Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach may seem like the odd couple of co-authors, Flynt being the publisher of Hustler and Dr. Eisenbach being a respected historian and professor at Columbia University. Although "Sex" is not raunchy, pornographic or titillating or even voyeuristic, it is startling to learn some of our revered early statesmen had feet of clay when it came to sexual mores. The sexual proclivities of many of our American forebears profoundly affected pivotal decisions and hidden love affairs have shaped public life.
There are a great many discussions in the book about presidents and other individuals who did strut and fret their hour upon the public stage and their sexual proclivities are discussed in detail, but for this review I'll select just a few examples since reviews written ahead of mine give excellent summaries of the book.
Benjamin Franklin's round face, spectacles and bald head belied a rollicking life as a libertine and roué at home and in Paris. He was going strong in Paris at age 70. His earthy writings are rather endearing, though. His seduction of French women saved the American Revolution, after all, and he was certainly no hypocrite.
Well known is Thomas Jefferson's liaison with his slave Sally Hemings and his numerous children by her,the first arriving when she was no older than fourteen. He strenuously tried to cover up the relationship but visitors to Monticello were frequently startled when the servant-slave who carried his bags or poured his wine at dinner bore an astounding resemblance to Jefferson, red hair and all. The book mentioned that in 1998 a DNA test was done on Jefferson's descendents and it was determined that Sally Hemings had borne Jefferson at least one child.
Dolley Madison, married to the five foot three uncharismatic James Madison, was a voluptuous woman about town who bedded many. Although she did not wear the pants in her family she blatantly and cheerfully wore the skirts. She is famously known for saving the Gilbert Stuart oil portrait of George Washington from British pillagers during the war of 1812. But in her day she and her cleavage were front page news.
James Buchanan is generally voted America's worst president. During his tenure bachelor Buchanan had a gay affair with Senator William King. King was a southern slave owner and this love affair aided the secession when Buchanan became a pro-slavery advocate. The union was about to break apart with Buchanan doing nothing to salvage it. Luckily, very luckily, Abraham Lincoln was in the wings.
Was the Great Emancipator gay? The evidence is not overwhelming but perhaps Joshua Speed and not Mary Todd was the great love of Lincoln's life. When Lincoln broke off his engagement to Mary he collapsed in a well documented nervous breakdown during which he considered suicide. If his natural proclivities were with men, not women, that breakdown is explained. Of course he recovered eventually and went on to marry Mary Todd but it was noted that during the wedding ceremony Lincoln looked like a lamb going to the slaughter. As it turned out his marriage to the unstable half-crazy Mary was hell but the Ship of State came before every thing else and Lincoln at the helm saved the Union and brought America, bloodied but whole, into a safe harbor.
A really scary administration in retrospect was that of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson belied his bookish appearance, he loved the ladies and gushed away in his letters to various women like a love-sick adolescent schoolboy, not the Princeton President he once was. So enamored was he with his second wife Edith that as President he allowed her to help write his letters including one to the German Kaiser that was a disaster of diplomacy. Edith actually acted as his chief of staff, sorting his letters and determining who would see the president. When Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke that rendered him incapable of running the country, his condition was covered up for several months during which Edith Wilson was in effect president and not a very good one.
Perhaps the most amazing marriage of any president was that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Franklin and Eleanor were polar opposites- he had been smothered by love from his mother, attended the best schools and was confident and handsome. She had been scorned by her parents, constantly criticized and the shy, homely girl grew up to be a self effacing young woman who had such a low opinion of women in general that she opposed the franchise for women. Eleanor had connections, and the first cousins were married for political reasons. 6 children followed but Eleanor was unfulfilled. She found out that her husband was having an affair with the beautiful Lucy Mercer, who remained the love of his life. She was devastated, but then FDR contracted polio which paralyzed him from the waist down. Eleanor morphed into a totally different person. She encouraged and even prodded her husband to stay in public life and she herself found happiness and fulfillment with lesbian lovers. She was happy and her attitude towards her own failings changed so much that she became a champion for women's rights, a fine public speaker, and a ceaseless campaigner for FDR. The authors of "One Nation under Sex" consider Mrs. Roosevelt to be the greatest First Lady of all time. Certainly she was a fine example of courage who became a world famous personality in her own right when she had not been endowed with beauty or superior talents. In other words she pulled herself up by her boot straps.
The authors feel that being nosy, intolerant and obsessed with the sexual antics so rampant in politics has nothing to do with religious principals and is actually pure hypocrisy. American should turn their attention to the real issues and problems that face our nation and be tolerant of sex, any kind of sex which is none of their business anyway.
However, in my opinion the Monica Lewinskys of the future will be just as titillating as the Monicas of the past and presidential indiscretions will be just as fascinating even though we should put on blinkers and look the other way.
P.S. During the American Revolution one lady in twenty five was a prostitute. However, what George Washington was up to, if anything, is not discussed in the book.
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Pam Sharp (snowleopard88)
I'm a retired botanist with degrees from Smith College and the University of Arizona. I'm currently into designing T-shirts and other items for Zazzle. Am interested in almost everything … more
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“Well reasoned, well written, and well documented.”--Booklist
“Those looking for salacious details will find them, but Flynt and Eisenbach favor analysis over sensationalism, providing a new perspective of the men and women who have shaped our nation.”--Publishers Weekly
“Dig into the unwholesome side of American history to uncover how the sexual peccadilloes of the men we elect have transformed the world for good and ill...Sometimes it takes an asshole like Flynt to tell stories that need to be told.”—The Stranger
"Presidential hanky-panky is as old as the nation itself. But no one can bring it to life quite like Larry Flynt."--Steven E. Levingston, Washington Post
"It is amazing that this inherently salacious subject could be treated in such a thoughtful and documented fashion, scholarly even, and yet be such a great read."--Robert Scheer, author of The Great American Stickup
“Americans often like to think that extramarital sex – or even a strong libido – is somehow a sign of poor character in our presidents. One Nation Under Sex explodes that myth. From Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson onward, our most respected leaders have always engaged in bedroom behavior that would outrage the cultural commissars—at no harm to the republic. You don’t have to agree with all of Larry Flynt’s and David Eisenbach’s readings of history to enjoy this ...