If anyone could spice up the tale of our nation's birth, it would be Larry Flynt. When the infamous pornographer set out to do just that, he quickly discovered that our Founding Fathers were pretty smutty to begin with – it's just that the presidential orgies and brothel visits have been whitewashed from American history textbooks.
Flynt endeavored to set straight the record – which is, well, actually pretty gay, according to him – in his entertaining new book, "One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History." With the help of coauthor David Eisenbach, a professor of American political history at Columbia University, he argues that Benjamin Franklin's womanizing ways helped win him favor with the French and gain the country's military support during the Revolutionary War. He claims that James Buchanan's intimate same-sex relationship with a slave owner might have influenced his secessionist support on the brink of the Civil War. These aren't just sex scandals; they're history-changing sex scandals. As Publishers Weekly puts it: "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." Flynt also offers fascinating and well-sourced explorations of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with a 14-year-old slave and Eleanor Roosevelt's intense relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok. Then there are the more salacious tidbits, the merits of which are questionable – like the allegation that Jackie O miscarried because of a venereal disease given to her by JFK.
The book is most gripping, and problematic, when it raises the question of sexuality (which can be a rather murky thing even without the distance of a couple of centuries). Flynt isn't the first to suggest that Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and J. Edgar Hoover had gay relationships, but that isn't to say that the allegations are uncontested. For example, part of the evidence for Lincoln's homosexual leanings is his close friendship with Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed for many years. But historians have pointed out that in the 19th century it was not uncommon for men to sleep in the same bed. (Sleeping together doesn't necessarily mean sleeping together.) Such is the trouble with reexamining the sexual identities of historical figures from a 21st-century perspective. The available details of the close same-sex relationships enjoyed by these men certainly cast them as more complicated figures, but there is nothing conclusive here. All we have from this historical vantage point is enough evidence to believe whatever we want to believe – and it's no secret what Flynt hoped to find here.
In his new role as pornographer-cum-historian, the free-speech advocate's mission is the same as when he first entered the spotlight back in the 1970s as the publisher of Hustler: to challenge the puritanical and hypocritical elements of our culture. It's only natural that he would set out to prove that our Founding Fathers were pervs. This book either reveals how much our history books have lied to us, or shows just what a successful huckster Flynt is. (It might prove both at once, actually.) Salon recently spoke with him by phone about the biggest presidential playboys, the sex scandals that shocked even him, and the conservative senator he hopes to soon force out of the closet.
Why do the sex lives of presidents matter?
Well, we're often preoccupied with it even in our present society. Over the last 30 years there were a lot of corrupt politicians – usually involving sexual scandals. I just thought it would be interesting to go back and start with the Founding Fathers and see if still existed. I was amazed it was so prevalent.
What was most shocking to you?
So much was shocking. For too many years, we never would believe – and historians were a part of this – that Thomas Jefferson, this great man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, fathered six children by his slave girl Sally Hemings.
We often think that muckraking and tabloid journalism emerged in recent years. But in 1729, 40-some years before the revolution even started, Benjamin Franklin was publishing a tabloid newspaper that had the first-ever sex advice column. He was really a fascinating character with a reputation for seducing women, and that actually helped him in getting France's support for the war. He was the ambassador to France at the time. So even the Founding Fathers were a rowdy bunch of guys.
There were some women that were notorious in the early years too. Dolley Madison was without a doubt the most colorful first lady we ever had. She had a couple of her sisters live with her in the White House, and they were really pretty wild girls. They used to throw parties there, and they would invite members of the Continental Army. One of President James Madison's Cabinet members said to him, "I know you don't want to hear this, but your wife has single-handedly turned the White House into a brothel."
How did the first political sex scandals come about?
The first sex scandal investigated by congress involved Alexander Hamilton, who was the secretary of the treasury. He was having this affair with a woman and was giving her money because, I think, he felt sorry for her more than anything else. She was married. And all of a sudden this guy named James Reynolds, who was her husband, tried to start blackmailing Hamilton. He paid the blackmail for some time, and when the word finally got out and reached Congress, there was an investigation and the Congress found that he had not used state money to give to her and that he was pretty much entrapped in the situation. They didn't find him guilty of any wrongdoing or crime.
