Messed up moments in White House history

The White House has been home to some of the most consequential moments in modern human history. Presidents, from the admired to the reviled, have turned its white walls into a beacon of liberty and light for the world. This is the building where Lincoln freed the slaves and FDR gave his fireside chats.

It is a living embodiment of our American history. As our only African-American first lady once stated, "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," only to later be occupied by her daughters, "two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."

But, behind those colonnades there are secrets that most presidential historians just won't tell you. Messed up moments that may not have reshaped history, but will still blow your mind. Moments filled with ghosts and YouTube stars, sex scandals and reality show presidents. If those walls could talk, this is what they'd tell you.

Warren G. Harding hid his affairs in a White House closet

Warren G. Harding, 29th president of the United States, once said, "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here." And, you know what, the guy wasn't wrong. He may, for instance, be the only president to gamble away a set of White House china dating back to the presidency of Benjamin Harrison. Oops.

But his real passion was the ladies, whiling away the hours of his regretful presidency writing smutty love letters, (once nicknaming his mistress' genitalia "Mrs. Pouterson") and occasionally using a White House closet as his own personal love dungeon.

Nan Britton, one of his lovers, wrote in her tell-all book The President's Daughter, "This was a closet in the anteroom, evidently a place for hats and coats. … We repaired there many times in the course of my visits to the White House, and in the darkness of a space no more than five feet square the president and his adoring sweetheart made love." Yikes. Apparently a Secret Service agent would knock when Harding's wife was nearby, which wasn't often enough. Britton eventually got pregnant in that coitus cupboard. Harding, of course, tried to trick her into taking something called "Dr. Humphrey's No. 11 tablets," which sounds totally legit, and not at all a Roaring Twenties version of the morning-after pill. She refused, leaving Harding to die in office without ever meeting his daughter Elizabeth.

Lyndon B. Johnson is given a person as a gift

Lyndon Johnson had a famous take-no-crap attitude, chewing out his staff with fulsome foul language, often from the toilet, where he would conduct meetings. But perhaps the strangest story regarding Johnson's time in office showed him practicing some uncharacteristic patience.

While presidents are often given gifts from foreign powers, those gifts usually are tokens and trinkets. Something you can stick in a closet and never think about again. That wasn't the case with Mr. Wong, a living, breathing person gifted to Mr. Johnson by a Central American dictator. According to the book Inside the White House, Wong, a Chinese cook, "spoke no English, and was only dimly aware of his intended purpose." 

The 4-foot-8 man arrived in a straw hat, having never heard of the president or the legendary building he was now supposed to work in. Wong spent his days in the White House aimlessly wandering, rarely cooking, and often acting in bizarre ways. For instance, he loved to play hide and seek, ducking behind curtains when LBJ or the staff came searching for him. It took months for him to realize that he was, in fact, supposed to work there, and not just kill time. There's little evidence of what became of Mr. Wong, but for a few years, this very confused man was given a front row seat to history and understandably chose to hide behind the curtains.

Bill Clinton just did all the things

It's no secret that Bill Clinton liked the ladies. Sex scandals nearly destroyed his first campaign for the presidency, and one particularly famous office romance would lead to his impeachment. But when you dig into the details of the Starr report, which cataloged the findings of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation into the Clinton administration, Slick Willy's White House comes across as more tawdry than a trashy romance novel.

While carrying on an affair with 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton never seemed shy about getting what he wanted, when he wanted it, in the exact way he wanted it. At one point, he had Ms. Lewinsky, 27 years his junior, put a cigar somewhere the cigar certainly wasn't expecting to go, and then chewed on it. The two also regularly had conventional phone sex, and once he had her do things to him while he chatted on the phone with a congressman.

Having developed feelings for him, even though she worried at first that he didn't even know her name, Lewinsky once asked the president why he wouldn't let things go farther. According to her, "He said he didn't want to get addicted to me, and he didn't want me to get addicted to him." One thing's for sure, when he said "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," he wisely didn't say the same for his cigar collection.

Richard Nixon plotted to kill a reporter

If you're worried relations between the president and the press are bad now, just be grateful no one's put a hit out on Don Lemon. Because that's exactly what Richard Nixon did to one particular reporter, according to the book Poisoning the Press.

