Public eye: Indecent proposal
Larry Flynt, who knows smut when he sees it, throws his money into the mess
By Margaret Carlson
(TIME, October 19) -- A new stink bomb has been dropped on the Capitol, already reeling from the Starr report. In a full-page, $85,000 ad in the Washington Post last week, Larry Flynt announced a reward of up to $1 million for anyone who could prove having had "an adulterous sexual encounter with a current member of the United States Congress or a high-ranking government official." What's high-ranking? In an interview with TIME, Flynt said he'd go broke if every scalp garnered the top prize. Flynt is reserving that for the goods on bold-type names. "One member of the Republican leadership is like a rabbit, and that's worth the whole million. But some freshman from Tennessee? The value's not there." He isn't as specific on which government officials merit the full bounty. But you should save your breath if you notched your bedpost with an assistant secretary for fossil fuels.
Even without any money on the table, Republican members Helen Chenoweth, Dan Burton and Henry Hyde have already been singed. So far, Flynt says he has got more than 2,000 calls: a few were cranks, 85% were laudatory, some were offers to sweeten the pot, and about 300 were calls from women (and a few men) with sorry tales to tell. Flynt says three editors spent last week winnowing those down to about "12 officials with pasts that look very promising and with concrete evidence to back them up." He relishes "repeat offenders" but is particularly excited by the bonus divorced members bring--the possibility that they have lied under oath.
On Capitol Hill members are either deriding Flynt or snapping "no comment," with the exception of a Congressman who joked at the Democratic caucus meeting last week, "For a million dollars, I'll turn myself in." Flynt explains that he's philosophically against outing adulterers, but fair is fair. "Those who've decided to set themselves up as judges of sex and lies should themselves be judged," he says, adding that he'll give a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card to "anyone who wants to recuse themselves now."
Flynt's offer dovetails with two compatible forces: the media once reluctant to publicize Washington philanderers but now ravenous to do so; and women once reluctant to rat on their married lovers but now less willing to suffer in silence. The town is full of former Cherry Blossom Princesses brought to the Capitol by newly elected Congressmen to serve as receptionists and links to the folks back home. A woman in this category learns not only how bills become law but also what a cad a politician (with a family back in the district) can be in the big, bad city. Usually the epiphany occurs when she has passed the sell-by date and a new beauty queen begins answering constituent mail. She may be bitter, but she knows to keep quiet. For every Gennifer Flowers who publishes a book and gets a spot on Larry King, there are hundreds of underemployed women working the back office during the day and feeding the cat and watering the rhododendron at night.
It's those women, says Flynt, whom he's speaking to with his offer: "I'm giving them an upside to coming forward." Flynt has turned for expert help to veteran Washington writer and NPR contributor Rudy Maxa, who flew to Los Angeles last Friday to select the best stories and recruit reporters to pursue them. Maxa says he was lured out of semiscandal retirement by the prospect that some of those discarded on the ash heap of history might emerge to name names. Maxa's claim to fame is exposing former Congressman Wayne Hays and his "assistant" Elizabeth Ray ("I can't type ... I can't even answer the phone"), and Paula Parkinson, who didn't play golf but teed up on an outing to Florida with top Republicans. Maxa says Flynt has created the ideal situation for loosening tongues: "money layered on top of revenge."
It takes someone a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty, as David Brock once put it, to assemble such a combustible mixture. Lionized in the acclaimed movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, the smut publisher came across as a crusader for principle (he went to jail to uphold the First Amendment) with a self-deprecating candor (he doesn't pretend that men buy his magazine to read the profiles). But Hustler's taste for barnyard animals and meat grinders in close proximity to unairbrushed women is so gross that Gloria Steinem and Jerry Falwell found themselves on the same side against him. Still, it takes a rich pornographer with nothing to lose to give vent to the dark impulse in the human heart to cook up sauce for the gander. He explains that he's one of the few people with the means to underwrite a witch hunt to match the one he says Ken Starr got the U.S. government to pay for. Starr, he says with mocking admiration, has "done what I could not do in a quarter-century: make pornography more widely available."
With the vote for an impeachment inquiry (or as Henry Hyde whimsically put it, "this venture, this excursion"), Flynt's effort is one more signal that things are spiraling out of control. As a sign on a Southern back road says, CHOOSE YOUR RUT CAREFULLY. YOU'RE GOING TO BE IN IT A LONG TIME. We've chosen the politics of scandal, and we may be here forever. "I don't see how you put it back in the box," says Republican Representative Christopher Shays. No one approves of a lying adulterer, and something grave must be done with the awful knowledge Starr forced on us. But impeachment? Flynt says he is just getting even for what Starr has done. Just as Republicans are getting even for Watergate and Bork and Clarence Thomas and Iran-contra. Just as Democrats one day will get even for this tear we are on. No doubt Flynt will snag some philanderers, and they will suffer shame if not loss of office, marriage and family. The drama on Capitol Hill looks more and more like a bad Italian opera, with singers in death throes everywhere. By the last act, the stars are still singing, but soon even they will be dead.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: October 19, 1998
Down in history
Yet another shoe to drop?
Why the midterms matter
Next up, the touchy subjects
The right connection
Right turn for peace?
The deplorable down and dirty
Public eye: Indecent proposal
The scoop: Enviro-politics