Review: American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents by Nigel Hamilton
(Bodley Head, £14.99)
Caligula, the vilest of the Caesars, snarled at someone who criticised his actions. "Bear in mind," he said, "that I can treat anyone exactly as I please." Almost two thousand years later, in an unguarded aside, George W Bush confided to journalist Bob Woodward: "That's the interesting thing about being president -- I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
When it comes to the nature of human beings and the practice of politics, not much has changed in two millennia. In a famous essay discussing Suetonius's book about the private lives and public careers of the 12 Caesars, Gore Vidal argued that these despots "differed from us -- and their contemporaries -- only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies".
"What will men so placed do?" he continues. "The answer, apparently, is anything and everything . . . from the sexual opportunism of Julius Caesar to the sadism of Nero to the doddering pederasty of Galba."
Pederasty doesn't feature among the sexual practices of the American Caesars whose lives are chronicled in Nigel Hamilton's enthralling study of the last 12 US presidents, but for some the office of supreme commander provided them with unfettered opportunity to pursue their sexual urges.
The earliest of these 12 presidents satisfied his longings with a degree of discretion. Unfulfilled by the humourless and unalluring Eleanor ("Plain was a euphemism," Hamilton ungallantly remarks), Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought solace in the arms of his wife's former secretary, Lucy Mercer, with whom he had a clandestine relationship that lasted for decades. Dwight D Eisenhower, for his part, was besotted by the married Kay Summersby, though it remains unclear whether they ever sexually consummated their long-term devotion to each other.
No such doubts surround John F Kennedy, who in his young years had already dubbed himself "Don John Kennedy" and who resolved to achieve Don Giovanni's professed record of 2,085 sexual conquests. Unattracted by spouse Jacqueline Bouvier, he nonetheless was quite happy when she was reduced to pimping for him (she would tell visitors that these women were "my husband's tarts"). Marilyn Monroe was perhaps his most celebrated conquest.
Reminiscent of the Roman Empire, the White House swimming pool was "the scene of orgy after orgy", Hamilton remarks, while Kennedy had no compunction about asking a friend to a White House lunch and then taking the girlfriend who had accompanied him into the adjoining room for "dessert". Why didn't you object, the friend was asked. "I just didn't," he shrugged. "That's how he was."
In terms of sexual addiction, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was as bad or maybe worse. Treating his wife Lady Bird like a servant, he displayed his scorn for polite convention by urinating in front of visitors and defecating with the toilet door open in the presence of female secretarial staff. Opening his fly in front of an astonished outsider, he announced "I've got to take ol' Jumbo here and give him some exercise". Boasting that he "had more women by accident than Kennedy had on purpose", he indulged in "constant fornication" with a parade of women, whether on the office desk, in the closet or in his car. Sex for him, Hamilton says, "was one of the spoils of victory".
Then there was Bill Clinton, whose "inability to say no to high-risk sexual misconduct" was only matched by an "inability to acknowledge his guilt" -- a requirement not applicable to Kennedy and Johnson, whose voracious sexual appetites had been freely indulged in an era when loyal staff and an acquiescent media culture ensured safety from public scrutiny.
All of the above, viewed moralistically, were the bad boys, though ironically they were among the most effective and charismatic presidents. By contrast, the personally decent and honourable Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who were loving husbands and fathers, were failures in the White House, while Harry Truman and George Bush senior, who were also decent people, had presidencies in which genuine achievement was tainted by bad decisions.
Nigel Hamilton is an English academic living in America who has already written admired biographies of Kennedy and Clinton (and in this book he deals with Clinton's 'suicidal' involvement with Monica Lewinsky).
In this absorbing new book, using Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars as his model, he sets out to sum up the lives of his own 12 emperors. Giving them each about 40 pages, he divides every profile into three sections -- The Road to the White House, The Presidency, Private Life -- and by this means he aims to provide enough information and sufficient insights for a judgment to be made on each man's personality and political achievements and failings and on how the latter was dependent on the former. In this he succeeds brilliantly, while in the process offering bracingly clear, if necessarily digested, accounts of the main global events that occurred from the onset of World War Two to our own time.
If the book has a failing it's not one of Hamilton's making but rather that of history. His first subject, Roosevelt, is the one he most admires, and it's downhill all the way from there. Indeed, he says in his preface that his book "begins with the greatest of American emperors, the Caesar Augustus of his time . . . and ends with arguably the worst of all the American Caesars, George W Bush, and his deputy Dick Cheney, who wilfully and recklessly destroyed so much of the moral basis of American leadership in the modern world". That "arguably" is obviously intended to allow for Richard Nixon as contender for worst president.
It's certainly downhill after the death of JFK, only one of four presidents who, in Hamilton's view, showed "undoubted greatness" -- the other two being Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, to both of whom he gives more credit, and persuasively, than some other historians would allow.
In fact, his judgments in general are both fair and shrewd. With Eisenhower, he approvingly notes his "genial nature", his "long-suffering stoicism", his "constantly controlled temper" and his "embodiment of the noble American". Although Kennedy was "cruelly indifferent to women", he was addicted both to "sexual distraction and to political engagement", while the paranoid "brooding, plotting and spinning" of Nixon had their origins, Hamilton feels, in a childhood devoid of parental affection, marked by his mother's hard moral rectitude and his father"s "notorious Irish temper".
Carter's main flaw was an inability "ever to admit error", perhaps traceable to the Baptist certainties of his upbringing, while Reagan's insecure childhood led to "an unrelenting determination to earn the music of acclamation", though a "stunning" faith in himself meant he could also be the steeliest of presidents.
As for George Bush senior, his aggrieved and "haunting sense of unfair failure" ultimately led to his son attempting to make belated "amends" -- with consequences that have made the lives of everyone throughout the world more perilous.
At the end of the book, he mentions Barack Obama, wondering if his succession to the American imperial throne symbolised a new start, "one in which humanity and goodwill would mix with articulate idealism not seen for almost half a century, when President John F Kennedy electrified the world".
Well, let's be charitable and say it's still too early to tell.