Respected Politicians Who Were Actually Terrible People

It's no secret that there are plenty of terrible politicians in history. Something about being drawn to politics seems to suggest that you might be just a teensy bit wrong in the head. Horrible and ill-considered policies abound. But every now and then you get that shining diamond in the rough — a politician who doesn't totally suck. They emerge and amazingly do some good for the country, and everyone loves them. They go down in history as heroes and good, decent people.

But history books are selective. It turns out that a lot of those politicians who seemed great actually had some serious personal problems. Maybe they were epic racists. Some of them were criminally deviant. A couple actually had people killed. It's hard to see individuals you looked up to come crashing down in your estimation, but the truth is important. And these politicians deserve to be remembered as the terrible people they were.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president and an almost comically racist human being. But wait, wasn't everyone a racist back then? Probably, but Wilson was bad even for back then, so it was pretty terrible. Vox says under his leadership the federal government was resegregated after it had become more integrated than you might expect. He viewed segregation as a "benefit." Wilson also fired almost all his Black employees and unilaterally defeated an amendment at the Versailles Convention recognizing the principle of racial equality. On top of this he wrote a history book that was sympathetic to the KKK that was even quoted in the famously awful film "Birth of a Nation."

Then there was his problem with women. Women who wanted to vote, to be exact. According to the Los Angeles Times, Wilson basically hated women, and women felt the same about him. It is extremely ironic that the 19th Amendment was ratified while he was in office. He was outspoken about his beliefs. He told his staff that he was "definitely and irreconcilably opposed to woman suffrage." Wilson also stated that a "woman's place was in the home, and the type of woman who took an active part in the suffrage agitation was totally abhorrent" to him. Even a woman who just spoke in public made him feel "chilled" and "scandalized." Honestly, he probably would have been a lot happier if he'd been around pre-Civil War.

Winnie Mandela

When it comes to genuinely good politicians, Nelson Mandela seems to approach sainthood. One of the unexpected things about him is that he got divorced. You'd think a man who could be forgiving after being in jail for 27 years could keep a marriage intact. But according to Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it turned out his wife, Winnie Mandela, was kind of crazy. Their life together survived almost three decades in prison but fell apart in 1996 when it was revealed she cheated on him with her younger bodyguard. Who cheats on Nelson Mandela?!

Winnie was a fighter like her husband and earned herself the title "mother of the nation." But she was involved in some seriously controversial stuff. You did not want to cross Winnie. If she suspected you of being a traitor to the cause, she might order a "necklacing" — putting a gasoline-soaked car tire around your neck and lighting it on fire. And she didn't exactly distance herself from burning people to death, once saying "with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country."

She was eventually convicted of kidnapping, assault, and fraud. When she became part of the government, acting as a deputy minister, she managed to get fired for insubordination. When she went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu had some mixed things to say about her — "She was a tremendous stalwart of our struggle, an icon of liberation — something went wrong, horribly, badly wrong."

Lyndon Johnson

Some of Lyndon B. Johnson's jerkish exploits are famous, like the fact that he liked to whip out his "Jumbo" (his nickname for it) and wave it around in an attempt to assert dominance. Or how he would take people out in his car, drive straight into a lake, and laugh at their genuine panic before they realized it was an aquatic vehicle. But Johnson's power games went so much further than that. There also were plenty of questionable things about Johnson's presidency.

You did not want to be a woman in Johnson's world. He needed to control everything about them. One biography says he would pick out his wife's clothes, select her haircut, and force her to wear lipstick. His secretaries received the same treatment, being made to do their hair certain ways, and he even picked out their bathing suits. According to Texas Monthly, he was such a control freak he even told them how much hairspray to use. And they better have wanted to see him naked, because he was naked a lot. One writer said that "what would be sexual harassment today was part of the everyday atmosphere of Johnson's office."

Men had it almost as bad. He once suddenly pulled down his pants and made his chief domestic policy expert check to see if he had a boil on his butt. The Stranger tells how he would make people follow him into the bathroom while he went poop. He was the king of negging and would aggressively feel people up to get in their heads. It worked.


These days a lot of people have heard of Mahatma Gandhi's weird ideas about the horizontal tango. According to the Independent, he was once referred to as a "dangerous, semi-repressed sex maniac." Despite practicing celibacy for much of his life, he had young, hot women sleep and bathe with him, even when his wife was alive. But the reasons not to like Gandhi go much deeper than that.

