The Return of the Corn God
Westbrook Pegler, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, was part of the first wave of the syndicated columnists who have done so much to change the style and nature of our daily newspapers. His galvanic prose and extended-right-wing opinions provided Ezra Pound ("the nut poet," as Pegler affectionately called him) with his favorite reading matter when he was in jail in Washington waiting to be tried for treason in 1945. They also made him anathema to people of taste and refinement, and the name Pegler has been pretty thoroughly expunged from. the histories of mid-century Aerica.
He deserves being remembered, however, for a series of columns in the spring of the year 1945 which profoundly effected, or at least marked the beginning of, a profound change in the American psyche.
Some years before he had invented the phrase Gents Room Journalism for the tawdry parading of private behavior which makes up so much of what is now called Investigative Reporting. He strongly disapproved of this form of literature on principle, he thought it was sordid and dirty-minded, but he was not above using it himself when a higher principle was involved. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the man he hated above all others in the world, in April 1945, the principle presented itself when he became curious as to why the President of the United States was sitting for a portrait by that particular artist on that particular day while the greatest battle in history was thundering toward a close in Europe and the map of the world was changing with each passing hours.. After poking around the gents room a bit, he uncovered the main features of the long adulterous affair between Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd.
Adulteries are difficult to keep hidden at best, and when a chief of state is one of the parties involved, large quantities of people -- cronies, relatives, secretaries, servants, secret service men, society hostesses, cabinet members, in addition to marauding newspaper reporters -- must have at least an inkling of what is going on. Yet not a word had ever been spoken in public, much less printed, about Lucy Mercer.
It is difficult for any one who was not alive at the time to appreciate the shock that was created by what would today be regarded as a rather humdrum revelation, now that presidents have become celebrities like any one else and their every libidinous twitch has become a matter of public record. While recent books about the sexual activities of recent presidents have produced little more than a collective yawn, the Pegler columns in their distant 1945 day touched a raw national nerve..
The reason was not simply that Pegler was a much better writer than the current crop of syndicated columnists, but that he was first in the field, a field that had been carefully left unplowed for the one hundred and fifty-seven years following the inauguration of George Washington.
The reaction of disbelief and disgust to Pegler's discussion of Roosevelt as a physical, sexual human being went far beyond the indignation of partisans who felt that mud had been maliciously slung on the good name of a martyred leader by a reactionary rapscallion. It was obscurely felt everywhere, even people who had been spreading dirty stories about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt themselves, that an inviolable line had been impudently crossed. It was the first chink in an immemorial national idol. It was the first ax-stroke in the trunk of the cherry-tree of the Great White Father.
It was the end of a period of more than a century and a half during which, as far as the American people were concerned, their president had no penis. . Indeed, in Hollywood films, custodian of the national iconography, he did not have a face either, he was always photographed from back of his shoulders.
Of course, if people had stopped to think about it, this would have made no sense. The presidents of the United States were men like any others, subject to the same desires and temptations. They all but one were married and all but two had children. Some had been born in one-room log cabins, where there could be little reticence about the facts of life. Almost half of them had served in the military and shared in the rude life of army camps, where standards of sexual behavior are notoriously laxer than in civilian life. It is statistically improbable that all, or indeed any, of them came virgin to the marriage bed and remained rigorously faithful to their marriage vows all their lives thereafter..
And in fact there had always been plenty of stories going round. When the allegations about Mr. Clinton's rompings called all the anchormen back to Washington and pushed the Pope off the front pages, many of these old stories were dug up by journalists out of the historical footnotes in which they lay buried. British propagandists had spread the story that Thomas Jefferson was fathering children on the slave girl Sally Hemmings who had been bequeathed to him by his wife on her death-bed. Every one in Washington society knew that Dolley Madison had been living in the fast lane and that Andrew Jackson had fought a duel to defend the somewhat dubious good name of his wife. There was gossip that the kindly John Quincy Adams was involved with a ring of what today would be called call-girls when he was envoy in Saint Petersburg. A modern writer has hinted at sodomitic hanky-panky with page-boys in the back rooms of our only bachelor chief executive, James Buchanan. There was gossip, later confirmed by the president himself, that Grover Cleveland had committed a youthful indiscretion resulting in an illegitimate daughter. Both Cleveland and Wilson, in staid middle age, courted and married much younger women while they were in office. There were nasty rumors about what led up to what a best-selling book of the early 1920's called the Strange Death of Warren Harding.
