10 Presidential Kinfolk Who Embarrassed The POTUS
Margaret Truman dreamed of a career as a concert singer. But she often sang flat, sparking bad reviews that made big headlines because her father was President Harry S. Truman.
Dad tried to help. “Some day I hope to meet you,” he wrote to one Washington Post music critic. “When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”
That only made things worse. Being a presidential relative is obviously no walk in the park, although some kinfolk behave so badly that they have only themselves to blame for their embarrassing portrayals in the media and the history books.
10Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth
In 1901, Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth was just 17 when her father Theodore Roosevelt became president. She lived in the White House during a time when young society women were expected to be demure.
Alice, however, had inherited her father’s extroverted and impetuous personality, and she romped about Washington with the gentility of a Rough Rider. She played poker, drove fast, wore pants, and stayed out late unchaperoned. She was booted from Boston’s Ritz-Carlton for smoking in the lobby. A newspaper cameraman once snapped a shot of her collecting her winnings from a bookie.
Alice entertained friends by placing tacks on chairs in the Senate’s public gallery. Reptiles were her favorite White House pets. She sometimes carried a garter snake in her pocket, and newspapers reported that she was seen with a boa constrictor draped around her shoulders at a railway station. When asked about his daughter’s outrageous behavior, Teddy Roosevelt reportedly replied, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”
In 1906, she married Republican Congressman Nicholas Longworth. Although they stayed together until his death, affairs on both sides kept the gossips in Washington buzzing. By Alice’s own admission, their daughter, Paulina, was fathered by another man, Senator William Borah of Idaho.
Often quoted by the press, she became famous for her acerbic wit. To her, Woodrow Wilson was a “whey-blooded schoolmaster,” and Warren G. Harding was “just a slob.” Distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt was “one-third sap and two-thirds Eleanor.” Alice also had a pillow with these needlepoint instructions: “If you haven’t got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
Alice lived to 96 and never mellowed with age.
Elliott Roosevelt, the third child of President Franklin Roosevelt, made headlines all his life for his military exploits, his multiple marriages, and his get-rich-quick schemes.
Despite his lack of military training or experience, Elliott received a captain’s commission in the US Army Air Corps on his 30th birthday in 1940. Amid charges of nepotism, “I Want to Be a Captain, Too” became a slogan for the president’s Republican critics. Nevertheless, Elliott was promoted repeatedly during World War II, eventually becoming a brigadier general. Each promotion provoked an outcry from the public and the press.
Although Elliott was an effective warrior, he felt compelled to exaggerate his war record in his later years. For example, Elliott claimed that he nearly died flying a chase plane through a fireball from the midair explosion that killed pilot Joseph P. Kennedy (the older brother of President John F. Kennedy). Historians say that Elliott was safe on the ground.
Refusing a Harvard education, Elliott unsuccessfully pursued a business career at an early age. On several occasions, his business dealings led to investigations by Congress. In one case, he was accused of accepting cash in 1934 to sell bombers to the USSR in defiance of an embargo. Elliott also faced allegations that he accepted favors in exchange for using his White House connections to steer a government aircraft contract to Howard Hughes.
As he grew older, Elliott began writing books, usually with the help of ghostwriters. His 1973 family history, An Untold Story, included details of Franklin Roosevelt’s extramarital affairs and caused a rift between Elliott and his siblings. He also authored a weirdly Oedipal series of detective novels in which his mother, Eleanor, solved crimes.
By the time of his death in 1990, Elliott had married five times and divorced four times, which was considered scandalous in the early to mid-1900s. His third wife was Hollywood blonde bombshell Faye Emerson, whom he met at a party hosted by Hughes.
In the mid-1990s, teen gossips at Thayer Academy, an exclusive prep school near Boston, whispered about a gorgeous classmate who boasted that she was sleeping with an older man from America’s royal family, the Kennedys.
By spring 1997, that gossip had become a national scandal. Following news reports in The Boston Globe, Massachusetts police and prosecutors began investigating allegations that 39-year-old Michael Kennedy, son of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had carried on a five-year romance with his family’s teenage babysitter.