He lived in South Africa for over two decades, where the BBC details he let his racist flag fly. He hated the Black population. He wanted them to be segregated everywhere, from hospitals to trains. He almost always referred to them by a racial slur and believed whites needed to stay in charge of the country.

Gandhi was also terrible to women. If you were a lady, you better not do something as unforgivable as experiencing a natural biological function around the Mahatma, since The Guardian says he believed "menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman's soul." But it got so much worse. He proudly wrote that women should be held responsible for any attacks they were victim to, and his actions followed through on that. He once cut off the hair of two followers who had been harassed. He even went so far as to say women who were assaulted "lost their value as human beings," and that fathers were within their rights to kill daughters who had been assaulted, y'know, to restore honor to the family.

John F. Kennedy

While there are plenty of presidents who cheated on their wives, John Kennedy is easily the most famous for it. He could not keep it in his pants. All That's Interesting says many historians have described him as a "compulsive womanizer." He slept with movie stars and secretaries. And it was absolutely terrible because of the pain it caused his wife.

Jackie Kennedy is famous for being the perfect first lady, the ever-dutiful spouse. But Jackie was aware of many of John's affairs, and she was having none of it. According to the book, "Jackie, Janet and Lee" (via People), even senators knew Jackie was always on her husband about his cheating. She made it perfectly clear that she "was sick of it and she didn't like it." In fact, she considered divorce at least twice. The first time was in 1956 when JFK left his pregnant wife at home to go on a Mediterranean cruise. That was probably annoying enough, but when she gave birth to a stillborn daughter, her loving husband couldn't even be bothered to cut his vacation short and come home to her. Every time she thought of ending it, Jackie was talked out of it by her family. Her sister pointed out that their father had cheated on their mother and that worked out all right. Her mom said it was just the price Jackie paid for being married to a powerful man. No excuses, John. You were just a jerk.

Winston Churchill

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's greatest fight might have been World War II, but a close second was his long-running bout with the suffragists years before. He was absolutely against women getting the vote, and early in his career the ladies singled him out as the guy they needed to attack, in some cases literally. Historical biographer Sarah Gristwood recounts the time in 1909 that an activist came at him with a whip and tried to force him into the path of a train.

So maybe it's not entirely surprising that Churchill wasn't sympathetic to their cause. According to "Being British: Our Once And Future Selves," he said, "The women's suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands." He considered the lengths women went to — which, remember, included hunger strikes — as merely "henpecking," and that no matter what they did "nothing would induce me to vote for giving votes to women."

But the suffragists didn't give up. They attended his speeches, heckled, and made other disruptions. Christabel Pankhurst was actually arrested after one incident, and Churchill said he hoped sitting in jail would "soothe her fevered brain." In 1910 he was appointed home secretary, which meant it was now part of his job to try and suppress the women's activism. Still, they beat him in the end.

Strom Thurmond

Storm Thurmond was revered enough to be reelected to the Senate for 49 years, the longest-serving senator in United States history, at the time of his retirement. But for all his constituents loved him, he had some terrible views about Black people.

His obituary in The Guardian recounts how Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on a state's rights and segregationist platform and managed to get over a million votes, 39 in the electoral college. And he continued his fight against equality when he got to the Senate. In 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed some basic civil rights laws, but Thurmond was having none of it. He filibustered all on his own for a whopping 24 hours and 18 minutes, still the longest speech in Senate history.

But what makes Thurmond much worse than your run-of-the-mill racist was that he was also a raging hypocrite. Because according to The New Yorker, the whole time he was declaring that Black people and white people should be separated in every way, he was hiding a mixed-race daughter of his own. Thurmond was just 22 when he knocked up a 15-year-old Black domestic worker. He ignored his child completely until she was 16, after which he started giving her money from time to time, partially to keep her quiet, as he knew exposure could ruin his political career. And she did stay silent, until 2003 and after her father had died. Apparently, Black people were not good enough, unless Thurmond himself wanted to sleep with them, in which case it was fine.

Nicolas Sarkozy l

Nicolas Sarkozy was president of France from 2007 to 2012 and perhaps one of the most defining things about him was how much he liked money. According to Vanity Fair he was known as the "bling bling" president. He loved Rolexes and custom-made Italian suits. He divorced his second wife and quickly married the wealthy model Carla Bruni. But his obsession with cash would find him caught up in more than one scandal and facing criminal charges.

