Flynt's revenge

Larry Flynt on his investigations, why the Washington Post ran his ad and what he'd do if he had five more lives.


Carol Lloyd
January 31, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

On the 10th floor of Larry Flynt's oval, black-glass Beverly Hills headquarters, amid Persian rugs, lush velvet curtains, carved pseudo-royalist furniture and reproductions of romantic paintings peering from ornate gilt frames, silence reigns. Flynt, the dark prince of pornography and self-declared mortal enemy of the Republican Party, is waiting, dwarfed by his enormous desk, signing checks and pushing papers at the far end of his office, an eye-shaped room that could easily house a family of four. His blond, freshly scrubbed assistant, Stephanie, leads the way with the cheerful pragmatism of a Midwestern housewife showing off the farm. She takes papers from his hand. He fumbles with a pen, peers through cloudy vision and asks if Salon has any affiliation with the Drudge Report. Or is Salon actually the Drudge Report?

Flynt's less-than-lucid demeanor suggests that he might be one of those men, like the sickly Boris Yeltsin or the deranged, aging Chairman Mao, who continues to wield power but only as a feeble puppet. His handshake has the limp-boned delicacy of an aging aristocrat. The whole impression is one of such startling vulnerability that it seems peculiar more journalists haven't observed the paradox of this lithium-muted, handicapped terror. The man whose political scandals and fleshcapades have created firestorms of controversy now sits quietly in a wheelchair and tries to remember just who will interview him next.

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But if this is the first impression, it is also a fleeting one. For out of this slow body comes a flood of words: familiar, witty sound bites roll off his tongue, one after another. Like anyone who has bathed in the limelight for decades, he's a pro at getting his message out.

It's been nearly 25 years since Flynt launched Hustler, the first skinmag aimed at the rough-hewn libidos of his working-class brethren; 21 years since he was shot and paralyzed by a right-wing sniper outside the Georgia courthouse where he was fighting an obscenity case; 12 years since his fourth wife, Althea, ailing from AIDS, drowned in a bathtub and Flynt, after years of pain relievers and erratic behavior, began a sobering lithium therapy; 10 years since the Supreme Court upheld his right to publish a cartoon that suggested Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse; two years since Milos Forman portrayed him as a charismatic free speech martyr in "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and his daughter Tonya, protesting the movie, publicly accused him of sexual molestation; and four months since he placed an ad in the Washington Post offering up to $1 million to anyone who could prove they had an "illicit sexual relationship with a congressman."

His latest crusade to reveal the hypocrisies of Republican politicians began explosively, when Speaker-designate Robert Livingston shocked Washington by abruptly retiring after he learned that Flynt was going to publicize his extramarital affairs. But the next bombshell was something of a dud. Flynt went after Bob Barr, revealing that the rabid Clinton-hater and anti-abortion zealot had refused under oath in the divorce of his first wife to reveal whether he'd had sex with his current wife (his presumed mistress at the time) and that he had paid for his wife's abortion. But the media ho-hummed the revelations. Flynt was a victim of the expectations created by his success: Having created an appetite for think-pink scandals, he laid a PR egg by merely demonstrating hypocrisy. And since then, Flynt's assertions that he has the naughty goods on a varying number of other Republicans -- in our interview, he claimed 12 -- has begun to ring hollow.

But none of this has dampened the latest revival of the man who once ran for president with the slogan "A smut peddler who cares." A survey published in late January in the Washington Post revealed that Flynt has been one of the more popular figures to emerge from the scandal. Forty percent approved of the Flynt investigation, with 46 percent saying they wanted the media to report his findings. While these might not be numbers that could win landslides, they're higher than the dismal approval ratings for many Republican pols, to say nothing of the Attila the Hun-like depths occupied by Linda Tripp and Kenneth Starr.

This makes Larry Flynt an especially happy guy these days. While sipping black coffee in an eggplant jacket and trademark diamond watch, Flynt discussed Thomas Paine,whom he might out next and what he would do if he had five more lives.

You've had a dual career, both as publisher of pornography and as a public figure involved in politics. Is politics something you've always been interested in?

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Yes. Since I was a child I've always questioned everything in my life, whether it be authority, politics, religion or whatever. I sort of inadvertently got involved in this First Amendment battle, and it's been going on now for over 20 years. I think I had to stand in a courtroom and listen to a judge sentence me to 25 years in prison before I realized that freedom of expression was something that could no longer be taken for granted. And that was back in 1977, and since then I've been totally uncompromising on First Amendment issues.

I'm so passionate about the First Amendment because I see it as the cornerstone of our democracy. The First Amendment gets its vitality and meaning from the unrestricted right of free choice. Majority rule will only work if you're considering individual rights. You can't have five wolves and one sheep vote on what they want to have for supper, because the sheep will lose every time. I've always seen my role as protecting that sheep, those individuals.

