Ten minutes later, a black stretch limousine pulls up, and a paunchy driver emerges, opening the trunk to produce a wheelchair with golden spokes. Paralyzed after being shot in 1978, the pornographer is wheeled downstairs while he awaits his call to speak out for free speech. While Flynt concedes that the Founding Fathers probably didn’t “have Hustler magazine in mind when they wrote the First Amendment,” it’s a cause which his profession has forced him to adopt with the zeal of, literally and figuratively, a man under fire.
Flynt attained national notoriety with his 1988 Supreme Court triumph over Rev. Jerry Falwell, a social conservative who sued Hustler for publishing a cartoon suggesting that he had sex with his mother in an outhouse. The Court found in Flynt’s favor, establishing a precedent protecting obvious satire of a public figure even if it causes emotional distress. Eight years later, Flynt was immortalized by Woody Harrelson in the sympathetic Roman Polanski film, The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Flynt made a major splash on the national political stage during the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton, when he publicly offered $1 million for compromising information about the private lives of prominent Republicans, seeking to expose Clinton’s tormentors as hypocrites. His investigation revealed that Representative Bob Barr, a chief Clinton foe and fervent pro-lifer, had paid for an ex-wife’s abortion. It also raised infidelity allegations that caused Representative Bob Livingston, the heir apparent to Newt Gingrich as speaker of the house, to resign. As he told the audience in Sanders, when The New York Times phoned to ask for his response to Livingston calling him a “bottom-feeder,” he said, “Yeah, that’s right, but look what I found when I got there.”
Now, Flynt has plunged into the California recall zoo under the slogan “Vote For a Smut Peddler Who Cares,” promising a crackdown on illegal immigration, treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders and legalized gambling. He’s also making appearances on the ACLU college tour at the University of Miami and Harvard, criticizing President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for their support and implementation of the Patriot Act, which he calls an unprecedented attack on civil liberties. While his characterization of radical feminists as a group whose “only claim to fame has been to urge a bunch of ugly women to march” drew boos and hisses from the Sanders crowd, the students generally applauded his defense of unlimited speech and sexual freedom.
Despite his paralysis and soft, raspy drawl with frequent pauses for breath, Flynt is a large and imposing 60-year-old man. His sizable head—spared the ravages of balding, either by fortune or artifice—rotates around a slightly left-leaning axis and is cushioned by a wrap-around double chin, while his massive torso seems like it should consume far more space than is available in his felt-lined wheelchair. His clothing and accessories reflect the range of roles he seeks to span—while his dark suit jacket would easily pass on Capitol Hill, his shiny purple tie, heavy gold rings with impressive gems, and diamond watch conjure more pimp than pol. Flynt took half an hour before his speech to share his views on the recall, the porn industry, and Hollywood with FM.
FM: You said last month that if you could break 10 percent in the polls, you would pour resources into the campaign. What have those poll numbers been?Larry Flynt: Our internal polling shows that we are continuing to poll in the single digits. To spend a huge amount of money to try to get elected based on those poll numbers would have just been foolish. But I never had any delusion of winning. It’s just that the recall in California offered me a terrific platform, because I had a lot of things I wanted to say. I had a lot of ideas about what was wrong in government, and some of them were very controversial...I felt I had a painless way to balance the budget, and that is to expand gaming operations and allow slot machines in private casinos. When you come up with controversial ideas like that, you’re going to get rejected out of hand. But I think in my heart I knew I could never get the voters of California to separate my candidacy from my profession.
FM: How do you respond to studies that show that casinos drain consumer dollars from other industries and disproportionately affect the poor?
LF: There’s a lot of things that people do excessively. You’ve got drinking, eating, gambling. Two to three percent of the population are going to be compulsive and excessive, and that does not give you a true measure. It’s a great argument for people who want to oppose gambling, or oppose legalized prostitution, which is the oldest profession in the world and should be legalized. It would provide the government a means of taxation, and I think it would drastically reduce venereal disease and also the amount of sexual assault and rape cases. But no one in politics wants to talk about legalized prostitution. They’re all hung up on whatever their core morality beliefs are.
FM: What was your view on the controversy surrounding Arnold Schwarzenegger’s interview in Oui! magazine [where Schwarzenegger said he participated in group sex] and how do you think it will affect the recall campaign?
LF: I don’t think it will affect the recall campaign. I think if Bill Clinton hadn’t gotten that BJ in the Oval Office, it might very well have affected the campaign a great deal. But I think the public kind of got inoculated to the idea that a lot of their politicians are human.
FM: What are your thoughts on the future of the porn industry? Now that Penthouse is no more and Playboy has had to go more hardcore to stay afloat, have your magazines suffered from Internet competition? And do you think porn will face the same piracy issues recording labels are facing now?
LF: All magazines, not just porn magazines, are down in circulation because of the advent of the Internet. If you can download a magazine in the privacy of your home, it’s hard to convince somebody to go to a newsstand and buy it, especially
in the case of porn. But where Penthouse went wrong, and why they wound up going bankrupt, they didn’t diversify. We now have a retail chain called Hustler Hollywood which is extremely successful that sells all kinds of paraphernalia—gay gifts, sex toys, sort of a novelty shop more than anything else. And we have six Hustler Clubs, gentlemen’s clubs, basically strip clubs. We just opened one in Paris last fall. Our Internet websites are probably the most successful and profitable in the area. It’s the diversification that gives us a solid profitability base. We’re actually more profitable than Playboy.
FM: Do you have any concern that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department will launch obscenity prosecutions against you? Would you be willing to go to jail or pay fines rather than tone down your magazines?
LF: I took a bullet for the First Amendment. I don’t think that going to jail would discourage me. He’s already prosecuting one industry member now in Pittsburgh, the first federal obscenity prosecution in ten years. Ashcroft has assembled a 25-man task force to pursue these obscenity cases. But a prosecutor can have all the fantasies he wants to about prosecuting pornography. You’ve got to have a consensus of 12 jurors or you’re not getting anywhere. Ashcroft is a Jesus freak from the Bible belt, and I’m sure he thinks he’s committed to ridding the world of all the filth he can. He may wake up at some point and realize that community standards have changed since he grew up in Missouri. California people aren’t bothered by pornography at all.