The Sex Lives of the Presidents
This week historians and Civil War buffs are marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, but according to porn king Larry Flynt, there is much that historians don’t want us to know. In an exclusive first interview about his new book, One Nation Under Sex, he takes a break from gathering dirt on 2012 candidates to talk about how sex influenced the lives and political choices of presidents and first ladies, from the Founding Fathers to Abe Lincoln to today.
“There’s been a lot left out of history books, and we wanted to be more inclusive,” Flynt tells The Daily Beast. “For 35 years I’ve been exposing corrupt politicians, and I wanted to know if our Founding Fathers had the same follies or not.”
Turns out they did.
A sampler: Ben Franklin helped save the American Revolution by seducing French women, Dolley Madison slept around, and James Buchanan’s gay love affair with a slave owner was a boon for secessionists. Abe Lincoln liked to share beds with men (in wealthy homes where there were many beds to choose from) and Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian affairs helped her become a crusader for equal rights. Oh, and Bill Clinton is a less selfish lover than JFK ever was.
Flynt, who survived an assassination attempt in 1978, is paralyzed from the waist down and has spent the last 30 years in a wheelchair. To his detractors, he’s a peddler of smut; to his supporters, he’s a much-needed thorn in the side of hypocritical lawmakers and a supporter of sexual freedom for all. He offers big payouts for salacious details on politicians, and has been played by Woody Harrelson.
“Don’t get me wrong—I’m the first person to defend a philandering president if he can still balance the budget,” explains Flynt. “But I think discretion should play a part in it.”
But well aware that fame and creating magazines like Hustler aren’t quite the same as grad school, he teamed up for this book project with a Columbia University lecturer on American history, David Eisenbach.
Eisenbach, who was also host and creator of the History Channel special The Beltway Unbuckled, says he got a call from Flynt about two years ago, asking him to come to Los Angeles to discuss an idea. The historian found himself in Flynt’s Beverly Hills tower in an office filled with 19th-century French salon-style paintings and statues. “It was like going to an audience with the pope,” he recalls. Thrust into the publishing porn kingdom, the historian couldn’t resist. Eisenbach says many academics scorn books written for public consumption and certainly those dealing with sex lives, “so I knew this wouldn’t help my career,” he admits. “But there’s more to life than tenure.”
The archives are rich with sexual material, but Flynt and Eisenbach say they were disappointed that historians have mostly whitewashed the Founding Fathers when it comes to spreading the word about their personal exploits. And nothing irritates Flynt, who has won a Supreme Court battle over free speech, more than people wanting to be taken too seriously. (After all, this is the same man who formally requested TARP funds for the porn industry. “In the last few years, the porn industry was down, the entire economy was hit hard,” he says. The Treasury Department gave him no joy, but he’s happy to report the industry is bouncing back on its own: “Things are looking up.”)
The material for the book was culled over several years from sources including the National Archives, the Woodrow Wilson papers at Princeton, and the Roosevelt and other presidential libraries. Several items particularly irked Flynt. Thomas Jefferson didn’t really free his slaves after the revolution while other slave owners did, “and I think Jefferson was like the Energizer Bunny with more than just Sally Hemmings if you know what I mean. Historians have stayed clear of anything that might be unsavory about the guy who drafted the Constitution.” Flynt was also surprised to discover that Buchanan had a gay lover yet supported slavery. “You’d think he’d identify with oppressed people but he was a staunch segregationist.”
Flynt describes the initial Kennedy era as a romantic time when people believed in government, until JFK and then Jackie’s indiscreet affairs, despite many efforts by the press to keep their lives private, left the country disillusioned. “It was really sort of tacky. Don’t get me wrong—I’m the first person to defend a philandering president if he can still balance the budget,” explains Flynt. “But I think discretion should play a part in it.”
While many details in the book appear in historical accounts or have been reported before, the analysis of the political and private affects of sex scandals in cohesive form make the book a highly readable go-to source on sex and government.
A running theme in the book is the changing role of the press, which has shifted over the centuries from having a tabloid sensibility to protecting presidents for the sake of national security, and then back to today where salacious tidbits are widely sought after.
“Presidents have to be more careful today. Things can wind up voice recorded or on video very easily,” says Flynt. George H.W. Bush’s rumored long-term affair barely registered in the national consciousness, says Flynt, “Because he wouldn’t talk about it. Most politicians let their mouths get them in trouble.”
But sometimes having an obedient press doesn’t help a philandering president, explains Eisenbach. “It doesn’t mean someone else isn’t recording these details. [Longtime FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover built an empire on sex scandals.” He calculates that Americans are hit with a lawmaker sex scandal—on average—every six months.
If that math is right, we must be due for another one soon. And don’t think for a second that just because he’s been working on a book that Flynt isn’t gathering dirt on hypocritical politicians gearing up for 2012. He’s coy about who is on the hit list, but Eisenbach offered a few hints. “He [Flynt] has kind of held back a bit, but as we get closer to the election there will be more revelations forthcoming. Let’s just say, for example, that if you are making a big stand against gays in the military or gays marrying, you’d better have a clean bill of health on your own marriage vows.”
Flynt, who will kick off their book tour this month, says he’s certainly looking forward to the next election cycle. “For more than 30 years, we’ve established ourselves as people who pay for information, and we are constantly looking for and getting it. There’s some people I’ve had my eye on for a long time in the Senate and Congress and eventually things will materialize,” he warns.
Anyone specific? “We focus on all of them, but the conservative Republicans make it so easy, they’ve got so much baggage.” The Founding Fathers should be thankful Flynt wasn’t around in their day.
Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.