Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach
One Nation under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History
Palgrave Macmillan (Now Available)
The colorful sex lives of America’s most powerful leaders have influenced social movements, government policies, elections and even wars, yet they are so whitewashed by historians that people think Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln were made of marble, not flesh and blood. But the truth is about to come out. In One Nation Under Sex, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt teams up with Columbia University history professor David Eisenbach to peek behind the White House bedroom curtains and document how hidden passions have shaped public life. They unpack salacious rumors and outright scandals, showing how private affairs have driven pivotal decisions—often with horrific consequences. Along the way, they explore the origins of America’s fascination with sex scandals and explain how we can put aside out political moralism and begin focusing on the real problems that threaten our nation.
Europeans tend to turn a blind eye to the sexual peccadilloes of their leaders (just look at the career of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi for example). In America, however, land of the Puritans and the moral majority, just the faint whiff of extramarital sex—or even having any kind of libido—can kill a political career faster than Donald Trump can call a press conference.
One Nation Under Sex takes the opposing point of view, suggesting that our nation’s leaders have engaged in questionable bedroom behavior without any harm or lasting damage. Larry Flynt’s and David Eisenbach’s new book provides the reader with a sex-filled tour of the White House, no ticket required, through more than 200 years of American political history.
These two seem like an odd fit as co-authors; Larry Flynt is the free speech advocate and publisher of Hustler magazine, while Eisenbach is an award winning historian who teaches American political history at the ivy-leagued halls of Columbia University. But like the old saying about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Eisenbach gives Flynt class and Flynt gives him sex appeal.
The book is certainly well-researched (although an ant would need a magnifying glass to read the end notes at the back) and written in an easy breezy style reminiscent of the History Channel (most of the information, in fact, comes from Eisenbach’s History Channel 2009 program The Beltway Unbuckled).
Despite the lurid cover, the book feels a little ‘bit there done, done that.’ Most readers will be familiar with Bill “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman,” Clinton, Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Heming, and JFK's appetite for women. Flynt and Eisenbach don’t reveal anything new on that score. Most people will probably buy the book lured by the promise of titillating revelations about Honest Abe and his penchant for sharing his bed with his male friends, and Eleanor Roosevelt. who may have sought comfort in the arms of reporter Lorena Hickok.
Apart from some slightly suspect letters, there is no smoking gun. Unless Matthew Brady was hiding under the bed, or J. Edgar Hoover’s had secret files that haven’t been revealed, we’ll never really know for sure what really happened in these relationships. Flynt and Eisenbach argue that Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with Hickok led to her involvement with civil rights, which is a bit of a stretch. Much more salacious is the revelation that President James Buchanan had a long 32 year relationship with a southern Senator that may have helped pave the way for the conflict.
Of far more interest to readers of this site will be the presidential romances which have changed the face of presidential history, starting with President Andrew Jackson and his scandalous marriage to Rachel Robards. Robards was married when she and Jackson met and although her husband filed for divorce, and the divorce hadn’t been finalized by the time Jackson and Rachel were married. It wasn’t until three years later that the couple learned that the divorce had never been completed, making Rachel's marriage to Jackson technically bigamous and therefore invalid. The ensuing scandal was brought up again when Jackson ran for President in 1829. The scurrilous attacks by the tabloids drove Rachel to an early grave as far as Jackson was concerned. Jackson’s grief over his wife’s death colored his years in office, and led to what is called the Petticoat Affair.
Then there is the romantic story of President Woodrow Wilson and Edith Galt: Wilson was a recent widower when he met the beautiful widow Galt. Within months, Wilson was pouring out his heart in passionate love letters. The couple were married before Wilson’s period of mourning was up, shocking staid Washington society. When Wilson suffered a devastating stroke during his second term, Edith effectively took over as President, usurping the role that should have by rights gone to the Vice President. She shielded not only Congress, but also the entire country from just how serious his condition was.
This is a well-reasoned, well-thought out book, but in the end it is the romantic stories that stay with you after the book is done.
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon loves to write about Scandalous Women & the men that loved them. Her first book, Scandalous Women, was published by Perigee Books in March 2011. Visit her at scandalouswoman.blogspot.com.