Like you, a lot of people connected to the sex industry have ended up getting into political battles, often over the First Amendment. Why do you think this is?

I'd be less than truthful if I didn't say that part of it is that they're protecting their livelihood. But I think many of them very strongly believe in what they're doing. You see, so many people think that their civil rights and their civil liberties are part of their birthright. They take them for granted. But when somebody that's in the business I'm in is faced with prosecution, harassment by the police, then all of a sudden he becomes aware that what we take for granted is not really there. And that many of the freedoms we've gained can be lost as easily as they were gained.

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Why did you embark on your latest crusade to out Republicans?

I kept seeing that 70 percent of the people didn't feel that the president should be impeached. It started with this partisan effort to impeach, and I thought, the mainstream media is ignoring this 70 percent of the people. Because the editorialists were asking for Clinton's head. And even though they would flash the polls on the television, nobody gave any credence to the significance of that. And I felt these people don't have a voice. And that was really the deciding factor in me placing the ad in the Washington Post. Because I wanted to demonstrate that hypocrisy crossed party lines. And that despite the fact that the pundits and the legal scholars were talking about perjury and obstruction of justice, it was a case about sex and it had always been a case about sex, and I think the American people did not want to impeach, came to that conclusion long before Congress ever did. Because people have had incidents in their own family or friends where you know affairs have taken place. Sometimes, you know, you forget and forgive, and sometimes you go your separate ways, but it's something like --everybody knows someone in their family who has cancer. Everybody knows someone who has had an affair. So it was something that people could identify with.

You came out with the two exposés on Livingston and Barr. What happened to the rest of the ones you promised?

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This is the exclusive part of the interview. After
Livingston and Barr, the trial had started in the Senate. My initial
objective was to expose the hypocrisy, and then I felt to further expose
people would only be to cause embarrassment. And not only that,
I didn't want to piss the Senate off, because I was in the president's
corner and wanted to see him beat this in the Senate. So we just sort of
sat on what we've got. We've got about a dozen active investigations going
on now. I'm not sure how much of an appetite there is
for what we've got, but the reason why we're continuing is -- they're all
Republicans, of course -- is when the election rolls around, we're going to
make sure that all the information that we have is made available to whoever
they're running against.

Especially Bob Barr. I think the mainstream
media gave Barr a pass on this. We not only demonstrated he did not
tell the truth under oath, but he allowed his own wife to have an
abortion -- he even drove her to the clinic and paid for it. And he's one of the most ardent abortion foes in
Congress -- he stood on the floor of the Congress to say abortion is
equivalent to murder. I have all
the documentation on him. So I was very disappointed in the way the
mainstream media dealt with that, because we spent a lot of time in the
investigation. Some of them covered it -- it wasn't across the board,
because some of them covered it very well.

So are you going to make the facts public?

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We're publishing a one-time issue -- a
one-shot called the Flynt Report. And in addition to having the people who
we have exposed, we are going to take other investigations that have either
come out on their own or been exposed by other people and include them in
the issue. The public can turn from page to page and see all the mug shots
of people who have had affairs. We're working on it now. It'll probably be out in the next two or three weeks.

Do you think you might go after Democrats?

A friend of mine who lives in Washington told me something many years
ago. He said, Larry, when it comes to scandal, the conventional wisdom is
that it's sex with Democrats, and with Republicans it's
money. But he said in actuality it's the complete opposite. And
apparently that was evident in the ads. We only got one Democrat out of
all of the 38 leads, there was one Democrat and 37 were Republicans.

You've also said you might go after the media.

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I said recently that I would
start investigating the private sex lives of media personalities. All the
media moguls better look out. There are a couple of people in the
media that the press doesn't lay a glove on. Apparently [one prominent anchor] is like a rabbit -- I mean, he's got a revolving
door to his office. And many of them have been
divorced four or five times.
A lot of the divorce transcripts are available. Sam Donaldson
has been married three times, OK? But Donaldson was really
sanctimonious about Clinton. Clinton took the time out of his
schedule to visit him in the hospital one day when he was recovering from
cancer. So when Sam interviewed me for "20/20," I said, "It
must be tough to be your friend." I'm not saying that we're going
to do it, I'm just saying there's a possibility that's a little intriguing.

According to a poll in the Washington Post recently, you're
one of the most popular figures to come out of the scandal. How does that feel?

I got a kick out of that. I really have been vilified for close
to a quarter of a century. Things started turning when the movie came out
about my life, and I wrote my autobiography. But I was not prepared for people's reactions when I ran that ad in the Post and exposed Livingstone. I have personalized license plates on my car, and people run right out
in the middle of the street because they want to say hello or shake my hand.

