The First Lady
Scandal is by no means a stranger to those who have taken up residence in the White House. Our Chief Executives have been linked with politically questionable conspiracies such as the Teapot Dome Scandal, Watergate, the Iran Contra Affair and Whitewater. Even more damning are the sexual aspersions that date back to Thomas Jefferson and have included presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and, most recently, Bill Clinton.
Given society's long-held double standard, men--even those who hold the highest public offices--are usually forgiven their sins, but what of the first ladies of the land? Why have they always been expected to be devoted wives and political helpmates to their unfaithful husbands? While JFK was in Hollywood wooing Marilyn Monroe, why did Jackie stay in Washington redecorating the White House? Why was Hillary Clinton commended for standing by her man in the face of humiliation? Perhaps it is no accident that the title reserved for the hostess of the White House is the first "lady" and not first "woman," for she is often required to swallow her pride and always behave like a lady.
During the course of our country's history, the scandals associated with the wives of our chief executives--from Mary Todd Lincoln's spendthrift ways and suspected Southern sympathies to Betty Ford's drinking problem--have been of a less amatory nature. That is until Bradford Fontaine was elected president and brought his wife Madeleine to Washington with him.
* * *
I joined the White House staff during the final days of the first Bush administration and had the pleasure of working closely with Barbara, Hillary, Laura and Michelle. Nothing in my experience, however, prepared me for what was to happen with the next changing of the guard. Madeleine Fontaine had all the prerequisites to be the quintessential first lady: style, taste, sophistication, intelligence and a natural beauty that many a movie star envied.
Throughout his political career, President Fontaine had been compared to John F. Kennedy. Both men served as senator from Massachusetts, both were in their early forties when elected to the presidency and both were considered handsome and personable. Likewise, Madeleine was likened to Jackie. And Fontaine's idealistic administration, which came to be known as Shangri La, was similar in its objectives to Kennedy's Camelot.
During his first term in office, Bradford Fontaine was able to cement his wholesome, family man image in the minds of his fellow Americans. There was no Monica Lewinski lurking in the closet with a soiled dress to stain his pure reputation. The popular belief was that not only did President Fontaine not want to risk ruining his career over a meaningless fling, but that he truly loved his wife and children.
In the course of my duties, I had many opportunities to observe the private life of the first family. The president and his wife seemed to indeed have a warm, loving relationship as well as a close, supportive friendship. I must admit I often envied the storybook romance they seemed to share. Their marriage--their whole life, actually--was the embodiment of the American dream.
Although Madeleine Fontaine had a warm and generous nature, she seemed to put up a barrier between herself and the world at large, one that few could breach. Those who had were few in number: her husband, her children, her sister-in-law (who was a former sorority sister of the first lady's) and Harrison Graham, one of the president's financial advisors.
"Harrison," the first lady once explained to me, "is a very old and dear friend. Brad and I have known him for years. He's practically one of the family."
* * *
Shortly after the president's second inauguration, he and the first lady decided to take a short vacation. They had both spent many long, grueling months carrying out their official duties while at the same time campaigning for reelection. It had been quite a strain. So on a cold Friday morning in February, President and Mrs. Fontaine boarded Air Force One and headed for the Florida Keys. I have often heard people speculate that what happened next had been a deliberate attempt to ruin the first family, to bring an end to Shangri La just as surely as an assassin's bullet had destroyed Camelot. I can only guess that the facts--along with the truth about the unknown gunman on the grassy knoll--will forever remain a mystery. It does raise the question, however, of how the press just happened to be outside the mansion that night.
At about 2:30 a.m. on Saturday night--or, if you prefer, on Sunday morning--shouts were heard inside the Fontaine house. Shortly thereafter, a reporter from the Washington Post saw someone running across the back lawn. In the darkness, the reporter could barely make out any details of the figure. But suddenly, a spotlight was turned on, clearly revealing a partially dressed man. Several video cameras came to life, catching the man's desperate dash to the safety of the neighbor's dense shrubbery. The cameramen did their best to pursue him, but it wasn't easy to run and film a fleeing man at the same time.
"Who do you suppose he was?" one reporter asked.
"A burglar, I guess," his colleague replied, "or maybe a terrorist sent to assassinate the president."
A nearby cameraman laughed. "That man was holding on to his boxers as he ran. I've never heard of either a burglar or a terrorist stripping down to his socks."
"Who's in the house?" the first reporter asked.
"Other than the Secret Service, just Fontaine and his wife."
"I don't suppose any of the Secret Service agents are female?"
"No. The ones I saw were all male. You know, the ex-marine type."
"Damn! You don't think the first lady...?"
The cameraman raised his eyebrows, and the corners of his mouth lifted in an unpleasant smile. "It would make one hell of a story, wouldn't it?"
Thus began the greatest scandal in the history of the White House. In the weeks that followed, photographs of the half-dressed man appeared in newspapers not only across the country but also around the world. Headlines demanded to know who the unidentified man was and why he was leaving the Fontaine home at that hour in his peculiar state of undress. At first, there was no comment from the White House, but the president's press secretary could not keep the reporters at bay for long.