The Kennedy family had managed to avoid or survive the scandals of the first generation, including Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1969 car accident on Chappaquiddick Island that killed passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. But things changed when the media turned its spotlight on the family’s sprawling second generation—a brood of articulate, telegenic, Ivy League–educated men and women whose problems began in their teens.
In 1983, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 30, pleaded guilty to possessing heroin after falling sick from using the narcotic during an airline flight. A year later, his brother David Kennedy, 28, died of a drug overdose. In 1991, 31-year-old William Kennedy Smith faced a rape trial in Palm Beach. Although he was acquitted, the case further tarnished the Kennedy legacy.
Then came Michael Kennedy’s fall. Until his affair became public, many people had assumed he would follow other family members into politics. He had managed his Uncle Ted Kennedy’s Senate reelection campaign and run a nonprofit that provided poor families with inexpensive heating oil. But any ambitions for higher office ended after his wife reportedly found him in bed with the babysitter.
Massachusetts authorities wanted to know if the girl had been under 16 when the affair began, which would have meant that Michael committed statutory rape. However, the girl and her family refused to file a complaint, and the investigation was dropped. Blaming his problem on alcohol, Michael entered a rehab program. But the damage was already done to the family name. Michael’s brother Joseph Kennedy dropped out of the 1998 Massachusetts governor’s race, in which he had been considered a front-runner, and did not seek reelection to Congress.
On December 31, 1997, Michael’s story came to an end when he joined a reckless game of ski football on the slopes of an Aspen resort, collided with a tree, and died of his injuries.
7Sam Houston Johnson
Sam Houston Johnson never caused any public disgrace while his older brother, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was US president in the mid-1960s. Nonetheless, LBJ was deeply embarrassed by his brother’s drinking and always feared that Sam would ignite a Washington scandal.
“Sam Houston Johnson drank a lot,” said Robert Caro, a historian and LBJ biographer. “He also talked with a bravado that made you rather distrustful of what he said . . . I decided not to use anything he told me.”
Sam spent his life working as his brother’s political aide, following him from Texas to Washington, DC. While LBJ enjoyed an occasional drink, he saw overindulgence as a sign of weakness and constantly lectured Sam about his drinking.
During his Senate days, LBJ once came home drunk and woke up his sleeping brother to deliver a lesson. “I want you to take a damned good look at me, Sam Houston,” LBJ reportedly said. “Open your eyes and look at me. ‘Cause I’m drunk, and I want you to see how you look to me.”
Once LBJ became president, Sam lived with the First Family in the White House, so his brother could keep an eye on him. Washington wags claimed that a Secret Service agent was assigned to keep Sam out of sight whenever he had a few drinks.
When being ferried to the White House in a chauffeured limousine, Sam would sometimes raise his wrists as if handcuffed and holler, “Back to the cell!” As he was an LBJ look-alike, the prank must have startled onlookers.
Later in life, Sam stopped drinking and joined a church. His relationship with his brother grew warmer, though he did anger LBJ by penning a tell-all memoir with a ghostwriter. On a televised interview with David Frost, Sam acknowledged that he didn’t understand some of the longer words his coauthor used.
6William Carter Spann
Everyone who lived through the 1970s remembers Billy Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s redneck brother. His Billy Beer and shady association with the Libyan government made him one of the figures that defined that decade, like John Travolta and porn publisher Larry Flynt.
However, Billy wasn’t the Carter family’s blackest sheep. That distinction belonged to Jimmy Carter’s nephew William Carter Spann, who tragically spent his life battling alcoholism and drug addiction. Willie was the son of the president’s sister Gloria Carter Spann, who was known for playing the harmonica and tearing up the Georgia countryside on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Willie was adopted by stepfather Walter Spann, who gave the boy his last name.
When Gloria decided that she couldn’t handle Willie’s mischief, she packed him off to live with his Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rosalynn. “They were kind to me,” Willie later told People magazine.
As a young adult, he drifted to the West Coast, where he got involved with heroin. By his own account, he was an armed robber, burglar, pimp, and drug dealer. Life in the fast lane soon had him moving in and out of various California jails and prisons. The Carter family tried a “tough love” approach and refused to send him money for lawyers.
