One Nation Under Sex

Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach, Palgrave MacMillan

“How the private lives of presidents, first ladies and their lovers changed the course of American history,” promises the cover of One Nation Under Sex, which also bears the byline of Hustler publisher and onetime Cincinnatian Larry Flynt, towering over the decidedly smaller one of historian David Eisenbach.

If Flynt knows anything, it’s how to sell sex, so a titillating teaser is hardly surprising. And to be sure, the book is filled with plenty of juicy insights into the (alleged) bedrooms of important historical figures —Warren Harding’s hushed-up love child, Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian lover, James Buchanan’s gay relationship with a senator. Working up chronologically from the founding fathers, the authors detail (and, in some cases, speculate on) the sex lives of American presidents and leaders — from Thomas Jefferson fathering a small village with one of his slaves to Bill Clinton not having sexual relations with that woman.

But the lesson is not how these events “changed the course of American history” at all. In fact, it’s remarkable just how much presidents got done while simultaneously screwing around like teenagers. According to Flynt and Eisenbach, Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation while pining for a male slave owner, Woodrow Wilson navigated America’s entry into World War I while heartbroken over his lover’s refusal to marry him and JFK could barely brush his teeth without sticking his dick somewhere first.

More than a history of politicians’ sex lives, this is a history of the media’s relationship with politician’s sex lives. Americans have been electing horndogs into office since day one. But for much of the country’s history, the press simply did not write about their private peccadilloes. They were randy philanderers whose sexual escapades were every bit as scandalous as Clinton’s (Benjamin Franklin made Clinton look like a Carmelite nun), but they got on with shaping the nation’s history while the public generally minded its own business.

“We might not be able to prevent our leaders from being sexually reckless, but we can prevent their sex scandals from diverting our attention from the real problems at hand,” argue the authors, who advocate for a “European” attitude of amused indifference to our politicians’ pants. They’re correct. But coming from a man who who famously paid $18,000 for pictures of Jackie O sunbathing, and after 300 pages of call girls, orgies, venereal diseases and J. Edgar Hoover giving blow jobs, it’s difficult to believe they truly want the obsession to end. (This review first appeared in Willamette Week.) Grade: B-

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