Liliane Bettencourt was the L'Oréal heiress and an obscenely rich old lady. When she died in 2017, she was the wealthiest woman in the world with a net worth of nearly $40 billion. But she was also accused of secretly giving hundreds of thousands of euros in illegal campaign contributions to Sarkozy and a government minister. The president taking it would have been bad enough, but it didn't help that her daughter said she wasn't all there in the head when this happened.

But the BBC says this was far from the only illegal money Sarkozy was accused of snapping up. In 2018 he was questioned by the police about taking cash from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to finance his 2007 campaign. Not only illegal, it was unbelievably shady. Around $6.2 million was allegedly handed over in three suitcases absolutely stuffed full of cash. The Guardian says overall, he was supposed to have received 50 million euros. It sounds like Sarkozy needs to go sit in a jail cell sans Rolexes and think about his priorities.

Bill Clinton

Everyone knows about Bill Clinton's dealings with Monica Lewinsky, perhaps one of the most famous affairs of all time. There was a severe power and age imbalance, but at least it was consensual. That was allegedly not the case with some less famous interactions Clinton had with women.

In 1991 Clinton was the governor of Arkansas and attending a conference in Little Rock. According to Vox, he invited a woman named Paula Jones back to his suite. After talking for a few minutes, he allegedly reached out and grabbed her hand, pulling her close. He then ran his hand up her thigh and tried to kiss her neck when she stopped him. But he didn't. Instead Clinton undressed and started ordering her around. She refused, and as she escaped the room her told her to keep what happened quiet.

Kathleen Willey went to the Oval Office for professional advice in 1993. The Atlantic reports that once there, Clinton groped her, grabbed her crotch, and rubbed himself on her.

But the worst accusation comes from Juanita Broaddrick. Another Vox article says she was volunteering for Clinton's gubernatorial campaign in 1978 when he invited her to have coffee in his hotel room. Once there she claims he assaulted her. Clinton was never charged, and everyone just kinda shrugs it off today.

André le Troquer

You expect the French to be a little freer when it comes to sex, and this even extends to their politicians. Emmanuel Macron met his much older wife when she was a teacher at his school and married to boot. Francois Hollande had an affair with an actress while he was in office. Jacques Chirac was rumored to have an illegitimate child. But even for the decidedly un-prude French, some things are just going way too far.

In 1959 a scandal called the "Ballet Roses" rocked Paris. According to the "Routledge Dictionary of Cultural References in Modern French," it involved André le Troquer and various other important people. Le Troquer was the former president of the National Assembly, which made him at one point the second most important man in France. These men and women would come together to watch teenagers in what were allegedly ballet recitals but were really terrible "parties" with underage girls. They did wear ballet skirts, so at least that much was accurate.

An article from the time in the Ocala Star-Banner said that the parties were arranged by a former member of France's counterspy service, so you think he would have been better at not getting caught. Some mothers started to get suspicious about just what kind of ballet activities their daughters were up to. Then many of the participants, including the 74-year-old, one-armed, and balding le Troquer were found out and met with charges for things like "lewd behavior."

John McCain

The late Sen. John McCain spent time as a POW in the Vietnam War and endured torture, served in Congress for 35 years, and received the Republican nomination for president in 2008. His funeral was a major event, with some 2,000 of Washington D.C.'s most important people attending the service in the National Cathedral. 

However, there were controversies. He was one of the "Keating Five" implicated in a savings and loan scandal in the 1980s. In his personal life, he left his first wife Carol for the decades-younger Cindy Hensley, proposing to her while still married. In a documentary on her ex (via People), Carol said, "I had no idea what was going on. I was pretty much blindsided and it broke my heart."

Most concerningly, McCain's use of racist language was a constant issue. He regularly used a slur to refer to the Vietnamese, before finally being called out on it in 1999. He did apologize, but only after doubling down and getting even more criticism. Yet he doubled down again when called out for a racist tweet about the Iranian president in 2013. When running against Barack Obama in 2008, McCain often included his opponent's middle name, Hussein, when speaking about him, among other dog whistles he was accused of using. All this was in addition to voting against both the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983 and the 1990 Civil Rights Act.