All these stories were available in libraries, and there they had remained year in and year out, making not the slightest impression on America's conception of its presidency. You could take college courses in American history and read all the standard biographies without coming to a single reference to the sexual life of any one of the thirty-one chiefs of state between George Washington and the second Roosevelt. No one but a pedantic crank would have been interested in dredging up evidence that Franklin Pierce had tumbled a serving girl behind a screen in the White House or that Chester A. Arthur had paid visits incognito to a red-light district in New York. The bedroom doors of the Great White Father in his Ice Palace on the Potomac were sealed.
This, I believe, was an unprecedented phenomenon in human history. Certainly no such observation could be made about the chief of state of any great power in modern Europe or ancient Asia. The great nation-builders of all centuries including the twentieth seem almost all to have been endowed with inordinate sexual appetites and to have indulged them at will. Kings David and Solomon of Israel, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Peter the Great, Kemal Ataturk, Chairman Mao, Jawaharlal Nehru, Fidel Castro, could not keep their hands off any attractive woman who came near them. Catherine and Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia could not keep their hands off any attractive young man. Julius Caesar, according to his earliest biographers, lusted equally after women and men, and one of the marching songs of his soldiers asked whether he had been husband or wife to the King of Bithynia.
The evidence of history is that the romping around of all those Greats did not have any negative effect whatever on their performance as major actors on the world stage, or on their approval ratings in polls of public opinion. They all worked hard, calculatedly, and with often appalling efficiency at what they did whether for good or for ill, and they were all revered if not necessarily liked by their peoples. Louis XIV. whom the French call Louis the Great, being kept waiting at the door one day while his mistress the Marquise de Montespan finished her make-up, foamed over with impatience and threw himself upon one of her ladies-in-waiting, a bit of byplay which would probably move today's gossip columnists to paroxysms of indignation but which did nothing to interfere with Louis' routine as an exceptionally conscientious all-day-in-the-office executive or tarnish his reputation as the supreme exemplar of courtly decorum and polite manners.
The rampant sensuality of all these rulers formed part of their public appeal; like the magnificence of their court ritual or the battles they won it helped establish their kingliness..Louis XIV's grandfather Henri IV had advisors, today we would call them spin doctors, who worked skillfully to burnish his image as le vert galant, the ever-ready stud, even when he was growing old and decrepit and his catty mistress the Duchesse de Verneuil was referring to him as Captain Good Intentions. He was by far the most popular king France ever had, loved as much for his ability to toss of remarks like, "Until I was twenty, I thought it was a bone," as for his promise that there would be a chicken in the pot of every one of his subjects. Such sentiments were not confined to the flighty French. Henri's great-grandson Charles II of sober England inherited his temperament, he was known as the Merry Monarch, he made Dukes out of eleven of his bastards, and the twenty-five years of his reign -- which were also years of the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, and the Dutch admiral who tied a broom to the top of his mainmast to boast that he had swept the Royal Navy off the seas -- were remembered fondly in song and story as "Good King Charles's golden days."
It is perhaps coincidental but certainly worth noting that all three of the rulers of modern Europe who lost their lives to the revolutionary wrath of the their subjects -- Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France, Nicholas II of Russia -- were notoriously faithful to their wives, irreproachable family men. And so was poor mad George the Third who, until fairly recently, was regarded by all good Americans as an incarnation of Evil.
In the fascination surrounding monarchs like Charles the Great and Charles the Merry Monarch there is more involved than the simple natural curiosity which we all share about the private life of people more fortunate and more powerful than ourselves. The sexual life of monarchs, as long as monarchs had real power, could never be a private matter. The first duty of a hereditary ruler was to provide a legitimate heir, and every one knew that the consequences of not producing one could be calamity. There was the example of the wretched Edward the Confessor whose refusal, through sheer piety, to consummate his marriage led to the invasion and enslavement of England by foreigners when he died without issue. There was Charles II of Spain, whose inability to perform properly in bed, confirmed by a Countess sent to Madrid as a special envoy by Louis XIV, led to one of the longest and bloodiest of all European wars, the War of the Spanish Succession, and reduced the Spanish Empire on which the sun never set to a third-class power. To prevent such calamities, to ensure that the seed royal would be passed along in a proper healthy way, it was not only natural but necessary that every detail of royal courtships and matings should be known to church, state and people.
