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A Short History of Venereal Disease Accusations Against Presidents

A look at an insult that’s occasionally popped up throughout U.S. history.

By Francie Diep


Abraham Lincoln. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Just before Ted Cruz dropped out of the primary presidential race, he fired a memorable parting shot at Donald Trump, now the only remaining Republican candidate: Cruz accused Trump of struggling with venereal disease. We won’t say this is a new low for campaign-trail insults, but it’s an interesting one.

Throughout American history, rivals and critics have occasionally gone after presidents and presidential candidates with what we might call the “STD card” (it goes in your wallet next to your woman card). The “he’s got venereal disease” insult taps a surprisingly deep and longstanding stigma against people with sexually transmitted infections (STIs). By the late 1800s, Western scientists had already determined that microorganisms can cause STIs, just as they had discovered that microorganisms were causing pneumonia, tuberculosis, and malaria. Yet, even now, STIs seem “dirty” in a way that other infections don’t. You wouldn’t insult a political rival by saying she caught pneumonia in ’76.

There’s evidence to suggest at least two American presidents really did have STIs.

Some of the founding fathers have been accused to having an STI, often by those seeking to undermine their legacies. It’s rumored that George Washington died of syphilis, an allegation that historian Edward Lengel attributes to “a new mythology created in the 1920s that tries to take Washington down.”

In his book The American Leadership Tradition, conservative writer Marvin Olasky pulls the specter of STIs into his description of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with a married woman, Maria Cosway. “Jefferson weighed the possibility of political embarrassment and venereal disease against generous and pleasurable spasms,” Olasky writes. That’s undue censoriousness on Olasky’s part, as David Brooks argued at the time: “In his 1997 biography of Jefferson, American Sphinx, Joseph J. Ellis describes [Jefferson and Cosway’s] friendship as a complicated and emotionally fraught episode in Jefferson’s life, which illuminated the struggle between Jefferson’s romantic sentimentality and his cold rationalism.” In Brooks’ view, Olasky’s version turns an infatuation—one likely never consummated—into “a cheap and tawdry affair.”

Meanwhile, there’s evidence to suggest at least two American presidents really did have STIs. John F. Kennedy Jr.’s childhood medical records show he contracted an STI as a teenager, the New York Timesreports. After Abraham Lincoln’s death, his law partner and biographer wrote in a letter that “Lincoln had, when a mere boy, the syphilis…. About the year 1835-6 Mr. Lincoln went to Beardstown and during a devilish passion had Connection with a girl and Caught the disease. Lincoln told me this.” It’s possible presidents just before and after Lincoln also had syphilis, but we don’t have records of it. In the 19th century, an estimated 15 percent of all people on Earth had had a syphilis infection.

The fact that Kennedy and Lincoln probably had STIs — and that Trump’s sexual-health status remains open to speculation — is neither here nor there, though. Call us naïve, but we don’t think having had a particular sort of infection has much to do with how well someone leads. You might take having an STI as a marker of infidelity—a badge of dishonesty that voters might not like in a presidential candidate. Yet, notably, both Lincoln and Kennedy seemed to have had their brushes with STIs when they were young, before any affairs they might have had in adulthood. That’s an argument for teaching pre-teens how to use condoms correctly—not an argument for treating STIs as immoral or un-presidential.