Anthony Weiner

Plenty of politicians have been caught cheating, but there is a big difference between the sex scandals involving consenting adults and the kind that leads to criminal charges. Anthony Weiner managed to blow up his life and career with both kinds. At one point, he was considered a future big deal in the Democratic party. Weiner was the-then youngest person ever elected to the New York City Council in 1991 and went on to win a U.S. House seat in 1998. He was still serving in the House when his first sex scandal blew up in 2011.

Many more scandals would follow over the next several years. They ranged from sending sexts to women who were not his wife to physical affairs to sending sexual material to a girl he knew was a minor. While the scandals variously saw him resign from Congress, get destroyed in the race for mayor of New York City, and resulted in his wife leaving him, it was only the last one that saw Weiner face federal charges. He pled guilty, was sentenced to 21 months in prison, and is now a registered sex offender.

According to his ex-wife Huma Abedin, Weiner's actions were even more out of control than the public knew. She told People, "I was always bracing for the next bad news call, the next piece of, 'Aha! We discovered this.' ... as time went on, his behavior got more and more dangerous. And look where it led."

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi is the only woman to have been prime minister of India, and she is often ranked highly in polls of the greatest Indians of all time. In 1999, a BBC poll ranked her the greatest woman of the millennium. She was just as revered during her lifetime; a 1971 Gallup Poll found she was the most admired person on Earth.

Gandhi was the daughter of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She continued the nepotism trend by elevating her younger son to political prominence and then, after he died in an accident, doing the same with her older son. Ultimately, this favoritism made her cabinet a laughingstock.

More concerning is how she dealt with the many problems she faced while in office: by using brute force. Finally, in 1975, when she was in danger of being overthrown due to protests against her tactics and after being found guilty of election fraud, she called a national emergency. She used almost dictatorial power to censor the press, arrest protestors, and force the sterilization of men and women. She delayed the election that could throw her out, while at the same time forcing local elections so her political enemies could be replaced with allies. She even changed the Constitution in an attempt to retroactively make her election fraud legal. In 1994, journalist and author Arun Shourie told the Los Angeles Times, "Her legacy is a sort of continuous ruin; she did more than anyone else to destroy institutions in India."

Eliot Spitzer

As New York Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer gained fame for taking on Wall Street corruption. By the time he won the governor's race in 2006, his name was being thrown around as a possible future Democratic presidential nominee. The New Yorker ran a glowing 12,000-word profile on him after his first year as governor. 

Then it came out that Spitzer had spent huge amounts of money, possibly as much as $80,000 over a 10-year period, patronizing sex workers. He was not the first or last politician to pay for sex, of course, but what made Spitzer's case so much worse was that when he was attorney general he had not only broken up sex trafficking rings but had pushed for stronger laws to combat the problem by going after the men who patronized escort services. By the time the changes passed, he was governor and signed them into law himself. Then he ended up being caught doing the thing that publicly he was making sure others were prosecuted for. To say the women's organizations he worked with felt betrayed by him is an understatement. 

Spitzer was never charged; however, that doesn't lessen Spitzer's massive hypocrisy. As he told The Observer, "I point the finger only at myself for having given them the ammunition to do it. ... I am responsible for what I did."

Dennis Hastert

Dennis Hastert still holds the Republican record for longest-tenured speaker of the House in U.S. history. For eight years, he was just two heartbeats away from the presidency. While there were some scandals during his tenure — including the revelation that he had known Rep. Mark Foley was sexually harassing male pages and had not done anything about it — Hastert only retired in 2007 because his party lost the majority. He became a lobbyist, and his career seemed pretty well set by Washington standards.

Then, in 2014, the FBI noticed Hastert was covering up some huge cash withdrawals and pointed out to him that this was illegal. But that was nothing compared to why he was taking out the money in the first place: Hastert had been paying millions in hush money to a man whom he had sexually abused decades before. Nor was he the only victim. Hastert would eventually be accused of abusing at least five boys as young as 14 when he was their high school wrestling coach in the 1960s and '70s.

No charges could be filed for these crimes because of the statute of limitations. However, Hastert was charged with the related financial crimes and sentenced to 15 months in prison. He also admitted to what he'd done at his sentencing. According to The New York Times, the judge stated, "Some actions can obliterate a lifetime of good works. Nothing is more stunning than having 'serial child molester' and 'speaker of the House' in the same sentence."

Andrew Cuomo

Andrew Cuomo had politics in his blood — specifically, being governor of New York. Decades earlier, his father held the same position that Cuomo won in 2010. In 2020, Cuomo became world-famous when he started holding daily televised briefings on the coronavirus pandemic. He even won an International Emmy Award for them. The organization's president said (via The New York Times), "People around the world tuned in to find out what was going on, and New York tough became a symbol of the determination to fight back."

