In Jezebel’s newest series, Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Eleanor Herman, author of Sex with Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House, a work that delves into the salacious sex scandals and love affairs of U.S. presidents past and present.
Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton wasn’t the first American president embroiled in a love affair during his time in the Oval Office. There’s FDR and his wife’s secretary, Lucy Mercer; Dwight D. Eisenhower and wartime chauffeur Kay Summersby; JFK and so, so many women. “I am interested in why people do the things they do,” says Eleanor Herman, author of Sex with Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House. “One way of looking at that is through their sexual relationships, and there’s a very interesting intersection of sex with power.”
According to Herman, political figures and their sex lives were frequent topics of discussion in the press throughout most of the 19th century. But things shifted in the early 1900s, with the establishment of the National Press Club. “The yellow journalism coverage of political sex scandals had evaporated and the press had become a profession, almost like doctors or lawyers. There was a journalism code of honor,” Herman explains. “It was agreed that gentlemen do not write about other gentlemen’s sex lives, so the love affairs of Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Warren Harding right after that, FDR, Eisenhower or the Kennedys—none of that was ever reported.”
However, as we all know, that didn’t last for long: “There were three things that really contributed to the press starting again to cover a politician’s sex lives. The first was the war in Vietnam, and Lyndon Johnson just routinely lied to the press about what was going on over there. And so that started to reduce the press and the public’s view of the presidency of their respect and offer him. The second thing was Chappaquiddick. They had covered up the Kennedys’ bad behavior for years … And then the third and most important thing was Watergate.” And the rest is history.
When asked what she wants her readers to take away from Sex with Presidents, Herman said the human condition. “What do we do? Why do we do it? And why do we think it’s a good idea? I’d like people to understand the different motivations for what people do, different motivations for adultery. It could be a very gripping love affair, a very intense romantic passion. Or it could be JFK just using women, several a day.”
“There’s this whole gamut of human behavior, and I’d like people to examine that as well.”