Shortly after Jimmy Carter’s presidential victory, reporters learned that he had a nephew behind bars. Willie obligingly sat down for interviews. “He’s in the White House,” he said when asked about his uncle. “And I’m in the big house.” Willie entertained prison guards by reminiscing about his family, boasting that he had once accidentally caught a glimpse of future First Lady Rosalynn Carter in the buff. “She had [quite] a body,” he reportedly said.
Willie married while in prison. When he was released in 1979, the National Enquirer sent a limousine to pick him up. His marriage eventually fell apart, and Willie sometimes found himself living on the streets of San Francisco. His Uncle Jimmy sent him clothes and paid the bill for his methadone treatment.
In 1997, a friendly stranger invited Willie to his house for a few drinks and allowed him to sleep in a hammock in the yard. The next day, Willie was found dead where he’d slept, a victim of AIDS.
The enfant terrible of the Reagan clan was Patti Davis, daughter of President Ronald Reagan. An outspoken liberal, she publicly disagreed with her conservative parents on abortion, gay rights, and nuclear disarmament. She sometimes said she used the surname “Davis” (her mother’s maiden name) to distance herself from her family.
Davis, a sometime singer and actress, took up writing during her father’s presidency in the mid-1980s. Her novel Home Front, about a distant father who becomes president, caused a rift between Davis and her siblings. In 1992, she published a memoir, The Way I See It, which some have described as a Mommie Dearest tome. In the book, Davis describes her mother as a pill popper who slapped her daughter at the slightest provocation.
Davis told People magazine that “compassion” for her parents prompted her to write the book. “I thought it was important for them to hear the truth,” she said. In the same interview, she claimed that a lack of closeness to her parents caused her to become an anorexic drug abuser in her teens and twenties. “I’m lucky to be alive,” she told the magazine.
In 1994, a few years after her parents left the White House, she took up nude modeling. Davis, then 41, appeared on that July’s cover of Playboy. She was topless, her breasts covered by a black man’s hands. She later appeared in a far more explicit Playboy video.
As they all grew older, her differences with her family seemed to fade. Davis was at her father’s bedside when he died in 2004.
Just before George H.W. Bush took office as US president in the 1980s, scores of savings and loan institutions collapsed across the country. Deregulation had allowed these companies to give out loans indiscriminately, often to political insiders who promised favors. Company officers received huge salaries and generous benefits. Such irresponsible actions forced many institutions into bankruptcy, causing serious losses for account holders and small investors. A government bailout eventually cost American taxpayers more than $150 billion.
The poster boy for this financial disaster was Neil Bush, son of future President George H.W. Bush and brother of future President George W. Bush. Neil served on the board of directors at Colorado’s Silverado Savings and Loan, one of the institutions that went belly-up. Neil had used his position to persuade the other directors to provide $100 million in loans to two of his business partners in an oil-drilling venture. He apparently forgot to mention that they were his partners. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation brought a $200 million civil action against Neil and others at Silverado. Eventually, it was settled for just $49.5 million.
Since then, Neil has used his family connections to set himself up as a consultant to companies seeking to do business overseas. That venture ultimately led to his divorce. Somehow, his wife, Sharon, learned that Neil had accepted services from prostitutes in several Asian cities when the women were sent to his hotel rooms by his clients. During a 2003 divorce deposition (which was eventually leaked to the press), Neil claimed that he had no idea the women were hookers because he never paid them.
“Mr. Bush,” his wife’s lawyer said, “you have to admit it’s a pretty remarkable thing for a man just to go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her.” Neil quickly searched his mind for an answer. “It was very unusual,” he replied.
Like all close presidential relatives, Roger Clinton Jr. got a Secret Service code name when his older half brother, Bill Clinton, moved into the White House. Roger’s code name was “Headache.”
When Bill was governor of Arkansas in the 1980s, Roger was caught on film selling cocaine to an undercover cop. Convicted of drug trafficking, he eventually served a year behind bars. He later received a presidential pardon (courtesy of his sib), and his record was wiped clean.