A year later, Cuomo resigned from the governorship, and his Emmy award was rescinded. An independent state investigation looking into allegations of sexual harassment found that Cuomo was constantly inappropriately touching, propositioning, or saying sexual things to the women who worked for him and for the state. The accusations of 11 women were substantiated, and a further investigation by the Department of Justice found the same things. Even worse, it proved that Cuomo retaliated against women who complained about his conduct. Cuomo took no responsibility for his actions, saying they were either lies or misunderstandings. While he swore he would not leave office, the scandal was why Gov. Andrew Cuomo had to resign.

In 2023, he was still loudly trashing everyone involved in the investigations, from the attorney general to his accusers. And, as of this writing, he is planning to attempt a political comeback.

Paul Powell

Paul Powell might not be a household name, but at one point, he was one of the most important men in Illinois. Powell (pictured center with John F. Kennedy) served in the state legislature starting in 1934, eventually becoming speaker of the house. In 1964, he was elected secretary of state. When he died in 1970, tributes poured in. The state's lieutenant governor said, "Powell has been in the forefront of nearly every battle that has brought help to the helpless and given hope to the young and old" (via the Chicago Tribune). Former president Harry Truman was an honorary pallbearer at Powell's funeral.

Then they found the shoebox stuffed with money, along with other boxes filled with cash — all totaling $750,000. Another $50,000 was discovered in Powell's office. Since he had the salary of a public servant for decades, it wasn't clear where the cash came from. The answer turned out to be simple: Powell had been using his position to skim money for years, in many creative ways. Other times, it was pretty much outright bribery. "He would go to any function anywhere, and people would just give money to him. Here's $100. His secretary would talk about going through his jacket at the end of the day and just pulling cash out of the pockets," John Rendleman III (the son of the man who found the shoeboxes) told the Associated Press.

Even in a state known for corruption, Powell is an extreme example. His crimes were so bad, they led to major campaign finance and lobbying reforms.

Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding had the perfect look and voice for a politician. He worked his way up the political ranks and in 1920, he was selected as the Republican candidate for president in a backroom deal. Regardless of the shady way he got the nomination, the public loved him, and he got 60% of the vote in the general election. 

His death in 1923 meant he didn't have to face the consequences of his massive, epic corruption. The Teapot Dome Scandal is the most famous, but it was just one of many. Seemingly everyone in the Harding Administration was getting kickbacks, and several of them went on trial, served time, or died by suicide. These days, historians consistently rank Harding as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.

Then there was his personal life. There was a conspiracy theory about Harding's death that claimed his wife killed him, but if she had, it would have been understandable. Harding had many mistresses, including Carrie Fulton Phillips, whom he had a relationship with for 15 years. As president, Harding had to try harder to hide his dark secrets, like sleeping with his aides. One of his affairs resulted in a secret child the year before he entered the White House. While the public refused to believe this allegation after Harding's death, in 2015, DNA tests proved he was the father.

Alberto Fujimori

Alberto Fujimori was president of Peru for the entirety of the 1990s. His election was a complete shock, considering that not even two months before, he was polling at barely 1%. But that overnight success was not fleeting. For almost all of the '90s, Fujimori was hugely popular, even as he broke campaign promises, and life for Peruvians didn't actually get much better. 

After two years of dealing with the normal difficulties of politics, Fujimori decided it would be easier if he were a dictator, so he called a national emergency. He then made sure his loyalists won elections and even redrafted the country's constitution. He had hundreds of thousands of mostly Indigenous Peruvian women forcibly sterilized. Then there were the death squads: Fujimori was behind massacres, torture, and kidnappings. His wife even denounced him, accused him of abuse, and divorced him in the middle of his presidency.

Eventually, his corruption and cruelty did bring Fujimori down, and he fled Peru in 2000. He was returned in 2007 to stand trial for abuse of power; later he was charged with human rights violations and received a 25-year sentence. However, his hold over a large chunk of the Peruvian people was still evident. Fujimori's daughter has come very close to winning the presidency herself a few times, some of his former administration officials are still in government, and the political party he started holds many seats in the country's parliament. When Fujimori was controversially released from prison early in 2023, many took to the streets to celebrate.