As author Mark Feldstein makes clear, "Nixon's administration wiretapped journalists, put them on enemies lists, audited their tax returns, censored their newspapers, and moved to revoke their broadcasting licenses." But that was just the tip of the impeachable iceberg. Nixon was determined to destroy one reporter in particular, a columnist named Jack Anderson whose rivalry with the president dated back to the '50s, when his reporting about the then-vice presidential candidate's improper use of campaign cash forced Nixon to give his infamous "Checkers speech."

Decades later, Anderson was still a thorn in Nixon's side, and Nixon wanted to be free of him. According to Timeline, in March 1972, Nixon gave his dirty tricks team marching orders. It was time to take Anderson out by any means necessary. Some of the options included running him off the road, replacing his aspirin with poison, and smearing his steering wheel with LSD. They even spoke with a CIA doctor about slipping something into his booze. Unfortunately, the guy was Mormon and never touched the stuff. In the end, the thing that may have saved the journalist's life was the same thing that ruined Nixon's career: a botched break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

Willie Nelson got high on the White House roof

Despite what you may have heard from Nancy Reagan, residents of the White House don't always "just say no." Thanks to some helpful Dr. Feelgoods and a staff of enablers just trying to keep the big guy from a breakdown, some presidents are more hopped up than a Charlie Sheen Torpedo of Truth tour. JFK was rumored to be on a mix of everything from codeine to methadone during his presidency, and Nixon supposedly mixed booze with antipsychotics just to get through the day.

But for those who aren't the big boss, doing drugs with federal agents right outside your door has usually been a bridge too far. Well, for everyone but Willie Nelson, that is. According to his 1988 autobiography, Willie, the Red Headed Stranger was spending the night in the White House in the '70s when a friend suggested they head up to the roof with a beer and a spliff to take in a once-in-a-lifetime view. Have you ever seen Washington D.C. … on weed?

It took GQ writer Chris Heath to finally paint the full picture of this hazy night, identifying Jimmy Carter's son Chip as the cannabis-carrying culprit during an interview with the singer. Nelson copped to it and said President Carter must have been okay with the whole thing. As he recalled, "I think he knew me and he knew Chip so, you know, there wasn't much we could do to embarrass him."

Lincoln's ghost met a naked Winston Churchill

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Well, and ghosts. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spoke those famous words during his first inaugural address, could have also mentioned the ghosts. That's right, spooky specters from the netherworlds have reportedly haunted FDR's former home for centuries.

Presidents ranging from Taft to Truman to Reagan have claimed to have witnessed some sort of paranormal activity in the White House. A strange rapping at the door, only to find no one behind it. A salty phrase whispered in the dark, sounding remarkably like Andrew Jackson. A former first lady floating through a wall, as if taking laundry out to dry.

But for all the creepy accounts the people populating the White House have shared over the years, Winston Churchill's surely takes the cake. The former prime minister of the United Kingdom was reportedly bunking in the Lincoln Bedroom during World War II when he decided to take a long bath. When he reentered his bedroom, naked as a jaybird, he saw none other than President Lincoln standing by the fire. Yes, that Lincoln, who'd been dead for 70 or so years. The two exchanged eye contact, and Churchill, never one to have his feathers ruffled, said, "Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage." The ghost apparently smiled and faded away into the ether. Churchill never again slept in that room.

Teddy Roosevelt ran a fight club in the basement

Teddy Roosevelt was one tough S.O.B. This was a guy who was once shot while giving a speech, said, "it takes more than that to kill a bull moose," and continued speaking for another 90 minutes. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that he knew how to handle himself in a fight, thanks to a lifelong mission to overcome his sickly childhood and a brown belt in the art of judo. That's right, Teddy was our first mixed martial artist president, a century before anyone thought to step into the octagon.

And because a pugnacious president can't just walk out on the street and pick a fight, he did what he had to do, namely starting a fight club in the White House basement.