I get probably around 1,000 letters a
week, and absolutely no negative mail. And every time I go out to eat at a restaurant, I
have people come up to me and thank me for what I'm doing.
It confirms what I always felt, that those
people felt Clinton should not be impeached did not have a voice.

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Do you feel that the public's growing acceptance and
consumption of pornography had an effect on how they responded to
the Clinton scandal? Like, "What's the big deal, I
saw that on a movie last week"? Do you think the public would have
been so open 25 years ago?

Probably not as much. I think an awful lot of people viewed the scandal in
this manner, that it was just about sex.

Do you think pornography has changed people's attitudes toward
sex?

I think it's helped. I think we've come a long way. I think
people have been desensitized to a large degree. I think that's good. I
think that's healthy.

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Getting back to that Post thing you mentioned, you know the New
York Times would never have run that ad. And the Post would never have run that ad. And there's an interesting story behind all of that. In 1976, after the Wayne Hayes-Liz Ray debacle, where he had this girl on the payroll who didn't know how to type or answer the phones, and then Wilbur Mills with Fannie Foxe in the Tidal Basin, I submitted a similar ad to the one I ran in the Post in October. I submitted it and they rejected it. So I asked a friend of mine named Rudy Maxa, who was working for the Post at the time, to go talk to Ben Bradlee and see if he would reconsider running the ad. Bradlee just ran him out of his office, he said, "I'm not doing nothing for Larry Flynt."

So I wrote a letter to [Post publisher] Katharine Graham, saying, This is what the First
Amendment is all about, guarantees and everything. And after Watergate, how can you in good conscience refuse to run an ad which is
clearly about the First Amendment. So I got a handwritten note back from her --
I've still got it to this day -- saying, Mr. Flynt, please resubmit
your ad.

So I resubmitted the ad and they ran it. Now when we were preparing the ad that ran this year, my lawyer said, the Post is not going to run this ad. Because it makes it
look like they're sort of endorsing what you're doing. And I said well,
we'll see. And they ran the ad, and I know the reason why they ran the ad is
that there were still some people at the Post that were there in 1976 when I
went over Bradlee's head and got the ad ran.

Has this episode whetted your appetite
for more kinds of political investigation? Or are you ready to return to
your business?

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I need to return to my business. What a lot of people are not
aware of is I have 16 foreign editions of Hustler, and a lot of my
other magazines have been published in foreign countries as well. So I
travel a lot as a result of that. We have just opened our new store,
Hustler Hollywood [a sex emporium and gourmet coffee bar] over here on Sunset, and they're doing phenomenally well. It makes women as well as men feel comfortable shopping there.
They don't feel like they're going into a sleazy little shack with blacked-out windows and all the peep shows and all that. It's a totally different
atmosphere. We intend to open a new one every three months across the country.

My plate's full. I'm opening a casino. I'm launching a new fashion magazine in May called Code. It's a fashion magazine for black males, the GQ for a black man. And there's not one on the market in the United States.
We think that we're tapping into something really, really good
there, because black men are much more fashion-conscious than white men are. So we have really high hopes for it. I've had 32 different magazines now. Each year we'll come out with approximately three new magazines. And if one is a success, we're happy, because the mortality
rate is really high in magazine publishing. One of our new magazines, Taboo [about fetish culture], is doing very well.

What's your worst fear about America's future?

What concerns me most about America today is the apathy that
exists, especially among young people. We as a nation only respond to
crises. We never deal with our problems, whether it be the Vietnam War or
civil rights or anything else, we never deal with them until they're ready
to explode. And that's why as I speak at college campuses around the country
I make an attempt to get young people to start thinking about how much harm
apathy can really do.

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There seems to be a polarization between one part of
America, which is increasingly liberal and open about sex,
and another part, an increasingly vocal and politically powerful minority of Republicans. It's a tension that has existed in our culture for a long time. How do you think it'll be resolved?

I can't believe that even though they're in the
minority, these are the agents that are driving the chaos. Roughly about
30 percent of people in this country are Clinton haters. They
want his head on a platter. They're uptight, anal-retentive.
I call them the Falwellians of the world. And when I
think of the prospect of somebody like Ralph Reed and Pat
Buchanan running the country, I just thank my lucky stars every day that these people are in the
minority. Although I'm disturbed that they're 30 percent.

People ask me why I'm a
Democrat. In this century, all our individual liberties, the civil rights
that we've gained, have come under Democratic administrations, not
Republican administrations. So I find it very difficult to see why anyone
would be a Republican. They're so callous and bigoted and insensitive to
both race and gender. I hope there's no increase in their popularity.

I read your comment in Esquire that women are smarter and harder workers and more caring than men. If that's the case, why do you think that men still have more power in our society?

