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Politics isn't the only strange bedfellow White House whoopee: Over the years, after affairs of state were put to rest, presidents took up affairs of the heart.

In the movie, "The American President," President Andy Shepherd (Michael Douglas) has been widowed and apparently celibate for about three years. He decides to date cute lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). Advisers warn that it would be harmful politically.

He bristles. He says there is a precedent for it. Now most people today when they think of love in the White House, think of John F. Kennedy. But that wasn't what this movie is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be a romantic comedy. If they ever make a movie about the Kennedy White House it will be closer to porn. Jack Kennedy was notorious for his off-duty activities in the White House, with actresses, wives and/or relatives of friends or associates, staff, even a gangster's moll. It was just raw sex, or, maybe, therapy. Kennedy once said to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain, "I wonder how it is with you, Harold? If I don't have a woman for three days, I get a terrible headache."

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President Shepherd's precedent was Woodrow Wilson. He told his aide that Wilson, like him, was a widower, who courted and wed while in the White House.

Indeed so (and he got re-elected). And he wasn't the first widowed president to pitch some woo in the White House without hurting himself with the voters.

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It all started with Thomas Jefferson, who moved into the White House in 1801, five months after it was built. Jefferson had wed Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. She died in 1782. Jefferson never re-married. But before and during his presidency, he is said by some historians to have a sexual and romantic relationship with a slave from his Virginia plantation, Sally Hemings. This has never been proved, and many -- perhaps most -- historians doubt it.

The story first came to public attention in 1802, during Jefferson's first term. A Richmond newspaper editor wrote that Jefferson "keeps" a "concubine" identified only as Sally. She was described as "sable." The editor was anti-Jefferson, and there was speculation at the time that Chief Justice John Marshall, the president's political nemesis, was the editor's source. (The editor drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1803, and a coroner's inquest was suspect. Always a little intrigue in Washington.)

The "character issue" was invoked by Jefferson's opponents in 1804. He won in a landslide, 162 electoral votes to two opponents' 14.

John Tyler was the next widower in the White House. He was elected vice president in 1840, as William Henry Harrison's running mate. Harrison died a month after taking office. Tyler's wife of 29 years, Letitia Christian Tyler, suffered a paralytic stroke in 1839 and was an invalid during her entire term as first lady. She died in September 1842.

According to one biographer, President Tyler began a discreet courtship of Julia Gardiner, 30 years his junior, in January of 1843. She came from a rich New York family. How rich? When Tyler proposed, her mother told her to make sure the president of the United States could provide for her in the manner to which she had become accustomed.

Married in secrecy

They were wed in near secrecy in a church in New York City in June 1844, and the couple were the subjects of some vicious gossip. This, as in the case of Jefferson, was politically motivated in part. Tyler had been a Democrat who joined Whig Harrison in 1840. By 1844 both Whigs and Democrats hated him. He was not renominated. And the House of Representatives wouldn't appropriate money for the maintenance of the White House, where paint peeled and dirt accumulated. A contemporary writer called it "slum-like." (Always listen to your mother.)

The next presidential romance that is known of was that of Grover Cleveland's. He was a bachelor when he was elected in 1884. He survived an assault on his character that echoes 1992's. He was attacked for being a Civil War draft dodger and for fathering an illegitimate child. He won anyway.

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Cleveland's law partner and friend Oscar Folsom had been killed in an accident when his daughter, Frances Folsom, was 11 years old. Cleveland became the administrator of her estate. While she was in college, his old-friend-of-the-family relationship turned romantic. They became secret sweethearts in 1885, and were wed in the White House in 1886, when he was 49 and she was 21, just a few days after they announced the engagement.

The public seemed to react positively to the marriage, and the animosity toward him as a pre-presidency philanderer (and draft dodger) faded. But the press took out after him in modern day, near-National Enquirer frenzy. It reported coarse jokes about the 250-pound president's crushing his small young bride on the honeymoon.

Pack of reporters

They honeymooned in Deer Park, and scores of reporters followed them, with spyglasses and feverish imaginations, to make the couple's life miserable. Cleveland never forgave the press, referring thereafter to many journalists as "animals." (He was defeated in 1888, for reasons having nothing to do with his marriage; he was re-elected in 1892.)

Which brings us to President Andy Shepherd's role model, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's wife of 29 years, Ellen Axson, died in the White House in August 1914, 17 months after Wilson was inaugurated. Wilson was despondent to the point of expressing the wish that he be assassinated.

But the following spring he met a Washington widow, Edith Bolling Galt. She was a friend of a Wilson cousin, who introduced them. He was immediately smitten. He began a courtship that involved reading Wordsworth and English histories aloud to her. In late summer of 1915 he proposed. His political advisers' reactions were, in the words of one biographer, "alarm, almost panic." His popularity was already down, and it seemed too soon after the death of the first Mrs. Wilson to announce a wedding.

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Mrs. Galt agreed, and suggested they wait till after the 1916 election.

But the rumors of an affair had already started, so Wilson insisted they wed in December. They did, at her home, with only a small circle of friends and relatives in attendance. Wilson's funk lifted, the public loved it all, and he squeaked through to

re-election the following November.

De facto president

(He suffered a stroke in 1919, and Mrs. Wilson became, in the eyes of some, the de facto president. She said she was just his gatekeeper and paper-shuffler.)

Wilson's successor's sexual history in the White House was about halfway between John Kennedy's and Thomas Jefferson's. Warren Harding regularly saw an old girl friend from his Ohio hometown. Nan Britton was 30 years younger than he and she had given birth to his child in 1919, the year before he was elected president.

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After he was inaugurated in 1921, she regularly visited the White House, where they made love in a 5-by-5-foot coat closet off the Oval Office. Mrs. Harding tried but failed to catch them in the act. She was the real brains in the family, by the way, and an ardent astrologer (sound familiar?).

He died in 1923, and some critics whispered that she poisoned him.

Between Harding and Kennedy things were pretty quiet on the love front. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was married in name only to Eleanor during his presidency, was visited by his true love, Lucy Rutherfurd, at the White House at least once, and perhaps several times, using an assumed name, and they saw each other elsewhere, usually with others present.

Since Kennedy, no juicy gossip of substance. Bill Clinton, whose hero and role model is John Kennedy, came to the White House with a reputation for sexual dalliance, but there has been nothing reported on that front in three years.

Hmmmm. Maybe the investigative reporters in Washington should check out the aspirin invoices in the White House dispensary.



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