The sex scandals that changed history

Larry Flynt talks about why Jefferson's affairs mattered and how Wilson's mistress-turned-wife ran the White House


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David Sirota
June 20, 2011 7:53PM (UTC)

Sex -- is it the lubrication of politics, or is it the friction? Both, according to the wild -- and wildly entertaining -- new book "One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History." Co-written by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and Columbia University historian David Eisenbach, the book is a romp through the sex life of American politics -- and not, as the authors insist, just for the voyeuristic fun of it. They argue that much of the official narrative that we call "American history" is a form of revisionism that deliberately removes sex from the story -- even when it had a decisive effect on major events.

Flynt and Eisenbach visited my KKZN-AM 760 morning show to discuss their new book and their assertion that the private sexual escapades of politicians should be a matter of public concern. Here's an edited transcript of our discussion -- you can podcast the full discussion here

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Let me start by asking you the question that I'm sure people have asked you before. Other than for shock value, why should we care as a serious matter about the sex lives of presidents and other politicians?

Larry Flynt: We wouldn't be doing this if it was just a question of exposing someone's sex life. I wanted to go back to the history and see if the same types of sex scandals existed then that exist today and sure enough, they did. And they were very controversial and involved many campaigns of our Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson. And David and I both had an idea that how this book really needed to work was that we needed to make that connection -- of how these affairs, how these first ladies or mistresses or lovers, how they actually affected policies. You see the bulk of history books tend to be conservative, they just want politics and policy -- they don't care about sex. We think that a lot of Americans do care about it, and they care even more when they find out that it affected the country in a big way. With almost every situation, you find that that's probable.

How big an effect on policy has the inter-personal sex lives of politicians had on history? Are we talking about small stuff, or really big stuff?

David Eisenbach: Really big stuff. You can look at the War of 1812, you can look at the Civil War, and say, wait a second, for generations, historians have ignored President James Buchanan's private life, his 32 year long love affair with Alabama senator William Rufus King. Thanks to [that love affair], James Buchanan developed this affection and romantic notion of the goodness of the slave owner, and throughout his career, this guy [Buchanan] from Lancaster, Pennsylvania -- a very abolitionist section of the country -- this guy was bending over backward to protect the slave owners. When he becomes president in 1856, he encourages the secessionists. When Lincoln shows up in 1861, he has half a country. So there we can draw this direct connection between the personal and the political with huge ramifications for America.

Flynt: Take Thomas Jefferson as [another] example. No one wants to believe that the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence actually fathered six children with his slave girl Sally Hemmings, but it actually happened... That's probably one of the reasons why he was only one of two Founding Fathers who didn't free their slaves at the Revolution.

What disturbs me is that it assumes the old Great Man Theory of history, this idea that only the big individuals decide the direction of the country. Doesn't this analysis of politicians' sex lives assume that only these individuals drive the politics?

Eisenbach: Never do we say that the reason that the War of 1812 happened was because of this sex scandal involving Dolley Madison and Thomas Jefferson. What we do say is one of the factors in the lead up to the War of 1812, was this sex scandal between Dolley Madison and Thomas Jefferson. So what we're saying and kind of correcting the refusal of historians traditionally to acknowledge sex as being part of the political story of America, you have to bring sex back in to get the full story. Not the entire story, we're not reducing anything to it's all about sex, what we're saying is the bigger story of America must acknowledge sex.

How did sex affect the Revolution and the founding of the United States?

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Eisenbach: Well, Ben Franklin of course, opens the book. He's a major figure because he was quite the ladies man. And the Continental Congress knew that he was a ladies man and sent him in 1776 to France because they knew that he was the perfect guy that would be able to charm the elite French ladies who ran the French political salons and sleep with the right women so that they would give him access to the foreign ministers and the court officials who were going to be able to win over the king of France to support the American revolution. So Franklin's ability to seduce the right women, Madame Brillon and Madame Hellenes in France helped win France's support and ultimately the American Revolution.

Tell us about what your book reports on President Dwight Eisenhower during the supposedly asexual 1950s.

Eisenach: We get into the relationship he had during the war with his driver, Kay Summersby. The interesting thing about that story is how Joe McCarthy tried to get back at Eisenhower because Eisenhower outed McCarthy's right hand man, Roy Cohn during the McCarthy hearings. McCarthy tried to get back at Eisenhower by telling the FBI about Kay Summersby. We like to think that the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s were this kind of placid time of no sex, in actuality, they were blackmailing each other and it's this nasty kind of little fight that goes on. Again, not reported in the press at the time. The Kay Summersby love story with Eisenhower is actually an important story for America.

Give me the two best examples of how sex actually affected public policy and therefore changed American history.

