(This story I found last week in the same sort of intertubes wormhole where dwells “Rope’s End.” It has something of a farcical history. In October of 1998, while working for the same shooting-star newspaper that published “Rope’s End,” I set out to try to explain why I thought the press and the public had become obsessed with the peregrinations of The Clenis, then absurdly dominating the national discourse. But the piece quickly grew so long that it would no longer fit in the newspaper. So I cut it off, announcing at the end that the story had become a series. That first installment is lost; this is the second one. There was to be a third—which explains why this piece ends so abruptly—but before it could be published, the paper died.
(After the paper expired, bits and pieces of this story popped up on the tubes now and again, when plucky souls attempted to use it as reference to alter Wikipedia biographies of such notables as Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Bob Barr. Always these attempts have been spurned by Wikipedia mandarins. Which is one of many reasons why I have no respect for Wikipedia: because everything in this story is true. I’m posting it here because I performed a lot of research in writing this thing, and some of the historical info may prove useful at some point, such as the next time some political figure is found to have awkwardly dropped his (or her) pants. Which, things being what they are, should come any minute now. And which, unless said pants-dropping has the effect of hurting people (see, for example, Schine, McCarthy, and Cohn), is really none of our business.)
The sexual shenanigans of Ronald and Nancy Reagan were never a secret. Both were most relentlessly promiscuous while in Hollywood, locus of the nation’s largest, longest, strongest, and most obsessively tended gossip grapevine. Many a starlet seeking studio entree via the well-traveled smile-and-spread circuit hopefully ungirdled her loins and passed under Reagan, while Nancy’s name was routinely circulated among executives in search of a fast and practiced backseat blowjob. Power to the mavens of the entertainment press meant possessing such tantalizing tidbits; once the Reagans began their improbable electoral ascent, the information easily passed through the flimsy scrim separating the Hollywood desk from those patrolling the political beat. Campaign operatives and reporters shamelessly swap gossip with nearly every breath, and thus the Reagans’ sexual adventuring eventually became such common knowledge that even I, who have always occupied only the very outer arm of the political-gossip spiral, knew of Nancy’s legendary mouthwork long before Robin Leach coyly alluded to it during Reagan’s first term, and had heard as well tales involving Reagan’s on-the campaign-trail seduction of an 18-year-old true-believer, a sort of atavistic return to his Hollywood days, which were replete with libidinous, bibulous blackouts, when he would not uncommonly awake not knowing the name of the woman—or sheep (kid-ding, kidding)—ly-ing beside him.
Though until Kitty Kelly I’d never heard the tale of how Reagan blithe-ly bounced the bedsprings with lover Christine Larson while wife Nancy, alone in the hospital, struggled to give birth to daughter Patti (a daughter Nancy would later so abuse—her favorite weapon a hairbrush—that Patti had herself sterilized before the age of 25, terrified that she might abuse her own children; Nancy’s serial abuse came during her 40-year addiction to prescription pills, something she—nor anyone else—never managed to mention while serving as pious diva of the ludicrous “Just Say No” to drugs campaign). Still, I was one of probably millions of Americans cognizant of the open joke of Nancy’s cuckolding of the increasingly befuddled Ronnie with Frank Sinatra in the residence quarters of the White House. And anyone in the nation who paid attention to the numbers—and could count even to nine—realized Nancy was four months pregnant when she pledged to Ron “I do.”
It is not only Reagan salaciousness that reached the remote outpost of these ears years before appearing in the public prints. A half-decade prior to the mad-admiral scuttling of his presidential aspirations aboard the Monkey Business, I learned that Gary Hart’s prolonged exposure to Warren Beatty had so inflated his libido he could no longer control the contents of his pants. Newt Gingrich confining his extramarital ejaculations to the mouths of young lovelies in the bizarre belief this did not constitute “adultery” reached me as rumor some months before attaining ink in a 1995 issue of Vanity Fair. Nor was it news to me when the New York Post broke the story of the long-running affair between George Bush and aide Jennifer Fitzgerald, or when the Washington Post belatedly went public with details of the romance between Bob Dole and his longtime inamorata.
Some sexual impressions inscribed on my brain have yet to publicly appear: the snickering Bay Area comparisons between long-passed, fireman-fondling SF legend Lillie Coit and then-San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, both possessed of an uncontrollable extramarital urge for men in uniform (Feinstein preferred police captains); and the spectacle of Congressmember Bob Barr, the thrice-wed author of the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” and sanctimonious seeker of “sex-mad” Clinton’s impeachment, lasciviously licking whipped cream off the breasts of a lap dancer at a DC bachelor party.