An anachronistic sovereign who wished to keep his or her private feelings and actions hidden would soon have learned that this was not a practical possibility. The very notion of privacy is a creation of modern times. In Renaissance Italy as in ancient Egypt, poor people lived packed together in small rooms. Rich people might afford bedrooms of their own, but they needed such legions of bodyservants and bodyguards and chambermaids and housemaids to maintain their life-styles that they never had a moment to themselves, kings least of all. The decisive argument that Shakespeare was not the Earl of Oxford or some such nobleman is that he is continually having his king of Denmark or his king of England go off to pray or plot by himself, whereas an aristocrat used to courtly ways would have taken it for granted that in real life a king never got away for a moment from his attendant lords, archbishops, Switzers, cupbearers, dressers, undressers, and whatnot.
Everybody in royal times knew everything about royal behavior and talked about it openly, with none of the self-righteous prurience which characterizes contemporary accounts of the priapic activities of presidents Kennedy and Clinton. Ben Jonson found nothing demeaning or disrespectful about discussing with his friend Drummond the gynecological problems of his sovereign Elizabeth I -- "she had a membrana on her, which made her incapable of man, tho for her delyte she tryed many" and which a French surgeon offered to cut for her, but she prudently refused-- without compromising the deep reverence he felt for the Virgin Queen, whom he called his "goddess excellently bright." When King Louis XV of France was married at the age of fifteen, a general was posted, as was customary, in his bedroom on his wedding night, and came out the next morning rubbing his hands with glee and exclaiming that none of his most robust grenadiers could have done better. This Louis was so popular with his subjects that he was entitled Le Bien Aimé, the People's Darling..
There is a pretty anthropological theory, incapable like all such theories of proof, that all rulers throughout history flow in an unbroken n line from prehistoric corn gods. These were lusty young men chosen by our neolithic ancestors, perhaps because they leaped highest over the bonfires on midsummer eve, to mate with any available female ready to stand in for the Mother Goddess of the clan or the tribe.. For a few months, by repeated demonstrations of his virility, the corn god was expected to ensure abundance of game, bumper crops, favorable astral configurations, victory in war and the general well-being of the people, until at the arrival of winter he would be ceremoniously slain, dismembered and eaten by his subjects. As clans and tribes grew or were bludgeoned into forming civilized societies and centralized states, they gradually, according to this theory, divested themselves of the crudely neolithic features of this pattern. They got rid of the bonfires and the yearly sacrifice, and let kings reign on till they died. They demoted and finally eliminated the Mother Goddess. The corn gods, however, survived, changing their features with the changing times. They put on crowns and diadems and became priest-kings and divine emperors. They became law-givers and tax-collectors and bureaucrats. Eventually they exchanged their crowns for top hats and their colorful robes for drab business suits, and they became prime ministers and presidents. Through it all, they have managed to retain something of the supernatural awe which surrounded them when they first leaped naked over the bonfires. They are still to some degree held accountable for the survival and prosperity of the tribe. Modern rulers are no longer blamed for drought and earthquake, but they rise and fall with the Gross National Product, the Dow Jones averages and other impersonal forces over which they have little if any control.
The corn god may inspire supernatural awe, but he has an unmistakable physicality as well. He has to be constantly present in the flesh, recognizably one of the folks. When the President of the United States throws out the first ball at the opening of the baseball season, he is dramatically demonstrating his bodily oneness with the people.
The ability to suppress more intimate expressions of that oneness in the USA was only made possible by a couple of historical accidents. In the first place, all our presidents were brought up in a provincial puritanical society, where everyone was sternly taught from childhood that if you were going to sin you had better do it quietly. And in the second, there was rarely reason in all those years for any one to pay close attention to either the public or private behavior of presidents Except in emergencies like the Civil War they were pretty much out of the public eye, they had dignity and commanded respect but they were distant. The demands on their time and energy were not excessive. If Franklin Pierce or Chester A. Arthur had something to say, he took his time about it and wrote a speech, or a message to Congress. He might go months or years without talking to a journalist, and nobody but his family and his household staff cared what he did in his spare time. America for a century and a half had a long succession of decent law-abiding God-fearing presidents who served their country for a term of relatively scandal-free years and then, if they were not assassinated by some deranged vagabond, withdrew to a blameless life of quiet retirement. Americans might well believe that their advancing civilization had laid the corn god of the Old World to rest. He had no place in the clean and well-regulated New World Order proclaimed on all our dollar bills.
It turned out that he was only sleeping.
It became harder to keep him underground when the sleepy provincial town of Washington became the capital of a world empire, running over with reporters and photographers whose livelihood depended on getting spicy bits of information that could now be pumped by print and telegraph, and later by radio and television and Internet into every home in the land. Simultaneously, the areas of life open to free public discussion began to expand considerably after the first world war and even more so after the second. Familiarity has replaced contempt. Yesterday's taboos are today's clichés. Pornographers write best-sellers. Loves that dared not speak their name now cry it out in the streets. The breasts which the Hays Office spent years shielding from innocent eyes in movie theaters now pop out of billboards.
