Just as the dirty laundry of the impeachment scandal had been tossed to the back of the nation's closet like a soiled blue Gap dress, out comes the Flynt Report, the long-awaited, nearly forgotten product of the porn mogul's $4 million investigation into the sex lives of the Republicans. With its blocky red and black Newsweek format and its deliciously gleeful headlines ("John E. Peterson: Sunday-School Teacher with Preying Hands," chortles one), it is a peculiarly riveting document, a cross between a slick mainstream glossy and a rabble-rousing Tom Paine pamphlet of the American Revolution.
The 82-page report makes a simple enough argument: Many of the Republicans who preached morality during the impeachment trial are hypocrites in their personal lives, and the public deserves to know this. In the service of this argument, however, the editors have presented such a wild blend of rhetoric, reporting and rumor that readers will sometimes feel Hustled by a new species of pornography -- political wanking at its lurid lowest. But they may nonetheless enjoy this new, candid and highly entertaining entry in the annals of American advocacy journalism, in which Rep. Henry Hyde is described as a "huge blood-swollen tick in a rumpled suit"; Rep. Bob Barr "could teach slippery behavior to a greased weasel," and Hyde, Indiana Rep. Dan Burton and Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth -- admitted adulterers all -- are referred to as "snap[ping] and salivat[ing] like one huge three-headed beast."
So what does the Flynt Report actually say that hasn't been said (and printed and broadcast and posted) already? That depends on who you are and how closely you have been following the private lives of the GOP. Allan MacDonell, Hustler's executive editor and the unnamed author of the majority of the report, says it's aimed at a readership that doesn't necessarily follow Washington politics. "We tried to write it in a very engaging, funny manner for the normal person to learn something about these politicians, and see conclusively that they were not motivated by moral values," he explains. His mother-in-law read early drafts, he said, to make sure it was written for people like her. "But for any kind of Beltway insider, there is not a lot of new information."
Although there are no bombshell revelations, the report does offer a cohesive collection of profiles, with many new and little-known details. Flynt's writers and researchers have consolidated myriad facts not only from their own investigation but from scores of other journalistic outfits -- Salon, Mother Jones, the Riverside [Calif.] Press-Enterprise and other local papers -- and created easy-to-read, sordid fairy tales for the millennium. The result is an odd mix: Think of Grimm's Tales populated by blandly suited elected officials and streetwalkers instead of handsome princes and glamorous orphan girls.
Former Speaker-designate Robert Livingston and Barr get the most thorough attention, and though their foibles have been widely exposed, these profiles offer details that may surprise many readers. Barr's tale of adultery and abortion, for instance, gets a painstaking re-telling, and thoroughly illuminates the hypocrisy of the white-supremacist-loving Georgia congressman. For journalists who followed Flynt's original release of the story, the damning details -- Barr's asking his wife, who worked as his secretary, to arrange his lunch dates with his mistress, Jeri Dobbins, who became his next wife; his driving his wife to an abortion clinic, and paying for her abortion, while being rabidly "pro-life" -- are not news. But for the average reader, they will be. Flynt reproduces excerpts of the Barrs' divorce transcripts, which show Barr and Dobbins responding to questions about their affair by repeating "I decline to answer" over and over like a pair of autistic parrots. Barr insisted that comparing his refusal to tell the truth about his affair under oath with Clinton's legalistic acrobatics was like comparing apples to oranges, but the report quips: "The difference between Bill Clinton's truth-fudging and Bob Barr's refusal to answer honestly is the difference between a wormy Red Delicious and a rotten Granny Smith."
A section of nine profiles called "The Hall of Infamy" contains what may be the most explosive information in the report. "Ken Calvert: Touched by a Hooker" recounts the poignant tale, first reported in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, of the Southern California Republican representative being caught with his pants down with a hooker in his car. Corona police reportedly found him with a prostitute's face "laying [sic] in the driver's lap" while the congressman "was placing his penis into his unzipped dress slacks and ... trying to hide it with his untucked dress shirt." When asked his reasons for his conduct, he allegedly answered: "I was feeling intensely lonely." In a similar face-in-lap sighting, an aide to Newt Gingrich reportedly approached the former House speaker's car to spot "a woman with her head buried in Newt's lap." Pennsylvania Rep. John E. Peterson, who has admitted to having been an "excessive hugger," is accused of grabbing an 18-year-old's breast in an elevator and greeting a woman lobbyist with a forced "deep throat kiss," when she visited him to say that a mutual friend had died.
The report also delivers a hailstorm of lesser-known scandals -- many of which are sourced merely as hearsay. One article focuses on the Republican sex rumors that have circulated among mainstream reporters but have not been reported -- and reports them. Rep. Mary Bono, House Whip Tom DeLay and Sen. Tim Hutchinson are among those named with no sources or evidence given. And in chronicling Speaker-designate Livingston's dramatic fall from power -- as a result of reports that Flynt had information about his extramarital affairs -- the report suggests that those affairs involved lobbyists for whom he favorably influenced legislature, but again, does not name names or elaborate on sources.
