Free-speech advocate, Hustler magazine magnate, and campaigner against political hypocrisy, Larry Flynt teams up with Columbia University professor David Eisenbach, Ph.D. in One Nation Under Sex, to shed light on how the private lives of America’s political leaders have shaped American history.
It’s said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Flynt and Eisenbach’s substantial, well-researched tome on the history of sex and sexuality in American politics proves that point early on with the case of founding father Alexander Hamilton.
The Secretary of the Treasury’s affair with Maria Reynolds quickly became complicated when her husband James Reynolds asked for a well-paid government job. After James learned of the affair with his wife, Hamilton found himself regularly paying “loans” to the couple and keeping up an affair that had long since fizzled to avoid being exposed.
The facts of the affair, a married woman, a complicit husband, and hush money, immediately brought to my mind the recent scandal of former Senator John Ensign, who was forced to resign this April after the complicated details of a similar affair and hush money deal emerged.
For readers who rightfully might be skeptical about historic scandals and controversies, the authors have done their homework here, providing copious end-note sources for the personal details of historic figures’ lives. Salacious, unverifiable rumors these are not, nor are the authors obsessed with titillating details for their own sake.
The book contrasts arguably America’s best and worst presidents through the lens of their sexual preferences. James Buchanan’s disastrous decisions in the lead-up to the South’s succession from the Union and the Civil War are examined in light of the President’s decades-long affair with a southern senator, while one of Abraham Lincoln’s many bouts of depression are linked to the end of a close relationship with a young slave owner and plantation heir.
Later, Flynt poignantly describes FDR’s polio paralysis and his intimate relationship with his assistant, Missy LeHand. The account is moving, with Flynt having been paralyzed himself in a failed assassination attempt in 1978. Meanwhile, Eleanor Roosevelt’s story is at first heart-breaking — her crippling lack of self-esteem related to an emotionally abusive childhood and the hurt caused by FDR’s first affair with Lucy Mercer — and later inspiring — her friendships and later relationships with strong, supportive women who helped her develop into the legendary First Lady history remembers her as.
The latter chapters of the book focus on more modern figures, contrasting JFK and Clinton’s affairs as well as the eras in which they governed. While JFK’s affairs read like the chronicles of an insatiable playboy, Clinton’s affairs were more nuanced and perhaps still a bit too fresh to really assess their full effect on history.
The book is also a story of the evolution of the American press; from the fiercely politically-aligned, 19th-century pamphlet propagandists, to the more reserved 18th-century press, to the access journalists of JFK’s era, and more recently to the celebrity gotcha journalists of Clinton’s era.
All in all, Flynt and Eisenbach have crafted a well-researched, well-written book that concludes with a compelling argument for a less scandal-obsessed America. Having dispelled the myth that the Founding Fathers were pure, virtuous demi-gods, the authors suggest how a move away from “political moralism” of the last several decades might allow the country to focus on more important issues.
About the Author
Topher Levin is a library associate at the Central Branch of the Kansas City Public Library and serves as assistant editor and content contributor for kcmetropolis.org, Kansas City’s online journal of the performing arts.