Sex and Politics

It's been going on since the Ice Age of the Republic, when Thomas Jefferson laid siege to what was gallantly assumed to be Dolly Madison's virtue.

IT IS THE 1956 DEMOCRATIC National Convention, redolent of the randy and bucolic effluvia of stockyards and streetwalkers, senile dementia and barber-shop talcum, sippin' whiskey and soda pop. Through all the ragings and wheezings and old-politician marketeering, there is this one fantastic blocky figure who seems to hunker over all.

Scarcely higher than your neighborhood Girl Scout cookie-pusher, Mr. Sam Rayburn nonetheless projects a sense of majestic presence and imperturbability, as if whittled from WPA marble. Rayburn does not appear remotely interested in anything.

Jack Kennedy and Estes Kefauver materialize, with separate little entourage armies and… something more. Both men, it's now apparent, are somehow virtually aswarm with women; a sort of heavenly horny host of nubile admirers, whooping, screeching, clutching, stroking, whispering, whistling, always reaching desperately out—Jesus knows what for?

And Mr. Rayburn, for the first time in hours, seems provoked, curious, amazed. He stares in stonefaced fascination, first at Estes, then at Jack, and then finally at the half-hysterical mobs of barracuda honeys: lovely, leggy, sweetest-smelling li'l ole thangs who never seem to stop smacking their rosy lips or exhibiting their fabulously coiffed and fixtured vital parts and extensions. At long, long last, Mr. Rayburn appears to relax; he even seems to speak, as friends bend close to hear:

"Goddam," he mumbles, "Ever'body screws!"

Yes, dear friends and fellow citizens of our gloriously-repressed commonwealth, it is my sniggering duty to report that our elected leaders are hopelessly in the thrall of Eros, Bacchus, Lucifer, the Playboy Philosophy and God knows how many other libertine obsessions. There is fornication in high places; tumescence in our Temples and our throne rooms; carnival and license at our victory galas and fund-raising bashes. The tableau unfolds—right here in Austin and right up there in Washington; our men who stand for office, even our incumbent princes, are in those places and they been messin' around!

The semi-private lives of our desperately public figures constitute a sort of pageant of promiscuity, from the seedtime of the Republic to the present, start to apocalyptic finish, huffing and puffing toward some imagined nirvana in hanky-panky land. And what, indeed, a curious piece of work is man: imagine some social anthropologist from outer space attempting to understand all this lunatic activity, the ritual complexity, the Byzantine intrigue and high camp absurdity and all the compulsive, ticket-punching, foot-stomping, teeth-grinding, eye-bulging whoops and whispers and demonic energies expended and elaborated from the simplest of procreative impulses.

The nature of our political life creates a competitive class stoked on high energies, blessed with imagination and mobility and economic and social power easily confused with sexuality and personal magnetism—and there you have the most outrageous duplicity of all. Fortified with this heavy-duty blood-sport capability, our leaders are expected to comport themselves like half-starved holy men or bloated eunuchs. The fact is, ethologists have been reminding us repeatedly of our animal natures, but—far worse—we must also remind ourselves just as often that it takes a pretty disembodied culture to need any such reminding in the first place.

Now who has been witness to these couplings and goings of our public men and women? The players of the games, for starters: Politicians will bend your ears interminably with locker room revelation and college dorm claims involving fellow big-timers. And assistants, secretaries, security guards, Secret Service and FBI agents, hangers-on, ex-paramours—even a legion of newsmen, variously puzzled and provoked, shocked and beguiled, few of whom passed word even to their publishers: Heaven protect the public at large from such anarchic information. The public itself, for that matter, often seemed to prefer the comforting notion of near-celibacy for elected officials. Birds, bees, and educated fleas might by-god do it—and that seemed quite enough of that.

As in Cleopatra's time, the wicked messengers themselves frequently stand in peril. Or, as Mencken observed, the public is so accustomed to buncombe and poltroonery that mere facts are incomprehensible and hence abhorrent.

I wrote a book once, noting in its title that the place in which the story was set was "gay"—to which a Dallas jurist inquired if I made a specialty of writing about "quares." The New York Times critic, excessive in praise, was nonetheless shocked that the politicians depicted by me were now and again overtaken by vaguely defined fornicative needs: "His young politicians behave like tomcats!" Which was palpable nonsense; tomcats are lots more fun to watch.

If you want to hit a bird on the wing, you must have all your will in a focus. You must not be thinking about yourself, and, equally, you must not be thinking about your neighbor. You must be living in your eye on that bird. And every achievement is a bird on the wing.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

the way to hump a cow is not to get yourself a stool but draw a line around the spot and call it beautifool.

e.e. cummings

Now it might be stretching it some to suggest that our politicians qualify as sexual zen archers, ranking right up there alongside warriors, rascals, robber-barons and other high-roller energy systems. No question, though, as to those energies, and sublimation is the strangest bedfellow of them all. A former state legislator, now a U.S. Congressman, paused long enough recently to reflect upon a few of the general characteristics, charisma-wise:

"Hell, most of these guys have been immersed in power and popularity for years—running for student body president, trying to take over the United Fund in their hometowns, anylittle old damn thing to get out front and attract attention. And that sort of thing invariably attracts a lot of women."

What sort of women? Bored ones, generally: pretty young housewives with husbands already flogged into indifference and conformity by pressures of career and grad school resignation. Also a lot of equally bored but desperately romantic and/or ambitious UT coeds, frustrated careerists, lady-libbers, and gone-gone go-go girlies looking for a home.

A political campaign, a legislative session, even the most prosaic of smoke-filled, lobbyist-sponsored

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