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Presidential sex and TMI

June 16, 2008 |  5:33 pm


Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor in 1904, the summer before they were married.

By the year 1921, Franklin Roosevelt had fathered six children with his wife Eleanor; he'd also been involved with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor's secretary. Upon discovering his dalliance, Eleanor had, it is said, banned him from her bed -- forever. What's more, he'd lost the use of his legs. All of which makes him an odd candidate for a revisited sexual history, but that is, in part, what Joseph Persico has created in his new book "Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherford, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life."

Some reviewers find this unseemly. Like David Greenberg, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review last week:

Everyone likes a bit of gossip now and then, but Persico’s relentlessness is disconcerting. He pursues questions about when and with whom Roosevelt went to bed with the same solemnity that other historians take to the question of when and with whom he decided to go to war.

Yet the Chicago Tribune had a different take on the relevance of sexuality to our understanding of historical figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sunday's review by Susan Ware states: 

Integrating the stories of public accomplishments with the daily routines of private lives leads to a fuller understanding of male and female personages alike.

It's not that the two reviewers disagree -- each indicates that the intimate overshadows the public a shade too much. But when the Greenberg review emphasizes that " 'Franklin and Lucy' may be able to make the dubious claim of being as complete a record as we have of the president’s sexual history," while crying "too much information," it presents an incomplete picture of what the book is trying to do. Ware's review is more sympathetic toward the project, showing that the book spends much time on the "other women" of the title, including FDR's mother and his daughter Anna (nothing prurient there).

Can a president's sex life inform our understanding of his decisions? Or is it all just TMI?

Carolyn Kellogg