Monday, September 25, 2006

Monday Scandalrama: That's PRESIDENT Aunt Fancy to you, Mister...

James Buchanan may have been our nation’s very first gay president. Now of course the concept of “gay” wasn’t around back when he was bringing his dour brand of fabulousness to the White House, and historians are divided on whether there was any actual substance to the rumors that dogged him much of his life. Most of the whispering stemmed from Buchanan’s relationship with one William Rufus King, a Senator from Alabama who was both a diplomat in France and, for a month or so, vice-president to Franklin Pierce. King and Buchanan lived together in Washington D.C. for more than a decade. During this time, political opponents and shameless gossips like Andrew Jackson wrote letters referring to the pair as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”.

Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy were both bachelors their entire lives, which certainly fueled such speculation. Buchanan was engaged to be wed at one point, but his fiancee broke off the engagement and died shortly later after taking laudanum. This kind of thing soured Buchanan on the whole marriage thing, although wags were always eager to refer to King as Buchanan’s “wife” or “better half” in their nasty letters. Buchanan’s own letters, however, only seem to confirm the suspicions of dozens of wagging tongues. After King left for his diplomatic post in Paris, Buchanan wrote the following to a friend: “I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them. I feel that it is not good for a man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

King, for his part, was aware of pain he might have caused his former roommate, as well as catty enough to write him a letter that said, in part, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.” Indeed, the Senator seems to have played with Buchanan’s heart more than once. A congressman from Tennessee, during one of the power couple’s periodic break-ups, wrote that King “may now be seen every day, triged out in her best clothes & smirking about in hopes of securing better terms than with her former companion”. That “former companion”, of course, having been Buchanan. Owch.

Anyway, later on, King died and Buchanan ascended to the presidency. He didn’t do a very good job of it, though, allowing the nation to slide headlong towards civil war. On the last day of his single term, he told his successor Abraham Lincoln (according to some, America’s second gay president), “If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am in leaving it, then you are truly a happy man”.

To contemporary politics-watchers, this story is interesting mainly because it’s hard to imagine a similar scenario happening today. Given our present prejudices, it seems unlikely that a man who had lived with another man for a decade and a half would be allowed to rise to such a level. A Republican media firm would cook up a slick ad showing a montage of drag queens, leathermen and fashion designers while a stern voice intones something about “mainstream values” and “Hollywood liberals” and whatever else. There would be the typical furor that the candidate’s living situation jeopardizes every traditional marriage that’s ever happened since the beginning of time and churches would pass out bulletins warning that if the candidate gets too many votes, Jesus will be banned and people will have to start marrying chickens. So, while it’s true that we’ve progressed some since the middle of the 19th century, we still have quite a way to go...

(Most of the facts and all the historical letters used in this post were taken from Michael Farquhar’s book, A Treasury of Great American Scandals. This is a great book for anyone interested in the subject, and you all should rush out to buy it...)