The Strange Personal Nature of Political Leadership of the 1950s

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Although the 1950s are portrayed as a time of American prosperity and family values, a number of contradictions about that period have abounded. For example, despite it being regarded as a conservative time, liberals have pointed out that the maximum federal income tax rate was 91% as a way of implying that high rates can still mean prosperity. Although this factoid presented alone paints a misleading picture of the tax code of the time, this is not what today’s post is about. The 1950s have a sort of allure to those who are prone to look back to better times. The truth is that although life could really be as wonderful as people who lived in that time remembered if they were white children living in the suburbs, America was so high in the world largely because its would-be economic competitors were still recovering from the previous decade’s war. Absent another devastating war in which we suffer no war damages on mainland America, we can’t count on having such an advantage again. All this aside, I’m going to talk about a strange phenomenon. While the 1950s were regarded as a time of the wholesome nuclear family, the political leadership of Washington was anything but the ideal from this perspective.

In the Senate, the leaders of both parties had relationships outside of marriage. The fact that Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas carried on numerous extramarital affairs is now well known. The grass wasn’t necessarily greener on the other side. Helen Knowland, the wife of Republican William F. Knowland of California, carried on an affair with his friend, Senator Blair Moody of Michigan. Knowland himself, unaware of the affair, subsequently had one with Moody’s wife, Ruth. The two couples regularly socialized and the affairs were deep. Helen maintained her affair with Moody for eight years until his death of a heart attack, after which she attempted suicide. Knowland, on the other hand, underwent a painful circumcision to please Ruth, who pushed him to do it. Although the couple attempted to save their marriage, after his defeat in the 1958 gubernatorial race his life careened to catastrophe. Knowland divorced his wife, became addicted to gambling, married an alcoholic spendthrift, and was heavily in debt, allegedly to organized crime. He took his life in 1974.

In the House, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas had been married for only a few months of his life, with the marriage having been annulled. His Republican counterpart, Joe Martin of Massachusetts, was a lifelong bachelor despite many letters from women offering marriage. He was shy with women and for nearly his entire adult life he was married to politics, having no hobbies outside his work. Another lifelong bachelor was the unofficial leader of the Senate’s Southern Democrats, Richard Russell of Georgia. LBJ, the cunning and wily fellow he was, saw opportunity with the childless Rayburn and Russell and played the role of a son to them, greatly assisting his rise in politics.

Although President Eisenhower is alleged to have been unfaithful during World War II with his driver, Kay Summersby, these claims are rejected by most historians. For the most part, the Executive Branch was scandal free during the Eisenhower years. Although the 1950s had a wholesome nuclear family emphasis, the political leadership of the time led alternative lifestyles, be it through extramarital affairs or perpetual bachelorhood.


Critchlow, D.T. (2013). When Hollywood was right: How movie stars, studio moguls, and big business remade American politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, R. (2018, April 8). Mr. Speaker: Joseph W. Martin of Massachusetts. The Knoxville Focus.

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