America did its best to keep its Great White Father out of this newly opened playground. For a while the barriers of ancient custom held.. The English might tolerate a magazine like Punch referring to John Brown, the Scotch gillie who lifted good Queen Victoria on to her horse's back for her morning ride as the "royal stud." The French might get a perpetual lift ouf of their story of their President Félix Faire's demise during some passionate exercise in his office ("When was consciousness lost?" asked the medical examiner. "Not lost at all," said the faithful butler, "we've got her locked up in a pantry downstairs.")
Not in America. Pegler's revelation in 1945 about Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer did not unleash the torrent of lurid exposés that might have been expected in decadent Europe. Neither did the memoirs a couple of years later of the lady whom General Eisenhower had befriended when he was commander-in-chief in England. As late as the 1960's, when a scholar in Cambridge Mass. named Diana Michaelis produced a manuscript entitled Presidential Mistresses from Jefferson to Kennedy, which I am assured by those who have seen it was both well researched and well written, she could not find a publisher who would touch it.
At the time she wrote every one in Cambridge, at least in academic circles in Cambridge, was talking pell-mell about the pell-mell amours of Jack Kennedy. Correspondents and commentators who were in Washington during the years of his administration have insisted since then that they were totally unaware of these activities. This sounds rather like the people who lived in occupied countries in Europe during World War II and tell you they had no idea of what was going on in the Nazi concentration camps. Of course in neither case could they have known all the details, but I suspect that the correspondents and commentators were simply following the traditional rules of propriety which held in their profession as in the public at large, and one of these rules was that sex and the president of the United States were fundamentally incompatible concepts.
As with any other turning point in history, there will always be controversy as to the precise date at which it became clear that the corn god had sprouted again in the United States. Various scholars have opted for the day when the lady who had shared her favors with president Kennedy and the gangster boss Giancana went public, others for the night when ex-Vice President Rockefeller died in the arms of a woman who was not his wife, others for the press conference at which Gary Hart, aspiring for the presidency, challenged the press to check up on his nocturnal prowlings. My own choice would be Election Day in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was chosen president by a large majority of the voters, a not inconsiderable number of whom had, a half-life before, in 1952, voted against Adlai Stevenson because he was a divorced man. Reagan was not only divorced, he had spent most of his formative years in southern California, the Babylon of the modern world. He was indeed a leading figure among what Pegler liked to refer to as "the Hollywood trash." Nobody in 1980 cared. What would once have been an ineradicable stigma had become a fact of life like any other.
There are still stern moralists who speak up against divorce, just as there are people who speak up against birth control, but where a couple of generations or so they would have roared, they now keep their voices remarkably low. I saw one of them on television not long ago, an ex-presidential aspirant himself, writing on a blackboard a list of America's ruling sins, and the first of these was divorce. Why, I wondered, did this man not stand thundering righteousness at the doors of the White House during the years from 1981 to 1989? Presumably he was afraid of making a fool of himself, but he might have remembered that John Knox showed no such fear when he upbraided Mary Stuart to her face for bringing to Scotland the corruptions she had learned in Paris, the Beverly Hills of the 16th century.
Americans, despite their reputation for impulsivity and bold experimentation, do not generally approve of abrupt changes in their institutions. Ronald Reagan among his other virtues made an ideal transition figure. He was aging and benign, sincere and principled, he looked every inch the great white father. It made it that much easier for him to preside over a decade which saw the corn come to the full leaf in the world of communication. Book after book, tabloid after talk show, could now reveal or invent intimate sordid details of presidential lives and loves which at any previous time in the history of the republic would have been considered nobody's business, and earned public contumely and perhaps a prison sentence for those who spread them abroad.
