[In the new book, 'One Nation Under Sex' Larry Flynt & David Eisenbach reveal the secret history of how politicians' lovers affected policy, and why these stories are seldom told.]
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.
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