WASHINGTON – Presidents and their wives have been an amorous lot, their White House years coming at the pinnacle of lives entwined. The men pursued and loved these women as intensely as they clawed to power and unleashed armies.
"Touch you I must or I'll burst," Ronald Reagan wrote to Nancy three years before he became California governor. Lyndon Johnson, then a young congressman from Texas, declared to his valentine, Lady Bird, mere weeks after they had met, "This morning I'm ambitious, proud, energetic and very madly in love with you."
College graduate Teddy Roosevelt put Alice Lee on a pedestal, telling her five days before they wed: "I worship you so that it seems almost desecration to touch you."
A new book of letters between presidents and wives fleshes out momentous periods of history with the full range of human emotion — love, longing, snippiness, betrayal, loss, lust.
These men turned a resolute face to the world. In private, they could be goo. The women were easily their match in exchanging heart-racing prose and pulled no punches on tough stuff.
Even as John Adams was in Philadelphia working on the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that "all men" are created equal, his loving spouse, Abigail, sent the future second president a blistering letter about the subjugation of wives — this, way back in March 1776.
"That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth," she wrote. "Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex."
She was a flirt, too, offering sweetly, "If you want more balm, I can supply you," in a letter the spring before they married in October 1764.
The correspondence in "My Dear President: Letters Between Presidents and Their Wives," by Library of Congress historian Gerard W. Gawalt, captures some of the couples in the first blush of their romance and follows them into the White House.
Presidents who were wild about their wives were not necessarily faithful to them — not even close. Some wives knew it.
LBJ was a bull in the china shop when it came to women; Lady Bird once shrugged off his affairs as a "speck on a wedding cake."
Lucretia Rudolph was not so accommodating when she learned her fiance, James Garfield, had been stepping out. "James, to be an unloved wife, O Heavens," she wrote in 1857. They wed anyway; he was assassinated in 1881 just months after taking office.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, as allied commander for Europe in World War II, tried in several letters to his stateside wife, Mamie, to shoot down rumors he was involved with his driver, Kay Summersby, with whom he formed an intense friendship. "I've no emotional involvements and will have none," he told his wife.
Civil War spouses and girlfriends received harrowing letters from the battlefield, for many presidents were soldiers when young. Whether in war or peace, many were ambitious men in eras of slow travel, meaning long absences from home and longings expressed in the overwrought language of their times.
"I have the Blues all the time," a love-struck Ulysses S. Grant told his sweetie, Julia Dent, writing from the Mexican War in 1848 two decades before becoming president.
"I feel the pulses of your love answering to mine," Chester Arthur wrote to his fiancee in New York, Ellen Lewis Herndon, during an 1858 Republican Party mission in Missouri. Arthur succeeded Garfield in 1881.
Such power couples enjoyed what might be politely called quality time.
Harry Truman alluded to one such encounter after Bess had visited him in July 1923, 22 years before he became president, when he was at military training camp in Kansas. "I, of course, acted like a man brute," he wrote in a somewhat sheepish tone soon after she left.
Gawalt drew his 184 letters, telegrams and cables from 4,000 to 5,000 found in the papers of 23 presidents held by the Library of Congress, provided by family members or available at presidential libraries. About half were previously unpublished.
"What struck me is how early on that the wives were so vitally important to their husbands' careers," he said. "There's just an endless number of strong-willed women who are involved in these couples."
Exchanges between one such woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Franklin were friendly but emotionally distant. Such was the lasting result, Gawalt said, of his wife discovering FDR's affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer 15 years before he became president.
"That's when the passion went out of that relationship," he said. "After that, I think, their relationship is pretty well summed up by the fact they were exchanging memorandums."
In one, Franklin complained to his wife that White House food portions had gotten out of hand and everyone must be cut back, for example, to one egg for breakfast instead of two.
Another no-nonsense woman, Barbara Bush, got a treacly note from her husband, George, asking her to show more affection for the television cameras in the 1988 campaign, like their opponents, the Dukakises.
"Sweetsie," he began. "Please look at how Mike and Kitty do it. Try to be closer in more — well er romantic — on camera. I am practicing the loving look, and the creeping hand. Yours for better TV and more demonstrable affection. Your sweetie pie coo coo.
"Love 'ya GB."