Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics

Remember the good old days, when civility reigned in American political life? When Andrew Jackson’s wife was described in print as a ”convicted adulteress” and his mother as a ”common prostitute”? When papers accused President John Quincy Adams of trying to pimp his children’s nurse to the czar of Russia while he was secretary of state? When Lincoln was said to be a drunk and an idiot, and a congressional committee investigated his wife for treason?

The good old days, when presidents were as pure as the driven snow: President Harding and his mistress, Nan Britton, made love in a closet off the Oval Office. Not only did John F. Kennedy have girlfriends delivered through the back door, he had two White House secretaries nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle who apparently took more than dictation.

By relating these and dozens of other stories in Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics, her history of dirt dishing, The New York Times‘ Gail Collins has performed a major public service. We can now politely ask all the liberal commentators who’ve bemoaned the fate of the republic because of the unprecedented gossip assault on Bill and Hillary and all the conservative commentators who’ve bemoaned the fate of the republic because of the unprecedented debauchery of Bill to shut the hell up. There’s nothing unprecedented about it.

Besides demonstrating that gossip is transient and gossiping is eternal, Collins shows that political gossip has some useful functions: the conservative one of reinforcing traditional standards and rules, the subversive one of allowing the ruled to get back at their rulers, and the democratic one of giving the public information about the character and private entanglements of political candidates.

Some of the stories Collins vacuums up from historical oblivion probably should have stayed there. She writes with panache, but no amount of razzle-dazzle can retrieve the original titillation generated by the amorous 19th-century escapades of the little-known Congressman Sickles and Senators Conkling, Sharon, and Jones. But her more eminent subjects don’t let her down, and the book is full of surprises. I didn’t know that Adlai Stevenson had been dogged by homosexual rumors, probably started by J. Edgar Hoover, and that meanwhile he was a major-league seducer of prominent women. Or that his 1956 running mate, Estes Kefauver, the Mob-busting Tennessee senator who looked like a Methodist deacon, was a serious drunk and lecher.

Collins lines up her stories in chronological procession and divides them into three periods reflecting changing attitudes toward politics, politicians, and privacy. The first, encompassing most of the 19th century, was an age of reckless abandon in which politics was an all-American blood sport and small, partisan, defiantly inaccurate newspapers published rumor and innuendo that today might give rabid radio hosts and Internet rumormongers pause. It was followed by an age of discretion, most of the 20th century up to Watergate, in which newspapers sobered up and Americans, distracted by new forms of entertainment, seemed content to regard politicians as respectable and boring. After Vietnam and Watergate, we entered into our present age of ”Endless Exposure,” as Collins puts it, when journalists stopped protecting public officials and morphed into TV celebrities, with celebrity-caliber gossip following.

This last period, full of familiar stories like Gary Hart and Donna Rice, could use more analysis — how, for instance, the increasing demand for scandal, in the form of 24-hour news channels, talk radio, and tabloid print and TV, has distorted and possibly created the supply. But this is history lite, untainted by censoriousness or cynicism, and given its intentions, its only flaw was that it was written in that distant, bygone era that ended about the middle of last January. In the last chapter, mainly about Clinton, Monica is nowhere to be found, just when we need her the most. Surely she’ll turn up for the paperback edition. B+

Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics
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