LOYAL OPPOSITION: The Truth About D.C. Sex?
Here we go again. Another nonfiction Big Book that's not all nonfiction. The subject this time is not the life of an American president but sex -- that is, sex and Washington. The book, American Rhapsody, by schlock-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is supposed to blast the dome off the capital city. Pardon me for being skeptical about Eszterhas' ability to unearth the truth about D.C. sex. But after having chased numerous sex-and-the-powerful stories during my thirteen years in Washington, I've concluded that it is damn hard to report such stories and maintain journalistic (and nonfiction) standards.
The book's details are being kept in a brown wrapper at the moment -- at least, until Talk magazine can run the first excerpt later this month. (At Talk, they sure are busy on the sex-in-Washington front; according to news reports, Talk/Miramax Media also commissioned a book that probed the private lives of Bill Clinton's pursuers but then killed the project.) But the names that are said to appear in Eszterhas' tome are hardly surprising: both Clintons, John McCain, Monica Lewinsky, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Kenneth Starr, Warren Beatty, James Carville, Matt Drudge, Larry Flynt, David Geffen, Bob Packwood, Eleanor Roosevelt, and ... Sharon Stone. The publishing industry is hoping that this latest Eszterhas project (his more notable achievements include the scripts for Basic Instinct and Showgirls) is the summer's hotseller. But apparently a truthful expose involving sex and the mighty is not enough to generate buzz and stir sales.
So as Edmund Morris did in his fraudulent biography, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Eszterhas has concocted a fictitious character -- an "altar ego," his editor politely calls it -- to comment on the book's revelations, if that's what they are. Eszterhas refers to his A.E. as "the Twisted Little Man." Doesn't that sound like a narrator who can be believed? There also is manufactured dialogue. (Bill Clinton yukking it up with Larry Flynt?)
Sonny Mehta, Eszterhas' editor at Alfred A. Knopf, which once was known as one of the classier publishing houses, thinks this is all a hoot. "It's very funny," he told The Washington Post. For anyone who wondered how a publishing house was going to surpass the poor judgment Random House displayed in bringing Dutch to the market, here may be the answer.
Attacking a book before you can read it is a bit unfair. But life's unfair -- though not for Eszterhas, who has made millions off cheesey scripts. So let's go for the early, yet judicious, hit. Actually, given the skimpy description of the book publicly available, there is not much to blast other than the notion that Eszterhas could produce a worthwhile, jounalistically responsible and fully accurate look at Washington's seamy underside -- that is, the sexually seamy underside, not, say, the soft-money seamy underside.
To make my point, allow me to share several of the more salacious leads I have received over the years. (I assure you, this is a legitimate journalistic exercise, not a cheap device to exploit rumor and innuendo about the most powerful people in the world to attract readers.)
There was the high-profile Republican congressman who one night was spotted at an apartment complex, loudly and persistently banging on the door of a transvestite prostitute and drug dealer and desperately begging to be let in. (This legislator was a right-wing family-values man.)
The Democratic senator who had an affair with an aide, impregnated her, pressured her to have an abortion (which she did), and then forced her out of her job.
The married GOP legislator who maintained a decades-long affair with a congressional employee and who gave her child (who maybe was his child too!) a job on his payroll.
The Democratic lawmaker who slept with an intern, impregnated her, and married her to prevent a scandal.
A leading, married Republican who used the bank account of a small business to cover payments to support a child he had fathered out of wedlock.
After Newt Gingrich and the Republicans snatched control of the House in the 1994 elections, several Democratic House aides told me it was known on the Hill that Gingrich was stepping out on his wife with a much-younger congressional aide named Callista Bisek.
And back in the Reagan-Bush years, it was common for Democratic operatives to encourage reporters to look into those whispers about George the Elder. It seems that late one night he had been mugged outside the home of a secret lover and a coverup had quickly taken root. Around that time, I met a woman journalist, who had covered a National Governors Association meeting, and she unsubtly hinted that she had spent down-and-dirty time with a young, up-and-coming Democratic Southern governor, who was likely to run for president in the near-future.
This was just stuff that came in over the transom. (A few tales I cannot share, for the identities of the subjects would be too obvious.) But none of it ever made it to print.
