A bachelor in the White House? It’s such a compelling scenario that Aaron Sorkin once wrote a movie about it.
“The American President” came out in 1995, years before “The West Wing” and decades before never-married Senator Cory Booker announced own run for president. Michael Douglas stars as a widowed commander in chief who falls for an environmental lobbyist. (They meet cute when he overhears her insulting him in a White House meeting room.) Their courtship is a lesson in the perils of presidential dating: the media mob, the character attacks, the moment where the president has to choose between his crime bill and his girlfriend’s clean air bill. On the second date, he also seems to tell her some classified security information, though the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of that.
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It’s clear that every moment is a minefield, for both the president and the person he’s trying to woo—something Booker seems to grasp as he makes the media rounds in these early days of his campaign. During his appearance on the syndicated morning radio show “The Breakfast Club” early this month, the conversation turned to his dating life—“Cory Booker got a boo?” exclaimed a host named Charlamagne—and the man known for glib speeches in Senate hearing rooms got cagey, all of a sudden. “Out of all the issues we talked about,” Booker stammered, “this is the most uncomfortable part of this interview.”
Like it or not, it’s going to keep coming up. The American public is fascinated by bachelorhood, and also eager to see single men married off—hence our keen interest in the dating habits of British royals, and the umpteen-thousand hours produced of “The Bachelor.” As much as the boundaries and definitions of marriage have changed—and over the course of the nation’s history, they’ve changed dramatically—matrimony is still seen as the normal state of a responsible adult. And, under most circumstances, we want our presidents to seem normal, and responsible.
That means any candidate who breaks the norm is subject to a string of nosy questions, some masked as queries about official White House functions. When Senator Lindsey Graham, then a never-married 59-year-old, sought the 2016 Republican nomination, he had to keep explaining that his sister would help him with ceremonial duties. At one point, he told the Daily Mail, “I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating First Lady.”
Graham’s campaign fizzled before he was asked to explain much more. It’s unclear whether Booker’s candidacy will go farther. But Booker cuts a different profile from Graham: He’s 49, often spotted out on the town, and arguably the subject of more speculation about his sexuality and his dating status. (The most recent ones suggest that his boo is the actress Rosario Dawson.) That means his candidacy could be a test case for how much American attitudes have changed. In the political arena, some identifications are sacred cows; it’s hard to imagine a presidential candidate declaring herself an atheist and making it very far. Will bachelorhood be hard to sell, as well? Or, now that we’ve finally acknowledged how dysfunctional some presidential marriages have been, will the public embrace a candidate who has never been married at all?
America has had exactly two presidents who entered office never having married. The most recent was Grover Cleveland, who ran in 1884, single but dogged by charges that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. (His opponents taunted him with the chant “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa!”—to which his supporters eventually responded, “Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”) At first, Cleveland’s sister fulfilled most of the duties of the first lady. But it turned out that Cleveland was secretly courting the daughter of his late law partner, who had become Cleveland’s ward at age 12, when her father died in a carriage accident. They finally married in 1886; he was 49, she was 21, and the public was obsessed.
Then there was James Buchanan. In his 20s, he was briefly engaged to a woman who broke off the betrothal. But his best-known relationship was with William Rufus King, who shared a room with Buchanan in a Washington, D.C., boardinghouse when the two men served in Congress in the 1830s and 40s. For a time, the two were so inseparable that Andrew Jackson derisively called them “Aunt Nancy” and “Miss Fancy.” Many historians believe Buchanan was the first gay president. (When he was president from 1857 to 1861, his niece, Harriet Lane, took on many of the duties of first lady.)
Buchanan lived in a different era, warns Evergreen State University professor Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History and six other books about marriage, family and gender relationships. In those days, it was typical for men to brag about physical closeness with their male friends; no one would blink, Coontz says, if a man told his wife that he had stayed at the home of an old pal and, for example, “lay his head on his bosom the whole night.”
Views of family were different, too, in the earliest days of the republic—when only men had political prospects, and wives and children were seen as both a symbol of responsibility and a distraction from a higher calling. The Founders categorized men into four types, Coontz says. The lowest-regarded was the bachelor, who took care of no one’s needs but his own. Next came a married man, able to control both his passions and his family. A step higher was the married man who also served the public as a lawmaker and leader. But most heroic of all was the man who put his commitment to country before all else; think Alexander Hamilton, writing through the night and largely ignoring his wife.