According to a report from Time magazine, Roger got involved in a variety of moneymaking schemes in the waning days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. A Congressional committee raised questions as to whether Roger had lobbied for presidential pardons for a half-dozen convicted felons, including a member of the Gambino mob family imprisoned for drug trafficking. In the end, none were pardoned.
Occasionally, Roger still tries to use his family clout to swing a business deal. He rarely succeeds. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Roger took $100,000 to help a Texas company sell concrete modular homes to relief agencies working on the island. Although Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation was leading the recovery effort, the housing project went nowhere.
News stories portray Roger as always struggling to pay his bills. According to The New York Times, he lives in an $850,000 ranch house near Los Angeles that was apparently purchased by Bill. That same story reported that the IRS has pursued Roger for back taxes.
In 2010, the tabloid TV show Inside Edition tracked down his 18-year-old daughter, Macy Clinton. According to Macy, she had only seen her father a few times and was forced to live on food stamps while attending cosmetology school. Her mother, who had never married Roger Clinton, branded him a “deadbeat dad” who owed $30,000 in back child support. Uncle Bill reportedly stepped in and paid the tuition for his niece’s cosmetology program.
2The Bush Twins
Fraternal twins Jenna Welch Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush were just 19 when their father, George W. Bush, was sworn in as US president in 2001. During their father’s White House years, the girls’ biggest problem was that they exuded—perhaps unintentionally—a sexy, flirty vibe. America wanted them to be bad. So when they stepped out of line, even just a little, we all watched.
The trouble began shortly after Dad took office. At a social event when Jenna was a freshman at the University of Texas, she was photographed clutching a cigarette, falling down, and pulling down another partyer on her way to the floor. Both were laughing uproariously. The shot made the front page of the National Enquirer.
Then came the arrests in 2001. First, Austin police picked up 19-year-old Jenna for underage drinking in a bar. People magazine reported that she wore a black tank top, pink capri pants, and a toe ring at her court appearance.
A week after her court date, Jenna was picked up again in another Austin club, this time with her sister Barbara, a Yale student. Barbara was charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol and Jenna with attempting to buy alcohol with a false ID.
There were also alleged naked sightings, never verified, despite a $1 million bounty for video of a nude Barbara at Yale that was offered by pornographer Larry Flynt. According to the Hartford Courant, Barbara attended a college party at Yale where all participants were required to shed their clothes. Later, there were tabloid stories of the twins streaking in hotel hallways while celebrating their 25th birthdays in Buenos Aires.
Today, the twins are in their thirties, leading quiet, conventional lives and doing good work with charitable organizations.
The late Zeituni Onyango—“Aunt Zeituni” to President Barack Obama—never embarrassed her nephew through her own actions. She simply struggled to survive. Her immigration status, however, made her a target for conservative talk show hosts.
Zeituni was born under a mango tree in Kenya with a midwife attending the delivery. She was a half sister of the president’s father, Barack Obama Sr. In her native country, Zeituni worked as a computer programmer. When young Barack Obama visited Kenya in 1988, she acted as his guide, introducing him to others in the extended family.
Sometime after that, she arrived in the United States. Though she had little contact with her nephew during her years in the US, she did attend his 2009 inauguration.
In 2002, she applied for political asylum. Her request was denied in 2004, although she never left the country. Just before the 2008 presidential election, the Associated Press reported that Zeituni was living in the US illegally. A reporter for The Times of London found her living in a shabby public housing unit in South Boston. Before that, she had lived in a homeless shelter for two years. Aides to President Obama said that he hadn’t been aware of her situation and wouldn’t intervene in her immigration case.
Rush Limbaugh lambasted her as “an ‘exemplary’ slum resident.” Michelle Malkin branded her “a beneficiary of the welfare state run amok.”
By that time, Zeituni’s health was declining, but that didn’t stop some people in the media from launching personal attacks in an effort to tar her nephew. When Zeituni was hospitalized, Boston talk radio host Michele “Screechy” McPhee posted the following on her Facebook page: “Her lawyer, who we paid for, said ‘she doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.’ Don’t worry. We don’t.”
In 2010, a Boston judge granted Zeituni political asylum. Suffering from breast cancer and a respiratory ailment, she died four years later.
Joe Arimathea is a former member of the fifth estate.