"You'll have to tell them something," Harrison Graham urged the president.
"You're my financial advisor," Fontaine replied. "Isn't this a little out of your line of expertise?"
Graham ignored his old friend's sarcasm. "Several of the papers are hinting that Madeleine might have been entertaining the man without your knowledge."
"Those vultures would accuse their own mothers of sexual misconduct if they thought it would sell newspapers."
Three days later the president held a special press conference at which he swore that he had no knowledge of the man's identity.
"Can you explain why he was seen running from your house?" came a voice from the crowd.
"Neither my wife nor I have any idea what that man was doing on our property."
"Will your wife appear at a press conference to answer our questions?"
"I don't think that's necessary. Look, I know there have been some rumors, and I'm here to put them straight. My wife never met the man in those photographs. We have been happily married for almost twenty years, and I have complete faith in her."
The president's steadfast belief in his wife's virtue, whether it was genuine or politically motivated, won him the sympathy of millions of Americans. Ironically, the more that people respected the president for his behavior following the scandal, the more they condemned and vilified the first lady. Religious groups compared her to the Whore of Babylon. Moral leaders accused her of undermining the fabric of American family values. In fact, the only positive press that Madeleine received was from feminist newspapers and magazines.
Finally, Madeleine approached her husband. "I don't think I can take any more of this," she cried. "It's as though the whole world--with the exception of you, Harrison and the girls--has turned against me. Wherever I go, I can feel the people's hatred."
"The scandal will blow over eventually. We'll just have to ride it out."
"No. I can't. Look, Brad, it's me they hate, not you. Your approval rating is higher than it has ever been." "And your point?" he asked.
"I think it would be better if I just bowed out graciously."
"You can't bow out. You're the first lady of the United States."
"If presidents and vice presidents can resign, why can't a first lady?"
"Because there is no one in the line of succession. Who would take your place as hostess at White House functions?"
"There's no law that says that the first lady must be the president's wife. Chester A. Arthur was a widow, so his sister acted as his first lady; and James Buchanan, who never married, had his orphaned niece, Harriet Lane, assume the duties. I think your sister would fill the roll quite admirably."
Fontaine considered the matter. "Yes, Regina does have the necessary qualifications. But are you sure this is what you really want?"
"Yes. I wish to escape from the eye of public scrutiny."
Madeleine Fontaine calmly and coolly appeared at a televised press conference later that week and resigned her duties as first lady, "in the interest of national harmony." She also announced the appointment of Mrs. Regina Fontaine Holbrook as the new White House hostess. Following the first lady's resignation, the press and public alike watched anxiously, assuming that President Fontaine would file for divorce, but he never did. In fact, after his second term in office ended, Bradford Fontaine joined his wife in semi-seclusion on their Massachusetts estate.
For seven years, the public all but forgot about the Fontaines and the scandal that had occurred shortly after the president's second inauguration. Then Harrison Graham--no longer a presidential advisor but still a close friend of the family--informed the press that former President Bradford Fontaine was dead.
There was little fanfare exhibited to send this particular former chief executive to his final rest, just a quiet, private funeral and a speedy burial. It was never even made clear just what the cause of death had been. Most papers simply referred to the president as having died comfortably in his home after suffering from a serious illness. One year later, the widowed former first lady married Harrison Graham, her late husband's advisor and close family friend.
* * *
Not long after I retired from my position at the White House, I decided to take the long-awaited trip to Great Britain I'd postponed so many times in the past. Since I no longer had to adhere to a two-week vacation schedule, I chose to travel by ship rather than airplane. Looking forward to a relaxing crossing, I boarded the QEII in New York with a current bestseller in my bag. On the first night out, I was surprised to see an old friend in line for the dinner buffet. I hadn't seen Cecile Fitzhugh since Madeleine Fontaine left Washington and returned with her children to Massachusetts.
"Cecile!" I called. She turned, as surprised as I was at this unexpected meeting.
Since we were both traveling alone, it was only natural that we have dinner together.
"So you're retired?" she asked. "Me too."
Cecile was rather young to be retired--not quite fifty yet. "It's not your health, I hope."
"Oh, no," she laughed. "It's just that now that the Fontaine girls are on their own, Madeleine has no need of a governess anymore."
"Surely, you can find another position. I'll bet your references are impeccable."
"That's true. But the Fontaines were very generous to me, and I don't need the money. So I've decided to do a little traveling."
Since Cecile brought up the subject of her former employers, I thought she might be willing to answer a few questions concerning them, thus satisfying my curiosity on certain matters.
"I was surprised to see that Madeleine married Harrison Graham," I said, hoping to lead my dinner companion deeper into conversation about the former first family.
"It's not surprising at all," she said without thinking. Then Cecile's face suddenly clouded over, as though she'd carelessly revealed some trusted confidence. After several moments of silence, she continued. "I guess I can speak frankly to you. After all, you worked at the White House and had security clearance. I doubt you'll repeat what I tell you to the press."
