Scorpion Tongues

David Futrelle reviews 'Scorpion Tongues' by Gail Collins.

Topics: Books,

A few weeks ago, in an interview that sent cyberlibertarians everywhere scrambling to their keyboards, Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that we might want to “rethink” the whole Internet thing — in light of the way certain would-be journalists were exploiting the medium to spread mean rumors about her and her husband.

If Hillary thinks Matt Drudge is rough, she might want to take a look in the archives of the Chicago Tribune from a little over a century ago. Contrasting the moral character of two Indiana presidential aspirants, the Trib made its choice rather clear in its headline: “Hendricks a man of the purest social relations, but Morton a foe to society, a seducer and a libertine.” The article went on to relate “a few of the hellish liaisons of, and attempted seductions by, Indiana’s favorite stud-horse.”

Hillary could find this story, along with many others, reported in Gail Collins’ new book, “Scorpion Tongues” — an often entertaining account of political gossip in American history, collecting an ample supply of “facts and near-facts about the great and near-great” from Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton. It’s not hot dish exactly — since many of the stories are at least several decades old — but it’s tasty dish nonetheless.

Still, it would be presumptuous to call this book “history.” Collins, a former New York Newsday columnist, seems to have immersed herself in the subject — her bibliography alone is more than 30 pages long. (She may be the only person to ever look up the 1908 article “Edith Roosevelt Drives Fast Train” in the New York Times archives.) But she doesn’t seem to have derived any great insight from her varied readings — other than the fairly obvious point that Americans’ interest in scandal has waxed and waned over the years, and that the types of scandal that capture our imagination seem to reveal something about our social anxieties — i.e., you don’t see many white politicians accused of having “Negro blood” these days.

In the 19th century, as Collins notes, politicians routinely faced outrageous allegations, many of them stemming from the fervid imaginations of fiercely partisan newspaper editors less interested in truth than in good-old fashioned mud-slinging. Indeed, presidential candidate John Frimont, the target of some of the nastiest gossip, was rumored to be both a Catholic and a cannibal — and at the time it was the former accusation that really hurt him. Yet by the middle years of the 20th century, the public’s taste for political scandal had died down, and journalists were willing to look the other way when John Kennedy smuggled women into the White House or Estes Kefauver staggered drunk across the floor of the Senate.

These days, of course, the news from Washington is often little more than a succession of accusations and denials — and for all the talk about the perfidy of the media in all this, the American public seems to have an insatiable appetite for the salacious details. Still, Americans also seem united in the belief that none of these details matter all that much. It would be nice to think that the willingness of the American public to forgive the president his transgressions represents a new sophistication regarding matters of sexual indiscretion. Don’t count on it. Clinton owes his particular brand of Teflon in part to his roguish charm, in part to our rip-roaring economy — and in part to the simple fact that on any given day, “The Jerry Springer Show” features men and women behaving much more badly than anyone in our wayward executive branch. Clinton can only hope that Jerry’s ratings stay in Oprah range.

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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