They even knew about Jefferson and the slaves in the beginning, and a lot came out in his campaign for the presidency, but it was just, like, so unbelievable that most people did not believe it. We actually did not know for sure until 1998 – over 200 years later, it was proved by DNA testing. [Ed. note: The test proved that Jefferson or a close relative fathered at least one of Hemings' children.]
Why are sex scandals so enmeshed in American politics?
Well most people like sex – they always talk about it, but they lie about it. They like to get it, they lie to keep it under wraps, and people's libidos have always been the same since the very beginning. But because of our puritanical values in this society, they always try to keep sexual behavior under wraps.
Everybody always accuses me of picking on Republicans, but it's not true – they just tend to be easier. They have so much baggage, and when they live a conservative life, everything stays so well hidden – but it's like a pressure cooker and eventually it comes out.
Which president would you say was the biggest playboy?
I would say it was a tie between Harding and Jack Kennedy. 'Course Wilson was in the mix too. It was often said about Wilson and Harding that Wilson preferred the brothels of Paris and Harding preferred the whorehouses of Columbus, Ohio. Those guys' entire presidencies were just tattered by affairs and relationships.
Then there's Kennedy. There was much more than what people even thought at the time. I think he just sort of felt he was infallible, and in his quest of women he was very reckless. Most of these encounters weren't really thought out very well.
Don't get me wrong, I'm one of the first guys to defend a philandering president. I think if you can fight two wars and balance a budget at the same time you can do whatever you want to – but you need a certain amount of discretion.
When did gay sex scandals pop up in American politics?
The first was when James Buchanan was elected president. He was the first gay president we ever had. From the time he was first elected, Senator William Rufus King said he was having an affair with him and moved into the White House with him. Everybody knew it – they would call them "Aunt Fancy" and "Miss Nancy" [common slang for gay men]. Everybody knew, and it was somewhat accepted. [Ed. note: Historians are not in agreement on this issue, though Flynt is correct there is corroborating evidence.]
You would have thought someone who was gay would identify with people who were oppressed, but he did not. He was a staunch segregationist, and he handed Lincoln a real mess.
What can we learn now looking back at the Monica Lewinsky scandal?
We really don't learn much; it's just that more people have knowledge of what's going on and that politicians have always behaved this way. I would like us to become less uptight about sex and more like the Europeans. Over there it's commonly accepted that if you're a politician, you have a mistress. It's gonna happen; it's just human nature. I'm not opposed to it. I'm opposed to the lack of discretion.
What kind of dirt do you have on the 2012 candidates?
We always have several investigations going. I've never printed a word about anybody that wasn't true, and we're very meticulous about what we do. We're presently investigating a senator who's gay and the reason why that's important is that he's so hypocritical. We were almost ready to break the story, and we found out his lover was married. Our attorney felt that even if he was gay or bisexual, that really complicated the issue, and we felt we didn't have enough information to go ahead.
Is it possible that will still come out?
It's very possible.
How do you expect sex to influence American politics in the next decade?
I don't think it'll be much different from the past – it's just you need to accept that sex influences everything we do. Other than the desire for survival, the strongest single desire we have is for sex. We use it to communicate more than any other medium, but we understand it less. That's what's confusing about it.
After all the research you did for this book, what would you say is your big takeaway in terms of the intermingling of sex and politics in America?
The biggest thing I took away from this book is the degree to which it's existed since the founding of our nation almost 250 years ago. When I started the book, I didn't even know that we had a gay president, and I didn't know that Lincoln's sexuality was called into question. Historians really get under my skin because I think they're the most anal-retentive group of professionals I've ever met. They can look at Mount Rushmore and get writer's cramps. Historians never wanted to believe that this magnificent man who drafted the Declaration of Independence had actually fathered children by a black slave.
The publishers of history books tend to be conservative and they only want to know about policy and politics. They don't want to know about sex. That's why it's left out of these books and has been for centuries.