News & Politics

One Nation Under Sex: How Politicians' Sex Lives Changed America's History

Porn aficionado Larry Flynt and professor David Eisenbach reveal the secret history of how politicians' lovers affected policy, and why these stories are seldom told.

One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History,  
By Larry Flynt & David Eisenbach   
Palgrave MacMillan, April 201 

When Larry Flynt's new book, “One Nation Under Sex,” arrived in my mailbox a week before I was scheduled to sit down to an interview with the iconoclastic pornographer, First Amendment crusader and all around rabble rouser, I'll admit I didn't know what to expect.

The promotional materials promised the book would “explore the origins of America’s fascination with sex scandals and explain how we can put aside our political moralism and begin focusing on the real problems that threaten our nation.”  

I'd read Flynt's 1994 autobiography, “An Unseemly Man,” and found it to be a sophomoric if amusing chronicle of the publisher's life, most memorable for its account of the author's childhood experimentation with chicken sex. Not exactly heady stuff.  

So, what to make of a volume of U.S. political history penned by a man who once wore the American flag as a diaper and was famously tossed out of the U.S. Supreme Court for calling the Chief Justice an “asshole?”    

The incongruity was not lost on Flynt.  “I knew that nobody would read a history book by a pornographer,” he said during a promotional stop in Philadelphia, “so I reached out to someone they would [read].” 

That someone is David Eisenbach, a professor of American history at Columbia University who’s written two books on media and politics – including one on the history of the gay rights movement and its impact on American polity (Gay Power: An American Revolution, Carroll and Graf, 2006).  In 2009, Eisenbach produced a series of shows for the History Channel titled “Beltway Unbuckled” that explored the sex lives of several U.S. presidents.  Eisenbach says it was around then that Flynt – who had seen the show – called him “out of the blue” with an invitation in Los Angeles.  

“He said he had been thinking about writing a book on this subject and thought we should work together,” said Eisenbach. The 38 year-old New Yorker knew he was taking a calculated risk putting his name on the project; but Eisenbach says two things swayed him: the once in a lifetime opportunity to work with Flynt and the desire to see his work discussed beyond the gilded halls of academia. 

The product of the collaboration is a breezy yet surprisingly dense 264-page narrative that takes the reader on a guided tour of the boudoirs and backseats of America’s leaders from the dawn of the republic to the Clinton years (and the unwashed blue dress that nearly took down a president.)   

Flynt's penchant for thinly-sourced conjecture and checkbook journalism notwithstanding, “One Nation Under Sex” is unadulterated historical reportage -- painstakingly referenced with well over 1,000 citations (a testament to the work of Eisenbach and his two research assistants, who spent the better part of  two years pouring over primary source materials in presidential libraries from Hyde Park to Little Rock.) 

“This book is the first-ever made to consolidate the history of this subject—presidents, first ladies, mistresses and lovers and to find out how it affected policy,” said Flynt, during an end of summer promotional tour in Philadelphia  “Most history books are published by conservatives and they don't want to know about sex. They want to know about politics and policy. That's why so much history got shoveled around.”  

While sex is the vehicle through which the narrative unfolds, the real stories here are the evolution of the American media’s relationship to its leaders and the cutthroat nature of partisan politics; the scandals described in “One Nation Under Sex” are only relevant insofar as they can be exploited to undermine a rival’s political career, steer public sentiment in a favorable direction, and, in many cases, change the course of history. 

From the “Peggy Eaton Affair,”  during the presidency of Andrew Jackson – which helped turn John C. Calhoun from an ambitious but relatively harmless vice president into a rabid secessionist and one of the first South Carolinians to lobby for a break from the Union – to the more recent Monica Lewinski scandal – which is blamed for distracting president Bill Clinton from his determination to take out up-and-coming terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, the authors take pains to reveal how sex scandals and policy outcomes are inextricably linked – with the end results typically not in the national interest.  

The Crusading Porn King  

Larry Flynt is perhaps the only person living in America to be jailed, sued and shot in defense of the First Amendment, and at 68 it shows. Wheelchair-bound since 1978, his speech slurred from a painkiller-induced stroke, Flynt transitions frequently between waxing poet on life and politics, and struggling to complete a sentence.   

But the publisher of Hustler magazine and some two dozen other adult titles shows no signs of slowing down, although age and wisdom have definitely chilled him out a bit. These days Flynt wears the role of policy wonk as much as porn magnate.  

His favorite target remains the hypocrisy of American values and their puritanical distaste for all things sexual. 

“You can take and put a picture on the front page of a newspaper, you might even win a Pulitzer Prize for it, and it can be the most grossly mutilated and decapitated body, or whatever, but if you replace that photograph with a picture of two people making love, you might go to jail,” he said. “So what does that say about the society that we're living in?” 

His flag-desecrating, vitriolic-filled tirades long behind him, Flynt has turned his attention to million-dollar invitations to anyone with dirt on politicians. And he has his own investigative team to sift through it. Since the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, Flynt – who calls hypocrisy the “greatest threat to democracy” – has made it his personal mission to reveal the sexual indiscretions of people in power, and has had a hand in exposing the affairs of Republican legislators like Bob Livingston, David Vitter and Bob Barr.   

His most recent target: Texas Governor and GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry.  In September Flynt took out a full-page ads in the Onion and the Houston Chronicle offering $1 million for evidence of “illicit sexual or intimate relations with the governor,” who is married. So far there have been no breaks, but Flynt remains hopeful.  

“You never know what's going to break,” he told the Chronicle. “You never know which way it's going to break. But the thing about is, they usually all have something to hide.” 