If Ronald Reagan, his wife, his vice-president, and prominent members of both his party and his private “kitchen cabinet” (see, for instance, Alfred Bloomingdale, who as a decrepit oldster paid to have prostitutes ride him around like a pony, slashing him with a whip) all enjoyed lives honeycombed with illicit sexual behavior, and if their extramarital detours were so ill-concealed even an obscure West Coast journalist could become privy to them, why then, one wonders, did news of these numerous dalliances and flings not dominate the national discourse for months of time and millions of dollars, as have the wanderings of The Clenis?
Several reasons, I think. First, exposes of the private lives of prominent politicians, their families and close associates, were as yet considered “not cricket.” Though Gerald Ford’s wife Betty was for decades notorious in Washington as a slurring, stumbling substance abuser, members of the press daintily refrained from comment until Betty herself fessed up and sought treatment. When Ford’s vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller, died inside a young secretary, the national media colluded in concealing the details of his passing. No one but rogue journalist Hunter Thompson made mention during the turmoil of Watergate that House Speaker Carl Albert, who in those days found himself more than once but “a heartbeat from the presidency,” was a glassy-eyed alcoholic who’d been blind drunk throughout much of his public career.
Lyndon Johnson’s sexual appetites, which ranged from gleefully cuckolding major campaign-contributors to grinningly twisting the nipples of women randomly encountered in elevators, seeped into ink only in a 1961 roman-a-clef by former Johnson Senate staffer William Frammer, The Gay Place, with only the incorruptible iconoclast Murray Kempton pointing out the connection between “Arthur Fenstemaker” and LBJ. John Kennedy, we now know, snorted cocaine off the fine glistening thighs of Marilyn Monroe, liked to take his wife’s personal secretary up against the wall, and, when “the little death” approached, as he bucked beneath some lass astride him in the bath, summoned a Secret Service agent to suddenly thrust the woman’s head underwater, thereby inducing vaginal contractions that increased the intensity of the presidential orgasm.
Somehow none of this made the nightly news at the time.
Three of the men most responsible for the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s—Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy Cohn—were all gay, then a serious, punishable offense in the United States. This information was common knowledge among Washington insiders, but was not considered among those subjects the public enjoyed “a right to know”—even though the closeted frolics of Hoover and Cohn, and the sympathetic machinations of McCarthy in aiding the latter, resulted in direct damage to the nation. Mafia dons obtained photographic evidence of Hoover’s relationship with longtime lover Clyde Tolson, and used it to blackmail Hoover and thereby deflect FBI attention from mob activities for more than 30 years; only under relentless pressure from Attorney General Robert Kennedy did Hoover at last admit the Mafia might even exist.
Cohn, throughout his life a voracious consumer of young men, attached his lover David Schine as an “unpaid consultant” to McCarthy’s Senate Investigating Committee; together the two toured Europe at taxpayers’ expense, scouring American libraries for “sub-versive” material, and ultimately consigning some 30,000 books to the ash-heap. Back in the US, Cohn sought to use his clout as McCarthy’s chief counsel to shield Schine from military service; when the Army balked, McCarthy and Cohn pronounced the service riddled with Communists, breaking and humiliating scores of guiltless men before they were finally shamed off the national stage by Army counsel Joseph Welch and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
Only when his superiors threatened to drum him out of the service did Dwight Eisenhower abandon his plans to divorce wife Mamie and marry the British jeep driver he’d cohabited with throughout World War II; over the years Harry Truman, among others, spread the news to dozens of reporters and intimates, but the story never entered print until Merle Miller’s 1968 Plain Speaking. Franklin Roosevelt engaged in a 30-year intimate relationship with Lucy Mercer, originally hired as wife Eleanor’s personal assistant; he was with Mercer when he died in 1945. In 1918, outraged at Roosevelt’s continuing refusal to end the affair, Eleanor vowed never again to allow him to enter her bed or her body, contenting herself through the remaining years of their marriage with various, primarily female, lovers. The press not only concealed the truth of the Roosevelt marriage, but conspired to keep from the public knowledge of Roosevelt’s paralysis from polio. Throughout his twelve-plus years as president Roosevelt was perceived by millions of Americans as a fully ambulatory man, though he’d been unable to walk or even stand unaided since the early 1920s.
In truth, the private lives of American politicians in this century have most often received extraordinarily deferential treatment from the press. Warren G. Harding, the Bill Clinton of his time (“it is a good thing I am not a woman,” Harding once confessed, “as I would always be pregnant, for I cannot say no”), could endure with smirking good humor the occasional allusive eruption from the odd outraged journalist—editor William White once denounced him as a “he-harlot”—for he knew that no scribe would dare go public with details of his extended sexual relationship with Carrie Phillips, both parties married to other people, or reveal that while president he frequently smuggled into the White House Nan Britton, who first conceived an attraction for Harding when she was 12 and who gave birth to his daughter Elizabeth Ann in 1919, the year before he entered the White House. Harding and Britton most often made love in a darkened coat closet off the Oval Office, then he would send her away, stocking-tops stuffed with money; Britton gathered in additional coin via an office job proffered by Harding’s friends at US Steel.
Nineteenth-century journalists, however, were not nearly so decorous. During the campaign of 1828 Andrew Jackson was regularly vilified as a murderer for his execution of a half-dozen mutineers during the War of 1812, and false accusations of bigamy leveled against wife Rachel were credited with so sapping her will to live she fled to her bed determined to die; Jackson buried her in Tennessee before riding to Washington to assume office. Confederate commentators claimed Abraham Lincoln’s youthful struggle with syphilis had permanently affected his mind. Union correspondents attached to the army of William Sherman denounced the general as an ill-tempered screw-loose who should be recalled from the field; on December 11, 1861 the Cincinnati Commercial led with the headline GENERAL SHERMAN INSANE (Sherman in turn periodically sought permission from his superiors to shoot reporters, a request always, but sometimes somewhat regretfully, denied).
Both Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant were often portrayed as paralyzed by drink even on those occasions when they were not. Upon receiving the 1884 Democratic nomination for president, Grover Cleveland was accused by an obscure Buffalo newspaper of siring an illegitimate child. Cleveland settled on a novel response: telling the truth. He admitted the “youthful indiscretion,” stated he financially supported the boy, and immediately became the vortex of a vicious campaign in which Republican operatives roamed the streets chanting “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” and paid young boys to attend Cleveland rallies, worm up close to the stage, and tug on Cleveland’s pantleg while plaintively whining, “Daddy! Daddy!”
Mark Twain commonly crucified politicians from the White House to the outhouse, inaugurating one memorable piece in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise with the observation “the air is full of lechery, and rumors of lechery.” Upon hiring on as an Enterprise reporter, Twain was told by his editor “never say we learn so and so, or it is rumored, or we understand so and so; but go to headquarters and get the absolute facts; then speak out and say it is so and so. In the one case you are likely to be shot, and in the other you are perfectly certain to be; but you will preserve the public confidence.” This was only partially exaggeration for effect, for, especially out west, 19th-Century newsmen and politicos occasionally capped their long-running feuds with firearms: the tumultuous career of the founder of the San Francisco Chronicle ended when he was gunned down at his desk by an inflamed statesman.
The nadir—or zenith, depending on your perspective—of 19th-Century slashing journalistic attacks on besieged officeholders appeared in the papers of William Randolph Hearst, and were directed at President William McKinley. Hearst factotum Arthur Brisbane described McKinley as “the most hated creature on the American continent”; an unsigned editorial in the New York Evening Journal excoriating the president opined that “if bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” When Kentucky governor-elect William Goebel was gunned down in a post-election quarrel, Ambrose Bierce in February 1900 penned for the Hearst press the following quatrain:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
In 1901 McKinley was in fact assassinated by freelance lunatic Leon Czolgosz; remorse over previous enjoyment of Hearst’s inflammatory rhetoric quickly transformed into widespread public disgust, a reaction credited with both curbing the worst excesses of the era’s slavering “yellow press” and eventually denying Hearst the political career he’d long sought.
By the time I entered the profession, in 1972, newshounds no longer urged the murder of their political opponents. The relationship between writers and officeholders had in fact grown so chummy that reporters not only routinely suppressed stories of politicos’ sexual indiscretions and drug and alcohol imbroglios, but actually acted as self-censors monitoring the mouthings of politicians to insure the elected ones would not inadvertently plunge into trouble.
One of my first encounters with a political official, then-State Senator George Zenovich, resulted in an interview studded with “goddams,” “sons of bitches,” “rat bastards,” “lying scumbags” and “never in hell would I vote for that piece of crap.” I, naively, returned to the office and wrote it all up; when the piece appeared, I received a panicked call from Zenovich’s press aide, who told me it was “common practice” and “standard procedure” for reporters to voluntarily elide officeholders’ salty language and pungent references to friend and foe. Chatting up my more experienced colleagues I learned this was indeed the case, and was further informed that if I were ever to blunder into a politician’s office to find him shooting up on the sofa or moving inside a secretary sprawled atop his desk, I would be expected to quietly exit the scene and say no more about it to anyone—except other reporters.
This soon changed. Richard Nixon’s Oval Office audiotapes revealed to the world that American politicians typically converse like high-school would-be tough guys, and the blizzard of lies encountered by a generation of Vietnam war correspondents, coupled with the spectacle of Nixon sanctimoniously bearing the shield of “law and order” while covertly creating his own private police force, using the entire mechanism of the federal government to wreak revenge on his political enemies, and illegally waging war and/or destabilizing sovereign nations on five continents, convinced many in the media that the clubby coupling of reporter and representative must end. In the nation’s press corp there was increasing movement towards the dictum of H.L. Mencken: “the only way a reporter should look at a politician is down.”