"Of course not!" I declared emphatically.
"And it's not as though the private lives of the Fontaines are a state secret."
"Heavens no," I laughed, anticipating hearing some innocent gossip about the notorious former first lady.
"I wasn't surprised in the least when Madeleine married Harrison Graham," Cecile continued. "After all, she's been in love with him for years."
"She has?" I thought Cecile's statement was a surprise, but what she said next made my jaw literally drop open.
"Oh, yes. Didn't you ever wonder why the children bore no resemblance to the president?"
"I never gave it much thought. They looked so much like their mother."
"Except for the eyes," Cecile said with a smile. "They've got Harrison's eyes."
"Graham was their father."
I made a mental image of the Fontaine daughters and compared it to that of Harrison Graham. It was true; the girls did look as much like him as they did their mother.
"But if what you say is true, then surely the president must have suspected something."
"Suspected? He knew all along. It was never kept a secret from him."
"That poor man!" I said. "How could a wife have behaved so brazenly?"
"I don't think you quite understand."
"Oh, I understand. She took advantage of the fact that he couldn't divorce her without jeopardizing his political career."
Cecile shook her head. "I know you admired the former president very much, but there's a lot you don't know about him. Unlike Clinton's sex life, Fontaine's was kept under close raps."
"So they were both unfaithful, huh? I suppose they deserved each other, then."
"I don't agree. I think Madeleine deserved a lot better. I, for one, am glad that she and Harrison have each other."
"How can you say that? That woman obviously has no morals at all. To bear two children by her husband's friend, and then to pass them off to the world as her husband's!"
"How could you have lived and worked in Washington for so many years and not have been aware of the many sacrifices and compromises made in the name of political careers?" Cecile asked rhetorically.
"I think President Fontaine deserves a medal for going above and beyond the call of duty."
"You are so wrong. It's Madeleine, not her husband, who is to be commended. She was only a college student when a wealthy and handsome young lawyer entered her life and swept her off her feet. She married for love, but Fontaine had his own agenda. He had high political ambitions. His family had the money and the necessary connections, but there was a skeleton in the young lawyer's closet. He needed a wife and a family in order to appear straight."
"Straight? You don't mean...?"
Cecile nodded gravely. "The half-dressed man seen running from the Fontaines' home that dreadful night was not Madeleine's lover but the president's."
"I can't believe it!"
"It's true. You see I was more than a governess to the family. I was Madeleine's best friend in college. As such, I was in her confidence. I know that Brad never confessed his sexual orientation to her before they were married. Afterward--well, I guess she stayed with him out of duty. Who knows?"
"And what about Harrison Graham?"
"With an attractive young wife to quell any possible rumors of homosexuality, Brad decided to run for the Senate. He called an old friend of the family, a brilliant mind in the field of economics."
"I don't know when the two fell in love. Although Madeleine did confide many things to me, we never discussed the paternity of her daughters. I imagine--and this is only a guess, mind you--that Brad felt his chances for the presidency would be greater if he had children. Harrison, who was well aware of his friend's precarious situation, would have been the perfect choice to secretly father the children."
"Maybe he and Madeleine were already in love at the time," I suggested.
"Perhaps. I know she still loved her husband very much too. She always did. But as much as Brad admired and respected her, it just wasn't in him to love her in the way she needed."
"That poor woman!" I said, completely reversing the sentiments I had previously expressed about the former first lady. "To have taken all the scandal and disgrace upon herself when all along it was...."
"She knew that Brad's affair would never have been forgiven as Bill Clinton's had. As harsh as the public was to an unfaithful first lady, they would have crucified a gay president."
"So she took the blame and bore the shame for her husband's indiscretions?"
"I can understand why they stayed together during Fontaine's presidency, but why afterward? There was no longer any need to pretend."
"No, but if they divorced it would have given rise to even uglier rumors. And there were the girls to consider. They had always believed Brad was their father."
"Do they know the truth now?"
Cecile shrugged. "I don't know. I'm sure they suspected something when they learned of Brad's illness."
"Cancer, wasn't it?"
"That's what the family and the doctors let the press believe. They couldn't very well come out and say that former president Bradford Fontaine was dying from AIDS."
"Oh no! I had no idea."
"That may have been another reason why Madeleine didn't ask for a divorce. She stayed by Brad's side to the very end. In fact, she and Harrison were both with him when he died."
Cecile and I drank our after-dinner coffees in silence. She was busy enjoying a thick slice of rich cheesecake, and I was trying to digest the wealth of information she'd given me.
"It's funny," I mused, as we were leaving the dining room. "They say first impressions are all too often misleading. My first impression of Madeleine Fontaine was that she had all the prerequisites to be the quintessential first lady. I guess I was right after all. And in her case, I do believe the title first lady was definitely appropriate."
Sorry, Salem, but it's not my fault that cats aren't allowed to run for president.