When former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, 80, announced this week that he had fathered a son out of wedlock 35 years ago, it may have seemed a tad more tawdry than other political sex scandals. That’s because Domenici’s dalliance was with the much younger daughter of a fellow Republican senator at the time, Paul Laxalt of Nevada.
Unseemly? No doubt. But in fairness, Domenici is far from the first political “baby daddy.” Politicians have been sowing their oats far and wide at least as far back as 47 B.C. That’s when Egyptian queen Cleopatra bore a son, whom she named Caesarion in honor of his reputed father, then-Roman consul Julius Caesar, who never acknowledged him, despite a strong resemblance. Henry I, who ruled England from 11oo to 1135, had at least 20 illegitimate children, according to James Panton’s Historical Dictionary of the British Monarchy. And U.S. history is rife with philandering DNA donors as well. Here are a few:
- Thomas Jefferson. For nearly two centuries, rumors swirled that the nation’s third president had fathered at least one child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In 1998, pathologist Eugene Foster and colleagues published a bombshell paper in the scientific journal Nature, in which they concluded from DNA analysis that Jefferson probably was the biological father of Hemings’ son Eston Hemings Jefferson.
- Grover Cleveland. Ten days after then-New York Gov. Cleveland secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1884, the story broke that he allegedly had fathered a son 10 years before and was paying child support. Cleveland’s opponents began taunting him with the slogan “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” Cleveland’s strategy was to remain silent on the issue, except to say that he had never used the New York governor’s mansion for illicit affairs. He ended up narrowly winning the election, prompting his supporters to add “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!” as a rejoinder. The result conceivably might have been different had the public seen evidence recently turned up by author Charles Lachman that Cleveland had committed what today would be called date rape.
- Warren G. Harding. According to Doug Wead’s book All the Presidents’ Children, while in the U.S. Senate, Harding impregnated a woman in a tryst on the coach in his office, and as president had Secret Service agents hand-deliver child support payments. After Harding’s death, his estate refused to continue the support, leading Nan Britton, his former lover, to go public with a tell-all book titled The President’s Daughter.
- Strom Thurmond. At age 22, future Sen. Thurmond impregnated his family’s African American maid, 16-year-old Carrie Butler. Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform, kept the fact that he had a mixed-race offspring secret until his death in 2003 at age 100. Only afterward did his daughter, Essie Mae Washington, go public with her story.
- John Edwards. In 2007, Edwards — a former U.S. senator and the Democrats’ 2004 vice-presidential candidate — fathered an illegitimate daughter with Rielle Hunter, a producer who had made videos in support of his presidential ambitions. He admitted to the affair in 2008, but waited until 2010 to publicly acknowledge his offspring. Edwards took even more of a popularity hit than most, since his late wife Elizabeth had been battling incurable cancer during the affair.