Author David Eisenbach on working with Larry Flynt and gay Presidential sex scandals
In their book, One Nation Under Sex, Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach are looking for high profile sex scandals that the history books might have missed. That might sound like a book filled with hearsay and smut, but the purpose isn't so much to bring down our nation's leaders, but to humanize them and see what impact their sex lives had on their decision making. What results is a surprisingly entwined version of history where a single affair can ignite an entire war. Both authors will be at the Tattered Cover LoDo tonight to lecture and answer questions. We caught up with David Eisenbach to ask a few of our own.
Westword: Can you start with talking about how you came to this project?
David Eisenbach: I had done a show for the History Channel about the sex lives of presidents called "The Beltway Unbuckled," and Mr. Flynt is a big History Channel fan -- so he sees the show and he gives me a call out of the blue and says, "I have a business proposition for you, when can you come to Los Angeles?"
So, you know, Larry Flynt calls -- he didn't elaborate on it -- I flew to L.A. on the next flight and he asked me if we wanted to write a book with him. It was one of those crazy things that life throws at you and you just have to say yes.
WW: In the introduction of the book, you talk about how you wanted to be careful with information you were releasing -- was it difficult to keep rumors out and were there a lot of them?
DE: Yeah, there is always the juicy story that kind of turns out to be from an unreliable source. There was a lot of stuff on George W. Bush that we decided not to go with. What we were very concerned about was making sure the book was as solid as can be so that people wouldn't look at it and dismiss it.
WW: I'm guessing you're not going to give me those George W. Bush details -- but what kind of flags made you decide not to run with a source?
DE: As you get closer to today's politics, the level of care has to be greater -- I mean legally too -- we had lawyers go through the book and take things out. It would put us on difficult ground if someone called us out and we felt like it would distract from the book. We wanted to write a serious history, not a political book.
WW: What was the most surprising or outrageous thing you came across?
DE: It was really delving into President James Buchanan and his personal life and romantic relationships with Senator William Rufus King. So, they have this 32 year long love affair and what shocked me was how well-known and accepted it was in Washington society. We found all these diary entries and letters from people in Washington talking about the two. Andrew Jackson called them "Odd fancy and King Miss Nancy." So it was like an open secret in Washington.
That was interesting in itself, but the kicker to the whole story was that President James Buchanan comes from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which was a heavily Abolitionist part of the country, and he gets under William Rufus King's wing. King indoctrinates him with affection toward the slave owners and Buchanan takes this notion that slaves are better off with their masters into his presidency, and throughout his political career he was openly sympathizing with slave owners. He ended up encouraging slave owners in the 1850s and 1860s, and when he leaves office he leaves President Lincoln with what is essentially half a country.
So we have this case where the sex life of a president ended up having a huge impact on history.
WW: That seems to be the running theme in the book -- that you're trying to connect the sex lives with their political decisions.
DE: That's it -- that's the key. There have been other books that have just had a laundry list of scandals, but our goal is to show that the personal is political and had a huge impact on the course of history. WW: Then there must have been some wars started from these affairs, right?
DE: Of course -- you have a scandal with Dolly Madison and President Jefferson. Jefferson was reported in the Federalist Press to be carrying on an affair with his Secretary of State's wife, Dolly Madison.
At the time, Jefferson was involved with negotiations with the British to address a number of grievances about the American Revolution. The first was the impression of sailors -- the British were just taking American sailors and Shanghaiing them onto British naval ships. The second was that the British still had troops stationed in the Mississippi Valley area and these intense negotiations were going nowhere.
So, Jefferson decides, at a state dinner honoring the British Ambassador Anthony Merry, to break protocol and instead of escorting Anthony Merry's wife into the dining room, he takes Dolly Madison's arm. As soon as he did this, someone at the party yelled, "This will mean war!" And they were right because the Federalist Press sees this as further proof the President was sleeping with the Secretary of State's wife. The Ambassador reports back to England that they should not give in to any of the negotiations with the Americans because the American Republic was never going to survive because of all these accusations. The British didn't give in on the big issues that ended up being the cause of the War of 1812.
WW: That's completely insane -- anything like that in the modern day?
DE: Well, the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- which, according to the 9-11 Commission, wound up inhibiting the administration from pursuing Osama bin Laden because there was concern that any more strikes against al Qaeda would be read as "wagging the dog."
WW: Was there a worry that, with Larry Flynt's, history the book might not be taken seriously?
DE: Yeah -- right now there is this sense of the divides in American being broken down. So we saw this as a chance to bring together Larry Flynt, who is a big part of the sexual and political history of America, with a historian, so the two of us could bring a new eye to the story of America.
WW: What would you say the goals for the book are?
DE: One of the goals is to show that these people that we think are made out of marble and granite are actually flesh and blood human beings. You look at Abraham Lincoln's complicated romantic life and his intimate friendship with Joshua Speed -- the fact that he was known not only to share a bed with Speed for four years -- but he invited an army captain into his bed too. Even these great heroes of American history have these complicated sex lives.
Eleanor Roosevelt began to have lesbian relationships after she caught Franklin having an affair with her social secretary. It's these relationships with these lesbians that teaches her about civil rights and awakens her to the feminist movement. She was against female suffrage before she met these ladies. They're the ones who bring her out of her shell and turn her into the great humanitarian and civil rights leader as we know her today. One of her girlfriends, Lorena Hickok, actually moved into the White House and was the one who encouraged her to break the mold of what it meant to be a first lady and to become a political force in her own right.
So these great heroes had these romantic relationships with people of the same sex, and maybe that will wake people up to being a bit more tolerant and accepting of normal Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian.
WW: But what about in the case of Lewinsky, where Clinton's affair came out into the open and caused serious problems in the long run?
DE: I think it's impossible now -- we went through this period in the early Republic where the sex lives of the Presidents were fair game in the press. In the 20th century, the press sees itself as a filter to protect the President from these scandals. So they know about them, but they don't print them. That all changed at the end of the Cold War and the Internet. Nothing can be held back and it all gets out, so there's no going back, but what we can do -- by learning through history -- we can be a little more mature if a sex story does come out. A more European approach.
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