Alexander Hamilton, Warren Harding, F.D.R., Ike, L.B.J., Representatives Mark Souder, Chris Lee and Anthony Weiner, Senators Gary Hart, John Ensign and David Vitter. Maybe a first lady, Grace Coolidge. And now, David Petraeus.
There would seem to be nothing new about the weakness of otherwise powerful Washington figures in the face of temptation. But that is not precisely true: the difference these days is that it is virtually impossible to get away with it.
Mr. Petraeus, the military commander and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, resigned on Friday after admitting an affair with a woman later identified by Obama administration officials as his biographer.
His is but the most recent in an embarrassment of splashy political scandals: Senator Vitter of Louisiana, exposed in 2009 as the client of high-priced prostitutes; Representative Weiner of New York, who confessed in 2011 to sending explicit photographs to women; Senator Ensign of Nevada, who resigned last year after admitting to an illicit affair with a staff member. Representative Souder of Indiana quit in 2010 after an anonymous tipster exposed his relationship with a staff member with whom he had taped a video promoting sexual abstinence. Representative Lee of New York left office the same year after sending via Twitter a photograph of himself, shirtless, to a woman he met on Craigslist.
"It shocks me how people continue in this type of reckless behavior, even in prominent leadership positions, and don't seem to think there's going to be a consequence," said Wesley O. Hagood, who wrote a compendium of presidential dalliances. "If they'd just pay attention and turn on the news, they'd know there's going to be a consequence."
Mr. Petraeus was tripped up by an F.B.I. investigation that stumbled across his extramarital relationship. But in a digital era when the details of even average citizens are cached for public view, the odds of exposure have become exponentially greater.
Mr. Weiner and Mr. Lee inexplicably employed Twitter to approach women. Mr. Vitter was again abashed this year after someone -- not him, his spokesman insisted -- sent and then deleted a message to @LuvMy_Kisses, the account of a young Louisiana woman.
That Twitter message was uncovered by the Sunlight Foundation, which maintains an archive of deleted messages by American politicians.
President Obama's nominee as ambassador to Iraq, Brett McGurk, withdrew last summer after a Web site posted steamy e-mails he had written during an affair with a journalist, who later became his wife.
That prominent figures throw caution to the winds may be no accident, some say. A 2001 study in the Journal of Family Psychology concluded that the incidence of extramarital affairs rises with income and education.
"Power attracts hangers-on," said Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College. "It makes people more confident that they are attractive to others and more able to collect followers. And it also seems to undermine people's otherwise very careful judgment about what they can get away with.
"It's kind of shocking, really," she said.
Once, sex scandals did not become scandals until their participants died. The affairs of Nelson Rockefeller, the former New York governor, became public only after he died while in bed with a girlfriend. The Washington press corps is famous, or infamous, for declining to report on the serial extramarital couplings of President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy had plenty of White House company: Mr. Hagood, the author, said his research indicates that about one third of American presidents have had extramarital affairs.
Harding made illicit love in an Oval Office coat closet. As a senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson commandeered a room in the Capitol for his meetings with women, said the presidential historian Robert Dallek. As president, he said, Mr. Johnson installed a buzzer to alert him when his wife, Lady Bird, threatened to interrupt one of his conquests.
Mrs. Coolidge was widely rumored to have running liaisons with Secret Service agents.
President Bill Clinton, of course, goes without saying.
Curiously, many scandals burst open in part because powerful men usually are rotten at picking mistresses.
Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury began an affair with Maria Reynolds, who had pleaded for his help in fleeing an abusive husband. Hamilton went to her apartment to give her $30, but after being led to her bedroom, "it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary compensation would be acceptable," he later wrote.
Mrs. Reynolds was blackmailing him, and her husband extracted $1,000 by threatening to expose the affair. It eventually became public anyway, and Hamilton expressed bitter regret. It was, he wrote, "morally impossible I should have been foolish as well as depraved" for what he called "such insignificant ends."
On Friday, Mr. Petraeus walked in Hamilton's footsteps, saying he "showed extremely poor judgment" and calling his behavior unacceptable.
By resigning, he took what seems to be the preferred course of action after such revelations; most politicians either quit or are ousted by voters. Senator Vitter, who continues in Congress, is the rare exception.
Whether resignation is always necessary -- or even wise -- is another matter. "We suffer from an overabundance of Puritanism mixed with hypocrisy," Marina Ein, a publicist and observer of Washington life, wrote Friday in an e-mail interview. "Petraeus is an unbelievably talented and dedicated professional."
Ms. Ein once was press secretary to Representative Gary Condit of California, whose own relationship with an office intern who was later murdered led to his losing in a primary.
Hamilton went on to be lionized as one of the republic's greatest statesmen. Adulterer or not, Kennedy was recently rated the best of the nine most modern presidents, Mr. Dallek said.
"You can't get away with it now," he said. "But the public seems to discount these things."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.