Between these well-worn and barely told tales, the report also offers a banquet of scandalous morsels. There's a historical account of presidential indiscretions headlined "Our Philandering Fathers," a cross-cultural comparison of "Mistresses Worldwide" and a collection of comic strips from Hustler about the scandal. An ad calls for more informants to step up to the phone and dish dirt; a cost analysis compares Flynt's and Starr's investigations and their efficacy; and a photo of a naked woman accompanies a piece profiling the kinds of informants who responded to the original ad.
Whether the reader is relishing or retching over this crazed souvenir from the weirdest year in American politics, the mix of unsubstantiated rumors alongside fact-checked stories raises a credibility problem for the Flynt Report: What should the reader believe? Likewise, just what is news in the report is not immediately transparent. The cover features a trio of mug shots -- Livingston, Hyde and Barr, whose sins have already been exposed. Below that there's a tease, with smaller headshots: "Fresh Dirt on: Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mary Bono, Governor Jeb Bush, Charles Canady and Tim Hutchinson." But a few pages into the magazine, in the "Statement of Intent," the report confesses: "We will prove our case with information that is already part of the public record, at the risk of disappointing those who are reading this report in the hope of finding new disclosures."
So what's the truth -- is this information fresh or stale, old or new?
"There's dynamite there, and I was a little surprised to hear about it," says Dan Moldea, the Washington reporter who oversaw the Flynt investigation from Nov. 23, 1998, to Jan. 22, 1999. "I'll be curious to see how it plays out in the report, and the firestorm that could result from it." Moldea refused to disclose which items were brand new, explaining that confidentiality agreements with informants might put him in an awkward legal and ethical position if he disclosed their information.
Moldea left Flynt's investigation after "a friendly disagreement" about whether Flynt should continue to name new names. The day that he heard that Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., -- one of Clinton's sternest critics -- had announced that he was going to propose a resolution to dismiss the charges against the president, he quit. "At that moment I felt that we had won," he explained. But even before Byrd's announcement, Moldea had begun to question how far the investigation should go. In his account, three events shook his resolve.
The first was Bonnie Livingston's call to Flynt, begging him not to publish details of her husband's adultery. When Flynt told Moldea to hold off investigating Livingston, Moldea protested, but he was moved by Flynt's change of heart. Later, on Jan. 11, Moldea received a call from a friend high up in the GOP who had a friend who believed he was the next to be outed. "She told me sobbing that he was going to commit suicide as soon as his name became public," he explained. "That was the moment that I was chilled." Finally, he lost all desire to expose more scandalous stories when, a few days later, one of the targeted politicians discovered the identity of an informant, and they began to worry about her safety.
"I'm not interested in the sex lives of public figures," Moldea says. "If I had my way I would take all this material and throw it in the Potomac, but I have come to trust Larry's judgment."
Larry Flynt himself contradicts his former investigator's claim that the report contains some bombshells. "There's nothing earth-shattering," he says. "It's just more comprehensive. If we had anything really big, we would have a press conference."
When pressed to say whether all the report's information -- so much of it unsourced or attributed to hearsay -- is credible, Flynt insists he has multiple sources for everything published. Sometimes the investigation wasn't quite complete, he says, and sometimes the informants ended up wanting too much money. In the end, Flynt may have gotten to have his cake and eat it too, publishing as rumor things he knows to be true, without actually paying informants for their complete, published accounts. He can breezily attribute the stories to rumors, continue to keep his investigations open and hold onto his cash. And what if some of the rumors are not true? Flynt has given credence to them, and politicians wishing to counter his stories are faced with an uphill battle: to prove these scandals never happened.
But if the rumor-mongering isn't bad enough -- and for many a skeptical reader, it will be -- there are sections in which Flynt's purely partisan motives undermine his own stated moral ground. In a gratuitous, vaguely racist anecdote contained in the profile of Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, the great black hope of the Republican Party, the report recounts the misfortunes of his sister, known in Oklahoma City as "Chocolate," who was arrested on lewdness charges when entertainers in a strip club were allegedly caught trading dances for food stamps. What did she do to deserve this publicity? Likewise, when Newt Gingrich's unsavory moral character is in part pinned on his mother's mental illness and his half-sister's lesbianism, Flynt and family succumb to the same leering tone of intolerance that they criticize in the Republicans. Despite their protestations that this is all about "hypocrisy," their recourse to such personal detail is cruel and only seems relevant if you are a right-wing, homophobic family values crusader.
But Dan Moldea defends Flynt, even though Flynt ignored his advice not to publish the report. "Since the beginning of his project Larry has demonstrated restraint and compassion. He demanded the highest standards of documentation and responsibility. I believe that he was effective. History will cite the resignation of Bob Livingston as well as Larry's role in that decision as the critical moment that diffused the entire impeachment process, and I'm proud to have been associated with him."
Flynt himself is riding high on his contribution to history. "It's a historical document. No one else has published anything like it." In the end, he hopes the report's lesson is not that politicians are
loathsome, but that we shouldn't expect them to be perfect in the first
place. "We shouldn't put legislators on a pedestal," he says. "They suffer from the same frailties and foibles as the rest of us. They're all human beings."