BY MATTHEW HERBERT
At first I thought Gore Vidal just liked writing about whorehouses.
They show up in most of the seven historical novels that make up his “American Chronicles” series. His power characters–politicians, newsmen and captains of industry mostly–patronize brothels time and again. He depicts the goings on in them with an easy fondness.
Aaron Burr, whom Vidal liked for his ambition and canniness, was a regular customer. So were Lincoln’s smart, sensitive young secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. Vidal even murmurs the rumor that Honest Abe himself caught syphilis in the arms of a professional during his youth in Illinois. This suggestion was loudly excoriated by critics when it appeared in Vidal’s 1984 Lincoln (part of the “American Chronicles” series), but the critics’ anger began losing its righteous edge in 1998 when history proved Vidal right on another supposedly salacious claim about a U.S. president’s sex life. In his 1973 novel Burr, Vidal had insinuated that Thomas Jefferson did not merely enslave Sally Hemings but fathered children by her as well. At the time, Vidal was shouted down, called “meretricious.” Then he was vindicated. Could he have been right about Lincoln too?
I hear Vidal answering, Of course! And furthermore, Who cares? The point of Vidal’s light touch when writing about sex generally and the use of prostitutes by well-connected men specifically is that the activity itself was so blasé, so immaterial to whatever the men’s lasting accomplishments were. Lincoln would still be the best and noblest of U.S. presidents even if the historical record were to reveal that he used a Springfield prostitute in 1840-something.
I was titillated–if that is the right word–to read this week about just how well and thoroughly serviced were the Texas politicians of Samuel Ealy Johnson’s day. Father of Lyndon Johnson, Sam was a Texas state representative on and off between 1905 and 1923. In 1905, Robert Caro reports in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, it was common for lobbyists to occupy the offices of “their” representatives, drafting laws, making deals, and generally running the business of Texas’s legislature–sometimes even answering roll-call on the floor. So liberated from their duties, the elected representatives spent their time in Austin whorehouses, their rooms, meals and saloon tabs paid for by the lobbyists. You may look this up for yourself on pages 46 and 47 of Caro’s wonderful book.
To all this I say, “Oh, for the good old days!”
By this I do not mean that I approve of prostitution. (I am a liberal, after all–I don’t think you’re entitled to debase or brutalize someone just because you’ve paid good money to do it.) What I mean is, I wish we could have 1905’s more honest, less harmful level of corruption in our politics today. I reject the wicked and sinister thing we have instead. Let us have Mitch McConnell openly boozing it up 24/7 in a bordello bought and paid for by the Blackstone Group. It would be far better than having him in his actual, scabrous form–scolding the poor over “entitlements,” bleeding them of their meager incomes by shifting the tax burden onto them, and all the time raking in millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.
The character of Mitch McConnell, Republican Senator of Kentucky, is a matter of public record. There are no secrets behind, say, his 2016 refusal to have the Senate consider Merrick Garland, then-President Obama’s nomination to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. This was a shameless, deliberate dereliction of constitutionally-mandated duty by the Senate majority leader. But because it was excellent politics, McConnell got away with it. One of the reasons it was excellent politics was because it was the equivalent of a white sheriff telling a black man that sundown was coming, and the U.S. Senate was a sundown town: Don’t back-sass, and move along. A certain thirty-five percent of the electorate loved this.
As I say, McConnell is not hard to figure out.
Still, there are always more horrible things to discover about those we already know to be monstrous. The redoubtable Jane Mayer proves this dreary law in her highly insightful profile of McConnell as Trump’s “enabler-in-chief” in the April 20th New Yorker. (Author of the 2017 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer knows whereof she speaks: it is is the money that politicians receive and spend, and not the things they say, that reveals the truth of where they stand.)
While still a state congressman of humble background in the 1970s, McConnell taught a class at the University of Louisville, Mayer reports, in which he gave his thoughts on the “three things necessary for success in politics,” writing them on the blackboard. They were: money, money, money. McConnell would soon divorce his wife, a bookish historian, and seek a more promising situation. As he told his press secretary at the time, “One of the things I’ve got to do is to marry a rich woman.”
It was during these years that McConnell began to advocate for the idea that money was a functional equivalent of speech and therefore subject to constitutional protections under the First Amendment. This idea would come to fruition in the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, which said basically that the rich could buy and buy and buy all the political power they wanted while you must be satisfied with your one measly vote. If there was a single moment in which our republic was sold to the owning class, this was it. And more than any other politician, McConnell made this sale happen. (To be fair, though, the campaign finance machine that McConnell perfected was conceived of and built by LBJ in 1940. See Caro, pp. 627-664.)
But back to McConnell and his wife situation. He eventually succeeded in marrying up. Most Americans probably know that McConnell’s current wife, Elaine Chao, is the Secretary of Transportation, and most Americans probably have a vague sense of how such appointments are made. You don’t need a PhD in poli sci to figure out that being a senator’s spouse can dramatically improve your chances of being asked to join the president’s cabinet. It’s just one of those things.
McConnell and Chao were already doing pretty well money-wise when Chao’s mother died in 2012, leaving the couple $25 million and making McConnell one of the wealthiest members of the Senate. But that’s not quite the end of the story that the money tells.
Much of Chao’s fortune comes from Chinese companies founded by her father, whose connections included Jiang Zemin, the former President of China. Her family members continue to sit on the boards of large Chinese (and U.S.) companies, including one that builds ships, including Chinese warships. When the Trump administration approached Chao in 2016 about her choice of secretary positions, Transportation was what she asked for. Chao could have chosen anything–education, labor, housing, but she chose ships.
Reporting by the New York Times shows Chao has used her cabinet position to build a highly profitable bridge between Chinese businesses and those owned by her family in America. Over the years, Chao’s father and his associates have given McConnell millions in campaign contributions; some of this money would have come from loans made by a Chinese government bank labeled by the Trump administration as a security threat to the United States.
The favors also come in from Mitch’s Legislative Branch. In July 2020, one of the Chao family’s largest companies, the U.S. Foremost Group, received large federal loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which was guided through the Senate by McConnell. Of course, whatever Foremost got in PPP was likely no more than couch change compared to the corporate tax breaks they’ve enjoyed over the years helped long mightily by son-in-law Mitch. (Don’t call those entitlements, though.)
And if money is political speech, it is Wall Street financiers, not Kentuckians, who say they want McConnell as Kentucky’s senator. According to an article in Salon in July 2019, more than 90 percent of McConnell’s financial backing comes from outside the state, most of it from financial interests in New York. Many of these are umbrellaed under the secretive Blackstone Group. Business donors in red states such as Georgia and Indiana also kick in for Mitch. And McConnell is not only the beneficiary of the national campaign-finance machinery. He runs what Mayer calls the most powerful such machine in U.S. history. Thanks to McConnell, GOP candidates for Congress across the country are elected by moneyed interests from everywhere but their states. (It’s also a fair guess that some of the money, like McConnell’s, comes by way of multinational business from foreign powers opposed to U.S interests.) Altogether, to think of McConnell as representing the people of Kentucky–or of politicians backed by his machine as representing their states–requires a highly creative, or possibly perverse, reinterpretation of democracy.
Everything McConnell does to ensure our republic stays sold to organized money is legal, as far as we know. Likewise, everything he does to enrich himself and his in-laws in the process of carrying out his open campaign of corruption is legal–although the jury might literally convene on this matter sometime in the future. But honestly, the next time McConnell opens his mouth to accuse poor people of playing the system to snag “entitlements,” I’d really rather he just move into the local whorehouse, send the bills to Blackstone, and star in a reality TV show about how much fun he’s having. At least I could respect his honesty.