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Flynt: An excellent example, quite frankly would be Woodrow Wilson. He was very much a player, I always said the difference between him and Warren Harding was that he liked the brothels of Paris, and Harding liked the whorehouses of Columbus, Ohio. When I said Wilson is a player, he had affairs from the very beginning even though he was married. His wife died shortly after he became president, and he met this lady named Edith Galt, and she was his mistress for a long time, and eventually they finally got married. Now she was interested in Wilson's power. She used to dictate letters to the German kaiser, this was before entry into World War I. Wilson later on had a massive stroke. What happened, was her, along with the White House doctor covered up the stroke from Congress and from the media. There was an important vote coming up in the Senate involving the Treaty of Versailles, which would have brought America into the League of Nations, which could have been a monumental thing had it happened...The vote in the Senate, they needed seventy-five votes. It was defeated by three votes. Now he's virtually comatose, at this time, right? There's nobody to negotiate with the Senate to get the additional three votes he needed... That's a perfect example of how for three months, she virtually ran the White House. Answering all of his memos under his name.

Eisenbach: Another example was J. Edgar Hoover who was the FBI director for 47 years. What Hoover did was he used surveillance powers of the FBI to develop sex files on every senator every congressman, president, Supreme Court justice and then use those files to blackmail these elected constitutional officials to create his own government. He was the most powerful man in Washington for decades, and all built on sexual blackmail. The irony of the is J. Edgar Hoover himself has his own sex secret: his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson. He's got this secret, which makes him more paranoid and fearful that someone's going to blackmail him, so he blackmails everybody, including Jack Kennedy. In 1963 the U.S. Senate was planning on holding hearings involving an East German prostitute named Ellen Rometsch, who was believed to have been having a fling with Jack Kennedy. Turns out that it was entirely true, and the Kennedys had to turn to the one man who could stop the U.S. Senate from bringing out this sex scandal, and that was J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover in turn squashed this scandal, he threatened the senators that if you bring this out about the Senate I'll tear you down, and in return for that, Hoover demanded that Kennedy give him written permission and authorization to wire-tap Martin Luther King Jr. And with that, he got the dirt on King and began a long career of persecution against that great civil rights leader. So we see here that ignoring the sex part of American history, ignoring the private part ignores an essential component to the political history of America.

What is your take on whether the political media and whether citizens should be interested in the sex lives of presidents for more than just voyeuristic purposes. Is there a public benefit to the media covering or trying to cover the sex lives of the presidents?

Flynt: Absolutely. People need to know if they're interested in how it affects policy. Now one thing that does disappoint me about Americans is that they have this knee jerk reaction to sex. The Europeans are much more laid back. They assume that their politicians are having affairs. But when Americans choose to ignore sex, you're ignoring a vast amount of history because of relationships when they do affect history. Don't get me wrong. I'm one of the first guys to defend a philandering president. I think you're fighting two wars and balancing the budget, I think at the same time you should be able to sleep with whoever you want to. I'd say a little less hypocrisy and a little more discretion might be in order.

Eisenbach: Remember, the entry of sex into the political discussion did not start with Monica Lewinsky. The Founding Fathers traded in each other's sex scandals. Thomas Jefferson exposed Alexander Hamilton's sex scandal, the federalists under Hamilton exposed Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. So it's nothing new. What happens is when the 20th century comes around, and the national security state emerges, the press begins to cover up for the presidents and first ladies. They filter the stories that they know about from the American public. And it was only after the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Internet that now we have the sex lives of our leaders thrown in our faces. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? It's a mixed bag. On the one hand, you could say it was better when we didn't know about it, but of course, that allowed a guy like J. Edgar Hoover to get massive power by blackmailing all of these important figures. On the other hand, you could say that if it's out there, it distracts us, like what we saw with Monica Lewinsky. Here was this silly sex scandal that according to the 9/11 commission report distracted the Clinton administration from going after Osama Bin Laden aggressively. So the question is what can we do now that it's in our face, that it's out there, and our hope is that we become more mature that we become more like the Europeans so that they next time we get hit with a major sex scandal in the presidency, and there will inevitably be a next time, we'll handle it in a more mature way.

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So we're talking both about sex and the fear of being exposed for whatever you're doing as it relates to sex -- and what you seem to be saying is that if we had a more mature attitude about sex, that maybe politicians wouldn't be so distracted by it because they wouldn't be so afraid to say, yeah, you know, I had an affair [because] it wouldn't be such a threat.

Flynt: But there's also the hypocrisy part. Remember the Senator [David Vitter] from New Orleans. He was Mr. Abstinence in the Senate. And yet he had a bevy of hookers in Washington as well as a brothel in New Orleans. To me that is the ultimate hypocrisy. I also was surprised Larry Craig, the gay senator from Idaho, planned sex in a bathroom in an airport. Sometimes I think you have to expose these people. I often get accused of I'm only doing it to expose people's sex lives, but really the hypocrisy is the key there, because I see hypocrisy as the greatest threat there is to democracy. So that's why I think that there will always be a need to ask these people totally because of that.


David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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