According to Mental Floss, he found the space unused, lined it with training mats, and invited anyone willing and able down the stairs to spar. And when we say anyone, we mean it. His wife and sister-in-law were known to throw down, and he once tackled a Swiss minister to the ground. Teddy was a man who would take on all comers, even boxing champion John L. Sullivan, proving that in his White House, the first rule of Fight Club was just let the president win.

Andrew Jackson threw a debauched rager for his inauguration

George W. Bush may have described Donald Trump's inauguration as "some weird sh*t," but it had nothing on Andrew Jackson's. As the first "frontier president," namely a politician not from the East Coast elite, Jackson wanted an event for the people. And boy did "the people" show up, a record 30,000. Senator Daniel Webster said these visitors were "like the inundation of the northern barbarians on Rome."

"Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe," recounted a Washington society type. And like any good party, no one wanted it to end. When Jackson finished his speech, the mob followed him back to the White House, where they broke in, climbed the furniture, broke the dishware, and just about destroyed the place. In the chaos, Jackson was nearly trampled to death.

Not sure how to break up the raucous crowd, the White House staff filled punch bowls with booze and dragged them out on the front lawn. And like any true American, they followed. As one Washington matron described it at the time, "What a scene we did witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made, no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob." Good times.

FDR was accosted by an eager intruder

The White House is known as "The People's House," and sometimes "the people" take that nickname a bit too literally. Intruders have been trying to sneak into the bowels of the building since its inception. From a renegade helicopter pilot landing on the front lawn to a man in a ninja costume hopping the fence to YouTube "star" Jake Paul trying to spend a night in a private bathroom, there's something eternally tempting about seeing how far you can sneak into our president's private abode.

Still, you would think during the height of World War II, when spies were everywhere and our own citizens were being rounded up as a misguided security measure, that the White House would be on lockdown. But, as recounted in The President's House, FDR and his family were subjected to a security breach for the ages.

As recalled by first son Jimmy Roosevelt, the family was finishing up a movie in their private screening room when the lights came back on. In an instant they realized that a neatly dressed stranger was standing right next to the president. But, instead of attacking, the prowler asked for an autograph. And that's what he got, before being escorted out by some very embarrassed Secret Service agents. It seems he had entered the building on a whim and had somehow found his way to the house's innermost sanctum. And, not only did he get away with it, but he got to enjoy a free movie to boot.

Donald Trump revealed top-secret information to foreign spies

Since his election, Donald Trump has acted as a one-man wrecking crew to many historical norms of the presidency. Maybe the Donald just isn't thrilled to be living in a building he's rumored to have called "a dump."

Still, that doesn't explain why Trump invited Russian officials Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak into the Oval Office, an unusual move considering Kislyak is a well-known spy thought to have led the Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. You don't usually invite a geopolitical foe into your innermost sanctum, when they could turn around and bug the darn place

Trump then began to brag that he'd "just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nutjob. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off." The fact that Trump didn't allow American media in to document the affair, while Russian media were given carte blanche, only heightened the confusing nature of the encounter.

Then, to top it all off, Trump reportedly revealed top-secret intelligence, causing officials in intelligence services and in allied capitals around the world, to blow a few gaskets. (The White House denied the allegations.) Republican Senator Bob Corker called the news "very, very troubling" if true, and said "obviously, they're in a downward spiral." Good thing they pulled out of that.

Herbert Hoover ordered staff to hide from him

You need to be something of a people person to assume the mantle of president of the United States. Right? There are so many shaken hands, kissed babies, and banal conversations on the road to the White House, and to get through it all, you have to enjoy it on some level. But then there's Herbert Hoover, one of our least celebrated presidents, who so desired being left the heck alone that he demanded his own staff hide from him.

Living in the White House must feel claustrophobic at times, but according to Kenneth T. Walsh, one of the longest-serving White House correspondents in history, Hoover's solution to the problem was to have the building's staff run and hide every time they heard him coming. His footsteps meant it was time to jump behind a bush, hide in a closet, or just run. Eventually the staff got a bell and rang it to let everyone know it was time to make like Houdini and disappear.

The system stuck for years, until Truman took over and wondered where everyone was. Still, habits are hard to break, and many of the staff kept hiding into the Eisenhower administration, which led the boss to think the building was filled with lazy good-for-nothings who never did a darn thing.