It’s unclear exactly who owned what officials called the “extensive” stash of X-rated material in Bin Laden’s cozy compound, though we know that, if he’s like most adult-content consumers, he spent many hours surfing for sex instead of firming up his plans to destroy American tankers and trains.
Sexual secrets and drive do turn the tide of our public life. Just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or porn impresario Larry Flynt, author of a new book, “One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History.”
This public-private collision turns up as sexual speed traps in the waylaid careers of Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards and fully half of the presidents in our history, according to Flynt’s book, which he co-wrote with Columbia history Professor David Eisenbach.
Lying, blackmail and hypocrisy about secret carnality just add spice to the stew of a particularly American phenomenon described in Flynt’s book. Bin Laden would have been horrified to know he fit so snugly into the habits of the Great Satan’s most potent leaders.
One common trait among the powerful and errant, Flynt told me the other day, “was a huge ego.” And it wasn’t just the men. Jackie Kennedy “was having affairs before the assassination and continued them afterwards,” Flynt says. “One of them being with Bobby Kennedy. I don’t know how you can get any tackier than that.”
Well, maybe. Flynt bought naked pictures of the first widow for $18,000 in 1971 and got a $20 million return on his investment. Parked in his gold wheelchair here at dinner one night, Flynt laughed. “I was young, hungry and foolish then.” But no less clever.
The book presents us as an often prudish culture where mistresses, illegitimate children and homosexuality in Washington not only dominate the landscape but hijack it at key moments in our history. Flynt refers to it as “a cesspool.”
From the Revolutionary War outcome to the lead-up to the War of 1812, from the secessionist fever (Flynt says President James Buchanan’s gay lover was pro-slavery) that brought us civil war to the U.S. absence from the League of Nations, from Cold War conduct to the stained blue dress. It’s a little scary to think about how much our public policy hangs by a thread of compulsive desires.
It might also provide some context to the Schwarzenegger scandal. Eisenbach says that “we’re now averaging one sex scandal every six months. Arnold hit it right on cue.”
Did Arnold’s secret somehow cause him to change his policies? Maybe raising taxes after promising not to or the weird pardon of Fabian Núñez’s son were signposts of scandal. Why did he soften his early tough stance against the Legislature’s “girly men”?
We may find out only when Flynt writes his next book.
For an avenging historian, he’s actually not judgmental. “I’m the first person to defend a philandering president” who’s doing a good job for the public, Flynt says. Presumably that would go for future female presidents as well. He’d just like people to know a lot more about sex themselves and care a lot less about how other people practice it.
In 2003, Flynt briefly ran for California governor as “the smut peddler who cares.” If he had been elected, at least we would have known what we were getting.
This article appeared on page A – 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle