Sex has the ability to provoke arousal, confusion and even disgust. Sex With Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House by Eleanor Herman is a mostly playful account of politicians experiencing all three of these emotions while making history. The book covers the love affairs and heartbreaks of 10 presidents, two politicians who bollixed their presidential aspirations and numerous first ladies, girlfriends, secretaries and, um, “secretaries.”
Rather than being salacious, Sex With Presidents explores the nearly impossible ideal Americans have for public figures’ sexual behavior. We tend to view sex as undignified, a base urge that must be controlled. We want our male leaders virile and strong but not outwardly libidinous or philandering. And until thrice-married Donald Trump was elected, divorce—in particular, not being seen as a family man—was unthinkable for anyone seeking the job.
Sex With Presidents is well researched and aggregated from a long list of sources. The author delves into all manner of unorthodox living arrangements, secret children (and the financial arrangements to keep them hidden), extramarital hanky-panky and emotional affairs. Although humorous at times, the book does not water down some of the real miscreants who lived in the White House: There are several rapists in the bunch, and the sexual double standard is a historical constant.
However, the book deserves a closer critique of several passages. Some of the jokey language does not always land, particularly in the chapter about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Additionally, the chapter about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the ensalved woman who gave birth to many children by him, could have benefited from more interrogation.
Still, Sex With Presidents will be an entry point for some folks to learn more about history and the social mores of yore. The book is especially useful for illustrating how journalists have increasingly probed—some would say intruded—into politicians’ private lives. Whether our country is the better for it is up for debate.
After all, politicians are only human. And as Herman writes on the book’s first page, “The sex drive mocks logic and is resistant to common sense.” Even for presidents.