Friday, December 16, 2011

The professor and the pornographer

One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History,
By Larry Flynt & David Eisenbach
Palgrave MacMillan, April 201
264 pp

When Larry Flynt's new book, “One Nation Under Sex,” arrived in my mailbox a week before I was scheduled to sit down to an interview with the iconoclastic pornographer, First Amendment crusader and all around rabble rouser, I'll admit I didn't know what to expect.

The promotional materials promised the book would “explore the origins of America’s fascination with sex scandals and explain how we can put aside our political moralism and begin focusing on the real problems that threaten our nation.”

I'd read Flynt's 1994 autobiography, “An Unseemly Man,” and found it to be a sophomoric if amusing chronicle of the publisher's life, most memorable for its account of the author's childhood experimentation with chicken sex. Not exactly heady stuff.

So, what to make of a volume of U.S. political history penned by a man who once wore the American flag as a diaper and was famously tossed out of the U.S. Supreme Court for calling the Chief Justice an “asshole?”

The incongruity was not lost on Flynt. “I knew that nobody would read a history book by a pornographer,” he said during a promotional stop in Philadelphia, “so I reached out to someone they would [read].”

That someone is David Eisenbach, a professor of American history at Columbia University who’s written two books on media and politics – including one on the history of the gay rights movement and its impact on American polity (Gay Power: An American Revolution, Carroll and Graf, 2006). In 2009, Eisenbach produced a series of shows for the History Channel titled “Beltway Unbuckled” that explored the sex lives of several U.S. presidents. Eisenbach says it was around then that Flynt – who had seen the show – called him “out of the blue” with an invitation in Los Angeles.

“He said he had been thinking about writing a book on this subject and thought we should work together,” said Eisenbach. The 38 year-old New Yorker knew he was taking a calculated risk putting his name on the project; but Eisenbach says two things swayed him: the once in a lifetime opportunity to work with Flynt and the desire to see his work discussed beyond the gilded halls of academia.

The product of the collaboration is a breezy yet surprisingly dense 264-page narrative that takes the reader on a guided tour of the boudoirs and backseats of America’s leaders from the dawn of the republic to the Clinton years (and the unwashed blue dress that nearly took down a president.)

Flynt's penchant for thinly-sourced conjecture and checkbook journalism notwithstanding, “One Nation Under Sex” is unadulterated historical reportage -- painstakingly referenced with well over 1,000 citations (a testament to the work of Eisenbach and his two research assistants, who spent the better part of two years poring over primary source materials in presidential libraries from Hyde Park to Little Rock.)

“This book is the first-ever made to consolidate the history of this subject—presidents, first ladies, mistresses and lovers and to find out how it affected policy,” said Flynt, during an end of summer promotional tour in Philadelphia “Most history books are published by conservatives and they don't want to know about sex. They want to know about politics and policy. That's why so much history got shoveled around.”

While sex is the vehicle through which the narrative unfolds, the real stories here are the evolution of the American media’s relationship to its leaders and the cutthroat nature of partisan politics; the scandals described in “One Nation Under Sex” are only relevant insofar as they can be exploited to undermine a rival’s political career, steer public sentiment in a favorable direction, and, in many cases, change the course of history.

From the “Peggy Eaton Affair,” during the presidency of Andrew Jackson – which helped turn John C. Calhoun from an ambitious but relatively harmless vice president into a rabid secessionist and one of the first South Carolinians to lobby for a break from the Union – to the more recent Monica Lewinski scandal – which is blamed for distracting president Bill Clinton from his determination to take out up-and-coming terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, the authors take pains to reveal how sex scandals and policy outcomes are inextricably linked – with the end results typically not in the national interest. Read the entire review and part of my interview with Larry Flynt at AlterNet.