PHILADELPHIA — Weary of sex scandals that have rocked all portions of our government in recent years, there's a lot of talk on the campaign trail about getting back to the principles of our nation's Founding Fathers.
That sentiment may change if people read the new book, "One Nation Under Sex," by Larry Flynt and historian David Eisenbach, because men such as Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson would make Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and Arnold Schwarzenegger seem like choirboys, and the partisan press of their era would make the tabloids of today read like children's books.
Flynt and Eisenbach, however, are not simply concerned about getting under the covers, or hiding in the closets, of the White House. Their book deals with how the private lives of politicians have affected the nation's public policies — how Franklin's womanizing helped the colonists gain the support of France, how President James Buchanan's alleged homosexuality helped bring about the Civil War, how Franklin Roosevelt's affair(s) forced shy wife Eleanor out of her shell to become one of the great first ladies.
Of course, there are whole chapters on Clinton and the Kennedys (according to the authors, John Kennedy said that he would get migraines if he didn't have sex with different women; brother Bobby Kennedy had an affair with Jackie after the president's death; and Mary Jo Kopechne, who died in brother Ted Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick, had previously been Bobby's mistress).
Flynt, the well-known pornographer and activist, said in an interview earlier this month that he's always been interested in politics and that when he was talking with his publisher about a book on the subject, the publisher "suggested I do it in a historical context."
He found a kindred spirit in Eisenbach, a Columbia University professor, who created and hosted the History Channel program "The Beltway Unbuckled."
Flynt said their book is especially timely now, because with today's partisan anger fighting for control of the nation's agenda, "It's a lot like it was during the Revolution" when the Hamilton-led Federalists waged heated private and public battles with the Jefferson-led Republicans.
A primary topic of their disagreements? The role of the federal government in the nation's banking system.
During the early days of the country, the press played an active role going after politicians (the newspapers of the day generally were in the pocket of one side or the other), but after a while such unseemly gossip-mongering gave way to the press protecting presidents (and athletes, movie stars, etc.). Everyone in the White House press corps knew who was having affairs — they just kept quiet. These days, it's again open season.
But such behavior has been going on forever with powerful men — "They have huge egos and need to be fed by sexual conquest," Flynt said — and voters would be silly to think it's ever going to stop.
Or that it should.
"Americans need to adopt one simple rule," the authors write. "Don't trust anyone who dedicates his or her life to stomping out other people's consensual sexual activities — it is pretty much guaranteed that lurking behind all the antisex zealotry are deep-seated sexual issues."
That's why former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover also gets his own chapter.
Does it matter that Lincoln may have been gay, the book asks. "He was probably one of our best presidents," Flynt said. And Eisenbach added that Eleanor Roosevelt "was not diminished by being a lesbian."
Hoover's closeted homosexuality, however, led to a reign of terror on the sex lives of countless politicians — gay and straight.
And President Buchanan, whom the book alleges had a 32-year affair with Alabama Sen. William Rufus King, "is one of the great villains of history," according to Eisenbach.
How could a president have a gay affair in the 1850s and it remain unreported?
"Homosexuality at the time was literally unspeakable," Eisenbach said.
He added that having politicians' sex lives out in the open would make for a much healthier debate.
"It's absolutely asinine," Eisenbach said, "that a dalliance could hijack political discussion."
Besides, he added, "The coverup is always worse than the crime. It's impossible to recover your credibility."
So, in the eyes of the authors, is there any sexual behavior that would make a candidate unfit for office?
"Illegal sex acts," Eisenbach said. "Like with a minor. That should disqualify."
Otherwise, nothing's going to change. The book makes its case that powerful people go after what they want, and the rest of us might as well expect that and move on. The more that politicians repress their sexual instincts, the book alleges, the more troubling their decision-making often becomes.
But don't expect the nation to give up its fascination with sex scandals any time soon.
"It's like a car crash," Flynt said. "Everyone wants to stop and look. When it comes to sex scandals, everyone wants to know more."
(Howard Gensler writes for the Philadelphia Daily News)