Lest you are tempted to accuse the publisher of sex magazines of pandering his own form of hypocrisy, make no mistake: Flynt has no problem with sitting politicians, even presidents, getting a piece now and then. What he disdains, he says, are politicians who preach one thing in public and behave another way in private.  As he points out in “One Nation Under Sex,” it’s a pet peeve he shares with founder Alexander Hamilton, who as early as 1803 remarked: “How often the hypocrite goes from stage to stage of public fame, under false array, and how often when men attained the last object of their wishes, they change from that which they seemed to be.”  

A Scandalous History  

With the exception of a brief period of détente during the first half of the twentieth century, sexual misdoings have been fodder for public titillation since the first political parties emerged (against the better judgment of the founders) in the years following independence. If anything, the game is considerably more civil these days. 

Contrary to the liberty-loving, values-driven revolutionaries we've come to know them as, it seems the founders of our nation were just as often fornicating, backstabbing scoundrels who thought nothing of promoting rumor and innuendo as a means of destroying rivals and furthering their own political careers. While the founders eschewed political parties, the early division between federalists and advocates of states-rights represented by the Democratic-Republican party birthed the nation's first partisan split and led to mudslinging of epic proportions.  

During the Washington administration, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, represented the respective faces of this division, and supporters of both routinely resorted to sexually charged personal attacks.   

While he was writing his magnum opus, “Report on Manufactures” – which laid out the economic foundation of the new republic – Hamilton began cheating on his pregnant wife with the calculating Maria Reynolds, only to be blackmailed by her husband John. The Treasury Secretary eventually came clean, presenting his mea culpa in a 95-page treatise, but not before being dragged through the mud for “violating the sacred sanctuary of his own house” by “lolling in the lap of a harlot.” 

Meanwhile, Jefferson was hiding his own, considerably more scandalous affair, with his slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson steadfastly denied he had fathered children with Hemings (it wasn’t until 1998 that DNA tests proved he was lying); but he was less successful against allegations he tried to seduce his friend John Walker’s wife and only avoided a duel with Walker by penning a heartfelt apology.   

The vituperativeness of the combatants was outdone by the journalists of the day whose brand of partisan muckraking often involved conjecture and even outright falsification of the facts.  As the authors are wont to point out, such diversions often had far-reaching consequences.  During Jefferson’s presidency the vivacious and buxom Dolley Madison, wife of then Secretary of State James Madison, was beset by rumors of her promiscuity – some of them true, some not so – that kept the newspapers pushing out salacious stories.    

British diplomats visiting the colonies at the turn of the nineteenth century were so scandalized by the published details that they returned to England with news that the republic was “on the brink of collapse.” They encouraged their superiors to refuse to address American concerns over the forced induction of U.S. sailors into the British Navy and remnants of the King’s army on U.S. soil – both key factors in the War of 1812.

By the middle and late 1800s, sex scandals among American politicians were commonplace, as were their impact on U.S. policy. The elimination of property ownership as a qualification for voting; growing literacy, and the “Second Great Awakening” of protestant evangelism led to a much more robust belief in the inviolability of men of pure values.   

“One Nation Under Sex” is peppered with the policy implications of politicians’ sexual proclivities, such as how the Southern appeasement policies of President James Buchanan are tied to his long-time love affair with pro-slavery Senator William King, and later how Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian affairs set her on a course to become one the nation’s most iconic first ladies. 

With the start of the Cold War, gossip mongers took a temporary break from reporting on president’s  sex lives, as the country rallied in its standoff with the Eastern Bloc. 

“At the height if the Cold War, undermining the commander in chief by reporting a story about his sex life would have been considered tantamount to treason,” the authors write. 

During this time frame journalists practiced what Flynt and Eisenbach call “access journalism,” the goal of which was “not to nail politicians but to win them over to get access to big scoops.”  

Only J. Edgar Hoover -- who spent 48 years as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as he carried on a lifelong homosexual affair with his second in command Clyde Tolson – maintained an obsessive interest in compiling the details of  the Washington elite’s sexual dalliances -- mainly to protect secure his position through eight presidents and protect his own secrets.  

Hoover had a file on Kennedy worthy of a stag film script from the time he was a 24 year-old Navy ensign sleeping with a suspected Nazi spy to the day he was killed in Dallas. Less known is that Hoover even maintained a file on his one-time wonderboy Richard Nixon dating from Nixon’s years as a private attorney in the early 1960s when the future president allegedly had a three-year affair with a suspected Chinese spy named Marianna Liu.

With the Watergate scandal, all bets were off between press and government; gone were the days of access journalism to be replaced by the “gotcha” variety -- a flavor that continues to this day. 

According to the authors, a survey of campaign coverage during the 1960 election found 75 percent of the press references to the candidates were positive; when Clinton ran in 1992, 60 percent of the comments about the candidates were negative.  

“Since Kennedy’s day, the government had also lost the trust of the people,” they write.

“One Nation Under Sex” is indeed an entertaining and informative read that offers unprecedented insight into stories that were always there, but that historians have long chosen to ignore. As to whether Flynt and Eisenbach succeed in the second part of their mission: establishing a roadmap toward refocusing our attention away from sex scandals and onto issues of more pressing national import, I find it unlikely. With an American political sex scandal erupting, on average, once every six months, it’s more likely the press with continue to feed licentious stories to a public only too eager to gobble them up.

Christopher Moraff is a writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to the magazines The American Prospect and In These Times, where he serves on the Board of Editors. He is a correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and is associate editor of the finance magazine the Monitor, where he covers corporate fraud.
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