These details, it is often claimed, are only dragged out of the darkness because they help explain the man's character and therefore somehow explain his public actions. This is a pious but transparent hoax. The details are there because every one gets a wicked thrill out of hearing about them, and the standards of propriety have changed to the extent that they no longer need to be conveyed in whispers. The public is delighted with the details, but in the long run is not duped by them. The biographia sexualis of John F. Kennedy may be a long series of apparently reckless and irresponsible acts of which most biographers and readers strongly disapprove, but the human mind is so constituted that this disapproval can comfortably coexist with a firm belief that Kennedy was a great man and a great president, an inspiration to future generations. During his lifetime, as a matter of historic fact, Kennedy was widely criticized for being overcautious, his enemies said cowardly, in such matters as defending civil rights and standing up to Nikita Khrushchev. No one has ever demonstrated the relevance of any particular sexual act of this particular president to anything he either did or said about either civil rights or Khrushchev, but then particular sexual acts, if we except those of Adam and Eve, Antony and Cleopatra, Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, have rarely if ever had any perceptible effect on the fate of nations, unless you believe that the English would never have conquered Ireland if it had not been for the adulterous lusts of a twelfth-century King of Leinster, or that Napoleon spilled all those oceans of blood in an effort to forget the inordinately small size of his penis (sicut pueri, as his autopsy report put it,.like a little boy's).
In the end the American people, excluding perhaps the eighteen percent of males who are willing to tell poll-takers that they were virgin on their marriage day, appears to have openly accepted what was always a part of folk wisdom in private, that most husbands will commit adultery if they get the chance and all but a handful of these will lie about it, even to a grand jury, if they think they can get away with it. They will no longer be booted out of respectable society and public life the day their ignominy is made public. Monica Lewinsky's dress stained with presidential semen in Mr. Lincoln's Oval Office might have changed the course of the Civil War. In the 1990's it could not even change the course of a midterm election.
This does not mean that all standards have gone by the board, that we have reached the state of moral anarchy gleefully predicted by ancestral Borks and proto-Falwells since the time of Noah.. There has never been such a thing as complete moral anarchy in any form of society known to history. There is always a thin and wiry, if invisible, line which it is fatal to cross. Even in the most primitive neolithic tribes there were some things a corn god simply did not do. Even in the most dissolute and decadent of courts there were things a Caligula or a Renaissance Pope could not get away with Even in today's America there are some forms of behavior still deviant enough to take a man out of the running for high office. A president who jumped into a public fountain with a strip-tease dancer would surely not last long. An avowed homosexual has about as much chance of being elected president in the year 2004 as an avowed atheist, or as an avowed Roman Catholic would have had in the year 1804 or 1928.
And women still have custom, if not law, skewed against them. A female president coming along in the near future will undoubtedly be held to more puritanical standards of conduct than a male; just as Margaret Thatcher could hardly have rule England with such an iron hand if she had shown signs of the growling taxi-tigering lusts that the English found quite tolerable in at least three male prime ministers in this century, including the great Lloyd George.
There will undoubtedly be self-righteous reactions against the current fad for the exploitation of any and all forms of sexual gossip, there will be puritanical revivals in which we may choose from time to time a Great-White-Father sort of president, a simonpure exponent of family values who is ostentatiously faithful to the one little woman in his life. But in this world of tape recorders and flash bulbs such presidents are going to be increasingly hard to find. My classmate Teddy White told me once that after years of traveling up front with candidates for the Presidency, and watching them under constant assault from millionairesses and milk-maids, cheer-leaders and anchor persons, he could think of only two who had preserved their virtue intact. (And you may be sure that neither one of them has left a permanent mark on the Collective Unconscious of America.) I think most impartial observers would agree that, as long as presidents and would-be presidents are required to go out and press the public flesh day after day for months and years at a time, the corn god is here to stay.
One day a few years ago I tuned on television in the late afternoon and there was ex-president Reagan, still apparently in excellent health, addressing a luncheon gathering of friendly conservative-looking folks. He was telling what in his Hollywood days would have been called an off-color joke, overlong but reasonably funny, about a woman in a clothing store who was picking out a dazzlingly white wedding gown. When asked if this might not be an inappropriate choice for some one who has had a previous husband, she replied, "Not at all. That husband was a Democrat and the way he passed every night of our married years was, he would sit on the edge of the bed and tell me how great it was going to be."
It is possible to imagine some jovial 19th-century general-turned-Republican-president like Rutherford B. Hayes or James A. Garfield telling a story like this to his old war buddies late at night over brandy and cigars. But here it was on C-Span appearing on millions of screens at an hour when children were coming home from school. The people at the luncheon, sober god-fearing citizens all, saw nothing untoward in the story, they roared with unabashed laughter.
And why shouldn't they? The corn god is a shape-changer, who has always known how to mutate with the spirit of the times. He began his career with a theatrical gesture, leaping naked over flames. It has always been part of his destiny to be an actor, an entertainer. Like Zeus (a Cretan corn-god by birth, some say) who kept the ancient Greeks enthralled with his career as a serial rapist, he has always been expected, in the current journalistic phrase, to provide good copy.
Long may he reign.
© 2002 Robert Wernick