a few other labels for some presidents in America's history, including, perhaps, unfaithful husband, unfit father, power monger ... perhaps even sexual opportunist.


The class on presidential scandals taught by Heline, a Howard Community College adjunct faculty member, is a nonaccredited course scheduled to start in mid-February that focuses on what he describes as blatant and salacious misuse of power by some presidents. Many of the scandals involve alleged sexual and criminal incidents Heline says were committed either by presidents or by those with close ties to them.

Heline, 32, a Glen Burnie resident with a history degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, taught a similar class last year at Anne Arundel Community College. The Howard County version is being taught Feb. 21 to March 21 at the Bain Senior Center in Columbia as part of a continuing-education partnership between HCC and the Howard County Office on Aging. The school offers more than a dozen courses for people age 60 and over at local senior centers.

The class on presidential scandals is among several courses Heline has fashioned around U.S. presidents. He said his passion for teaching goes back to second grade, and his concentration on the chief executive came in high school after he picked up a fact book on U.S. presidents.

"I like learning ... how American history worked out through what they did in the presidency, the programs and policies they did during their administrations," Heline said.

Of course, he's also interested in "some of the things that have come out during their presidencies as well."

Culling information from college libraries as well as books on presidents dating to the nation's infancy, Heline offers colorful and detailed narratives of accounts so controversial it's a wonder they're scarcely talked about nowadays.

The biggest sex and political scandals in the nation's history? According to Heline, that distinction may go to President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who during the 1884 presidential campaign was accused of fathering an illegitimate child with a widow named Maria Halpin — Heline says some accounts allege Cleveland forced himself on her — while he was sheriff of Erie County, N.Y.

"It happened before his presidency," said Heline, who said the woman subsequently became pregnant, though it is unknown for certain whether Cleveland was the father.

Cleveland, Heline said, used money and means to prevent the controversy from surfacing, separating mother and child — Halpin wound up briefly in an asylum, while the child went to an orphanage.

"This would later come out in the 1884 election, once Cleveland received the Democratic nomination for president, and the Republicans had a field day," said Heline. "They were saying things like, 'Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?' " The scandal, however, did not prevent Cleveland from becoming president.

The next biggest sex scandal, Heline said, involved President Warren Harding and woman named Nan Britton, who was said to be his mistress.

"She had an obsession with him," Heline said. After Harding's death, Britton published a book, "The President's Daughter," in which she claimed Harding fathered a child by her.

After that, he said, the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, in which Clinton admitted to an "inappropriate relationship," would rank among the biggest sex-related scandals. It helped lead to Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1998.

Not surprisingly, Heline said the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup, which led to Richard Nixon's resignation, was the biggest overall political presidential scandal in U.S. history.


But there were plenty of other contenders. Heline said the presidential election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams — where neither received enough electoral votes to be declared the winner — was a high scandal in its day. The decision to select a president was left to the House of Representatives, whose speaker, Henry Clay, had himself been a presidential candidate.

"Clay knew he stood no chance, but he held the key on who was going to be the next president," Heline said. "There was a lot of bargaining going on. But one of the Adams supporters came and offered Clay [the position of] secretary of state if he would give Adams the presidency. You have to realize that at that time, secretary of state was the stepping point into the White House.

"Clay accepted and gave Adams his votes," Heline said, "which was the first time that a candidate elected by popular vote did not actually receive the presidency."

The course comes as Heline has been teaching a series at Howard Community College on U.S. presidents. He's also scheduled to teach a short course on Woodrow Wilson in early February.

"He's starting to get a following of people who sign up again and again," said Roxanne Farrar, HCC's continuing-education coordinator. "Patrick is really good about his research; he gives handouts and people ask questions, so he spends a lot of time preparing for his courses."

Because his courses are taught at senior centers, Heline's students are primarily elderly residents. He said when he taught the course last year, he covered years most seniors did not remember, but "when we get to Nixon and Watergate they remember, and it's great for me as a teacher because they talk about it. They're the ones leading the discussion."

For more information on the presidential scandals class and other noncredit courses, go to coned.howardcc.edu/courses.