But by the late 19th century, leading public figures had warmed to the value of family, and then some. America’s self-image soon became bound with the idea that families were the building blocks of the nation, and that putting the family first was a moral virtue. “The family is the digesting organ of the body politic,” the popular minister and speaker Henry Ward Beecher said at the time. “The very way to feed the community is to feed the family.”
That idea—family as a proxy for stability, responsibility and commitment to the nation—persists today. That’s why nearly every candidate, for everything from school committee up to the highest office in the land, produces the same kind of campaign artifacts: the mailer with the happy family photo, the introductory TV ad with the family testimonials. The format has lately been weaponized: Last summer, Rich Madaleno, a gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, released an ad in which he smooched his husband on the lips, then turned back to the camera and said, “Take that, Trump.”
Recent history suggests that the American public might actually care more about the existence of a spouse than about whether the marriage is a good one. We know now that plenty of presidential unions—not just the Trumps’ and Clintons’, but the Kennedys’, the Roosevelts’, the Johnsons’—have been less than perfect. In the latter three cases, the trouble wasn’t widely known at the time. But even though Bill Clinton’s infidelities were spread across front pages, the salacious news didn’t cut into his support during his presidential campaigns. Similarly, Donald Trump’s alleged infidelity hasn’t noticeably hurt him at the polls.
It could be that, at least for a politician’s loyal base, those marital highs and lows are relatable signs of humanity. The most charming moment in “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton’s post-2016 memoir, was her response to the assumption that she and Bill have an “arrangement.” Her steely answer: “We do. It’s called a marriage.”
Still, there’s something about a single president that does seem … easier. More time for the president to focus on the job. No children for the press corps to navigate around. And, no need to fret about the public image of a first spouse, a role so undefined that it’s a landmine in itself. Aaron Sorkin was right to predict that a presidential partner would go through the ringer: These days, even the most benign-seeming first lady initiatives are fraught with public relations peril. (See: Melania Trump’s anti-bullying program and Michelle Obama’s relationship with tater tots.)
There is some merit to the scrutiny. It’s not unreasonable for the public to assume that a presidential spouse will have some policy control, says William H. Chafe, professor emeritus of history at Duke University and the author of Private Lives/Public Consequences and Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. Eleanor Roosevelt hadn’t had an intimate relationship with her husband in years, but still bent his administration to her political will. Nancy Reagan consistently undermined her husband’s chief of staff. Chafe argues Bill Clinton could have achieved more, policy wise, if he hadn’t acceded to Hillary’s demands on health care reform.
“I do think the question of who you’re close to and what does that mean—what impact does that have—is important,” Chafe says. Given how guarded Booker has been about his relationship status, it’s not too late for him to drop out of the dating pool altogether. Coontz says she could imagine Booker arguing that singlehood, at this stage in his life, is a way to serve his country. “He’s making the sacrifice of not having family entanglements and personal entanglements, because we live in a world of crisis,” she says.
But Chafe suspects that voters, as suspicious as they are of presidential spouses, would be even more skeptical of a candidate with no spouse or marital prospects at all.
“You could be a widower or widow and it would be less important—there’s a sense of it being a normative kind of pattern,” he says. “If you haven’t had that kind of relationship, if you haven’t been married, if you haven’t had a family, you are potentially like a Rorschach. You can read anything into it you want to. And that can be dangerous.”
That could be the ultimate challenge for a single candidate: A marriage, even a bad one, is largely understood, but singlehood leaves much to the imagination. And there aren’t many models for how to neutralize the mystery. Some high-profile single women in politics, such as Condoleezza Rice and Janet Reno, have projected themselves as essentially asexual, Coontz notes. A single woman running for president, she says, “might have to play the virgin” to keep the tough questions at bay.
A single man, she thinks, would have more leeway. And Booker has done fairly well, so far, with the balancing act of promoting himself as a modern-day bachelor worth watching: a sexual creature, but safe; committed, but still effectively on the market. Romantic charm can be a political weapon, too, and Booker knows how to deploy it. Back in 2013, in response to a tweet that asked, “What’s your favorite mythical creature?” the then-mayor of Newark posted an answer: “My future wife who will endure a sci fi nerd, coffee addicted, work-a-holic.”
The thread was instantly flooded with women—surely many of them voters—who volunteered to be his boo.