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Bookworm: Power and love in ‘Sex with Presidents’

‘The Big Door Prize’ is unnecessarily busy

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Sex with Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House”

  • By Eleanor Herman
  • c. 2020, Wm. Morrow
  • $27.99, $34.99 Canada; 384 pages

“Chief Executive” sounds actually pretty good to you. “Commander in Chief” is nice, too. “Mr. President” passes muster, as does “Leader of the Free World.” There are many things you can call the person who sits in the Oval Office at the White House – some good, some not-so-good – and in “Sex with Presidents” by Eleanor Herman,” “Darling” and “Sweetheart” work well, too.

“Sex with Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House” author Eleanor Herman.

Some four hundred years ago, the Puritans set foot on the shores of this continent and in the ensuing months, left their name as a synonym for stuffiness and prudery. Today, we like to imagine that our forefathers maintained that same virtue, but nothing could be farther from the truth, says Herman, especially when it comes to the Highest Office in the Land.

Presidential dalliances, of course, are nothing new. Thomas Jefferson famously had children with his wife's half-sister who was also his slave. James Buchanan is believed by scholars to have been America's first gay president. Martin Van Buren tried to pass off not one, but two enslaved women as his wife, which was scandalous in his time. It's even possible that the dour Richard Nixon had a honey that wasn't Pat, much to the chagrin of the FBI.

And then there are the guys who took things to another level.

Woodrow Wilson was having a torrid affair with a widow while his first wife was alive, and he did it with her reluctant knowledge. When Wilson's long-suffering wife died, the mistress hoped to be the next Mrs. Wilson. Imagine her shock when she learned from a newspaper story that Woodrow got engaged to a D.C. socialite.

“Sex with Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House” by Eleanor Herman.

Warren Harding was quite the ladies' man and Secret Service agents were reportedly busy keeping him in his hotel room on the evening before his inauguration. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had a unique household situation set up. JFK dallied at a cocktail party while on his honeymoon; and LBJ, says Herman, “truly cared about” those he slept with...

So why in the world would any First Lady stay with her philandering husband? Author Eleanor Herman discusses that very question in “Sex with Presidents,” and the answer shouldn't surprise you: love is a powerful thing. And power is a thing they love.

The other thought you might have: no, this book is not X-rated. Readers will find a handful of four-letter words and bawdy slang here, but it's laughable, not leering. There's nothing explicit in this book, no TMI descriptions, and no childish tee-hee-ing. It's not pornographic – but then, it's not prissy, either.

Instead, you'll read about randy Republicans and daring Democrats who got away with dalliances that are jaw-dropping, even in today's times; and you'll learn about other U.S. politicians, and a few foreign leaders. It's like finding a secret portal inside a high school history class, a fascinating one that requires an ID to enter.

More:Bookworm: ‘Anxious People’ a feel-good novel that runs away with you

If you hold any mental images of staid 20th-Century presidents, prepare to have them shattered. Historians, scandal-lovers, and tabloid fans, “Sex with Presidents” should sound pretty good to you.

“The Big Door Prize”

  • By M.O. Walsh
  • c. 2020, Putnam
  • $27, $36 Canada, 370 pages

One good slam on the upper right corner. That's what it usually took to dislodge the snack machine at work. One quick punch before you spent another buck-and-a-quarter on the chocolate bar you wanted, and you'd better not lose both snacks to the coils or there goes your day. In “The Big Door Prize” by M.O. Walsh, there goes your life.

“The Big Door Prize” author M.O. Walsh.

If you looked at the machine, you might initially think that it was some sort of photo booth. It was the same size and shape, having showed up one day in the local grocery store, just like that. And it made Douglas Hubbard think that everybody in Deerfield, Louisiana, had taken leave of their collective senses.

For just two dollars, a person gave the machine a cheek-swab and then waited patiently until a blue slip of paper popped out from a slot. The paper contained the customer's name, bits of personal information and frivolous predictions, and at the end of the paper, everyone received two words that supposedly indicated their potential.

And that was why failing student Charlie Tate considered taking up nuclear physics. It's why Christine Willis was thinking about becoming a sommelier (though she didn't know what that was). It was why the mayor was walking around with a Stetson and spurs, calling folks “pardner.” And it was why Douglas's wife, Cherilyn, began suddenly dreaming of castles, elegant robes, and crowns.

Not everybody in Deerfield was obsessed with the DNAMIX, though.

Jacob Richieu had no interest in it because he had enough to deal with: he was the mayor's son, first, and his father thought he was a cowboy. The bigger issue was that not long before, Jacob's twin brother, Toby, was killed in a car accident and Toby's girlfriend, Trina, had been hinting that it was no accident.

“The Big Door Prize” by M.O. Walsh.

Jacob couldn't read Trina. She acted like she wanted to be his girlfriend now, but she also acted aggressive and threatening and weird.

And the line for the DNAMIX grew inside Deerfield's grocery store...

If you've ever dumped the pieces to several different board games into the same box, you have some idea of what “The Big Door Prize” is like.

There is, in fact, the feeling that there are two separate books between one set of covers here, with a bunch of odds and ends left over: there's the main Douglas-and-Cherilyn story, and there's the Jacob-and-Trina story, linked extremely tenuously by an assorted-but-generally-predictable cast in often-silly situations led by an implausible plot-obsession. Readers may wonder why the DNAMIX even exists: it's weak, as story-movers go, and while it's the reason for the angst here, it's way-secondary to the drama.

Oh, and by the way: there's no “door prize” anywhere.

“The Big Door Prize” is not a farce, it's not comedy-funny, the drama is mostly foreseeable, it's unnecessarily busy, and the feelgood comes too late to save it. Go ahead and try it, but really: if you want any of the above, specifically, look for another book.

This one just needs slamming shut.

More:Bookworm: ‘Sound’ for lovers of weird, creepy things

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.