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Book Offers Perspective on Yesterday’s Political Scandals

In an era of 24 hour news cycles, ruthless war rooms and damage control, of Monica, Chandra and Monkey Business trysts, every now and then a reality check of sorts is called for — a little reminder that no matter how low some of our contemporary crop of political leaders may have sunk, the annals of American history are littered with the remains of plenty of dirtier, downright rottener scoundrels than these.

“Some people believe that we’ve gone to hell in a hand basket, when in fact this stuff of recent years is nothing,” says Michael Farquhar, author of “A Treasury of Great American Scandals: Tantalizing True Tales of Historic Misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and Others Who Let Freedom Swing,” released this month by Penguin Books.

A Washington Post journalist who specializes in history, Farquhar also penned “A Treasury of Royal Scandals.” A look at the seamier side of American politics, he says, was the “natural follow-up” to his earlier tome, which had focused on the foibles of the European aristocracy.

“Obviously, a lot of our American figures have abused their power, but what really set those European royals over the top was the unlimited power,” Farquhar observes.

Some of the anecdotes Farquhar recounts are little more than bizarre footnotes to major events in U.S. political history — such as the fact that during President Andrew Johnson’s Senate impeachment trial, he holed himself up and took to playing with the White House mice, or that the body of deceased Whig-turned-Republican Ohio Rep. John Scott Harrison, son of one president and father to another, mysteriously turned up as a cadaver at the Ohio Medical College — but many of these tidbits, while hardly scoops, will likely come as a surprise to the average reader.

In “The Case of the Cuckolded Congressman,” for example, Philip Barton Key — son of “Star-Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key — is murdered just steps from the White House by enraged Rep. Daniel Sickles (D-N.Y.). Remarkably, the killing, which occurred after Sickles discovered Key was having an affair with his much younger wife, was later covered up by President James Buchanan.

“Hail to the Chaff” highlights the excesses of a string of relatively lackluster chief executives ranging from Franklin Pierce, whose inebriated outings once culminated in his running over a woman on a Washington street, to Zachary Taylor, who, though opposed to slavery, sequestered his personal slaves in the White House attic so as not to raise eyebrows on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.

Today’s verbal salvos launched by Members appear rather innocuous given that 1838 remarks by Rep. Jonathan Cilley (D-Maine) denigrating a newspaper publisher who happened to be a constituent of Kentucky Rep. William Graves (Whig) precipitated a duel between the two Members, and Cilley’s ultimate demise. Another decidedly more well-known dueler, Vice President Aaron Burr, is presented as an inveterate traitor who reportedly plotted to split the Union and invade Mexico.

Dysfunctional family relations also shed some light on the less-than-stellar character of some of America’s leading men. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was so devoted to the revolution that when his only son, William, proved an unrepentant loyalist he had him jailed for three years, during which time William was denied basic amenities, fell into poor health and eventually lost his wife, who died without ever being allowed to say goodbye.

“It’s all accurate history,” maintains Farquhar, emphasizing that the tales are backed up by an extensive bibliography.

Those searching for a rehash of recent political controversies will not find it in “Great American Scandals,” however, as the book does not cover the moral shortcomings of U.S. politicians post-1980.

“History needs a little time to percolate, after all,” Farquhar explains in the introduction. “Besides, the first three centuries of American scandal should put a little perspective on the relatively minor sins of recent memory.”

Still, the author says he hasn’t ruled out the idea of a sequel mining the past 25 years of U.S. political misdeeds somewhere down the line.

History, he believes, could benefit from an anecdotal shot in the arm.

“A lot of these stories are funny in themselves, but there aren’t many historians who are known for their sense of humour in terms of telling these stories,” Farquhar muses. “It’s just the stuff you really never learned in history class and, I would argue, probably should.”

Farquhar will sign copies of “A Treasury of Great American Scandals” at 7 p.m. July 17 at the Olsson’s books at 1200 F St. NW.

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