Well, things were worse before. A century ago, women didn't even have the right to vote and were really second-class
citizens. And women, having been repressed, used and manipulated by men, wind up learning how to function in a man's world. If women understand what they're up against in the corporate and political structure, out of pure shrewdness they can make their way through it. Men are often just straight ahead, take no prisoners. Women have to be a little bit more cunning.

Hustler made its name by what some people consider to be
sexist and violent depictions of women, cartoons of
women being chopped up and so on. While most people would defend your right to do that, is
there a line over which you won't walk?

One cartoon comes to mind that was passed around by the feminists
in New York City. It was a couple of guys out deer hunting,
and one guy says to the other one, "Well, we just bagged another one," and there's three women on the top of the car.

Now maybe I'm missing something, maybe I'm insensitive, but I
thought the cartoon was funny.

Do you ever see stuff and say, "Uh-uh, I'm not
publishing that"?

You have to understand what Hustler is. It's basically a
heterosexual magazine with erotic photo features. Now aside from that, we have our outrageous political satire and parodies and cartoons, which have all identified Hustler and set it apart from all its competitors. And it's very much a humor magazine as well as a sex publication. We're real iconoclasts. Being offensive is part of our editorial philosophy.
When we sit down at an editorial meeting once a month, we say, "OK, who
haven't we offended this month?"

So there's no line you won't cross?

There's absolutely nothing sacred. Obviously
we stay away from things like child pornography.
But other than that, it's very much on the cutting
edge.

When was the last time you were offended? Has
that ever happened?

Are you asking me if there's anything I wouldn't run that I ran
before? Back in the '70s, when Betty Ford had a double mastectomy, we had a
drawing of the White House, this was at Christmas time, with a silhouette of
a woman standing in the window of the White House, and the caption on there
was, "All I want for Christmas is my two front tits." And probably if I had it to do all over, I would not have run the cartoon. I lost my own mother to
breast cancer. That was really pushing it. But I can't think of anything else.

Is sex still as interesting to you as it was when you first
started the business?

More.

Really? Why is it more?

I don't know. It just is. I guess what you could say is it's not necessarily that sex is more interesting, women are more interesting.

So you consider yourself a big fan of women?

Very much so.

How have your attitudes about sex changed since you were young?

Not much.

When you were 20 you had the same kind of
perspective that you do now?

I think when you're young, you might have certain fantasies.
Maybe as you get older they might mature a little bit. But the fantasies are
still the same.

If we lived in a world that was completely free of sexual
repression, and was just a land of free love and free lust, do you think
you would be in the business you're in now?

No, I don't think I would be in the business that I'm in. I've
thought about that before. It's probably very hypocritical for me to be fighting to make sex acceptable. On the other hand, I want to keep it legal. This is something I really believe in. I think that many of our problems are
caused by sexual repression, not sexual promiscuity. Especially a lot of the
line of behaviors you see in society. Most of your hardened criminals, the one thing they have in common, they're all sexually dysfunctional. You see very little reported on that, but it's true.

What people have inspired you?

There have been no individuals in my era that have had a major
influence on me, but historically I see Thomas Paine as the father of
our country. With many people, it's George Washington, but all of the ideas
of our democracy came from Thomas Paine, and I think his book "The Age of
Reason" is probably one of the most important books ever written.

If you had five lives to pursue five different careers, what
would be your five lives, other than this one?

A gynecologist, an evangelist, a brain
surgeon, a lawyer. I could be a bum for a few years.

Why do you think human beings have such a strange relationship
to their needs for reproduction, such a
complicated relationship to sex?

The one
medium that we use to communicate with more than anything else is sex. You'd
think we'd make an effort to understand it a little bit better. And other
than the desire for survival, the strongest single desire we have is for
sex. It's important to explain how the repression and guilt came about. The church has had its hand on our crotch for 2,000 years. And the government is moving in that direction. Feeling that if they can control the pleasure center, they can control you.

But it's like the genie's out of the bottle now with the Internet
and the
way we communicate. The elite doesn't really have the ability to dictate
anything to us about our mores. Since the
Victorian era, the rich and the privileged
have always had their erotic bound editions of pornography. But today, the newsstand and the video store has
become the poor man's art museum. And governments around the world are having trouble dealing this. Because the effort before was to always
control the people. Now it's obvious as we move into this era of wireless
communication that we aren't going to be able to control the people.

Speaking of being controlled, is there
anything that you feel like people haven't understood about you, or that the
media has misrepresented?

Anyone who interviews me feels
immediately they have to distance themselves from me by calling me a
pornographer or a smut peddler. That's just the nature of the
media, that's just the way they are. It's mainly the stigmatism associated with Hustler. There are efforts to constantly reinforce the fact that this guy is just a smut peddler, he's not to be given any credence for anything else. I like to remind them I'm a smut peddler who cares.


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

MORE FROM Carol Lloyd

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