The problem is, these stories are tough to investigate and almost impossible to confirm. Sure, there's an ethical question about the newsworthiness of the personal lives of public figures. My short-cut answer: hypocrites deserve to be outed. You preach family values and you practice Hugh Hefner hobbies -- the voters ought to know. There is something uncomfortable about wallowing in this muck. I'd rather nail a politician for doing an improper favor in exchange for a campaign contribution. Still, I have proceeded cautiously into such sewage. Usually for naught.
Regarding the transvestite-seeking lawmaker, the original source (a friend of a friend of mine) left town and could not be located. My friend, a trustworthy indvidual, swore that the source was credible. But he appeared to have disappeared. The Democratic senator who wooed and then dumped his aide -- the woman wouldn't talk and others supposedly in the know would not go beyond suggesting that something terrribly amiss had occurred. The married GOP legislator and the decades-long affair -- I combed through old court records and tracked down the ex-husband of the mistress. "I know why you're calling," he snarled, "and I'm not going to help." I took that as implicit confirmation, but not the kind I could use to justify publishing the story. The GOPer who was supporting a love child -- a past employee of the business, who I was told knew the scoop, cagily informed me that she was not in a position to provide substantiation. She did not deny. But, again, there was no proof. Gingrich and Bisek -- Democratic aides said that Bisek was discussing the affair with her Republican colleagues on the Hill, but none of these Republicans would talk. A piece that relied only on Democratic sources who possessed second-hand information would not pass muster. Moreover, what if I could persuade a Republican to say Bisek had boasted of her affair with the House Speaker? That would not necessarily mean such a tryst had happened.
Newsflash: people lie about sex. How do you prove beyond reasonable doubt that Person A and Person B have engaged in sex? Had there been no DNA-ble stain on a certain dress, we might still be arguing today over whether or not you-know-who did it with you-know-who. Perhaps Bisek and Gingrich only had an intense and emotional friendship, during which they met for meals, visited each other's home, and chatted on the phone. To an outside observer, that might look like an affair. Of course, the evidence which emerged during Gingrich's recent divorce proceedings indicates that Gingrich, the leader of the party of so-called family values, actively engaged in adultery. But unless you're in the room -- ugh! -- or the adulteree comes forward with evidence, how can you know for sure? The same dilemma held true concerning the allegations that George Bush was having an affair with a senior aide. If you spotted him coming out of her house at three in the morning, what would that mean? Maybe they had been going over budget figures. Affairs are easy to assume, difficult to ascertain.
During the Monica mess, pornographer Larry Flynt offered up to $1 million to anyone who brought him evidence that a prominent politician had violated his or her marriage vows. The tips poured in, but his investigators and lawyers had a devil of a time vetting the allegations. Some were third-hand: e.g., my best friend is having an affair with a senator. (It was such a tip from a "friend" that led the Miami Herald to catch presidential candidate Gary Hart, a married man, with Donna Rice, a woman not his wife, during the 1988 campaign.) Some Flynt applicants came with first-hand allegations -- "I slept with..." -- but without documentation. Not everyone preserves their sex-soiled clothes. The only true bombshell that emerged from that project was the resignation of Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston, who outed himself once he learned that Flynt's people were in contact with his mistress. Flynt never had to make a case against Livingston. The congressman saved Flynt the trouble -- and a million dollars.
So I am curious as to what investigative talents and skills Joe Eszterhas is bringing to this ever-so murky territory. Will he regurgitate yesterday's news -- such as McCain's old (and acknowledged) tomcat ways -- and then turn to "Twisted Little Man" for a rant? If Eszterhas could definitively show that Washington is full of family-value hypocrites, that would be a worthy endeavor. But that would entail applying sound and careful journalism to a slippery and troublesome subject, and that does not appear to be Eszterhas' forte. His use of fictitious literary devices is a tip-off that the manuscript left his Malibu home without the real goods. Is it too cynical to suggest that American Rhapsody is about titillation and assets? What's most disheartening is that Knopf apparently is following Random House's lead in applying the label "nonfiction" to a book that is not entirely nonfiction. During Monicagate, we heard some commentators argue that everyone lies about sex. That may be so. But I would hope that does not apply to nonfiction authors who confront the immense challenge of writing about sex that occurs in bedrooms other than their own.
David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is author of Deep Background, a novel of poltical suspense.