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."

The correspondence in My Dear President: Letters Between Presidents and Their Wives, by Library of Congress historian Gerard 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.

LBJ was a bull in a 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. They wed anyway; he was assassinated in 1881 just months after taking office.

Some notes were of a more political nature. Barbara Bush, got a treacly missive from her husband, George, asking her to show more affection for the media 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."


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