“The other shoe’s going to drop any day,” Flynt says, speaking of the other senator. “It’ll surprise a lot of people that he’s gay. And I’ll bet you he resigns the same day and rides off into the sunset. He won’t be as stupid as Craig,” who after an initial vow to leave office changed his mind and instead fought to reverse his guilty plea to disorderly conduct.
But Flynt’s investigation of this second senator is at a tricky pass. “His boyfriend is in a quandary about selling him out. It’s really somewhat of a pathetic situation. But we also have other boyfriends that he’s been involved with.” These earlier boyfriends are apparently willing to go on the record, and have also supplied Flynt’s investigators with corroborating evidence. “We got some motel records. We got some photographs. They don’t involve sex, but sort of romantic walks on the beach and that sort of thing.”
While multiple sources are generally deemed a good thing by journalists, for Flynt they can be trouble. “The big thing right now is we’re negotiating money, and it’s always difficult when you have more than one source involved. The guy says, ‘I want a million dollars.’ And we say, ‘Well, wait a minute. You’re the fourth source in the story, so different sources have to split the money.’ ”
It would take a master economist to chart the complex interplay of greed, shame, and revenge involved in settling on a price for selling out a lover or, as the case may be, a client. Or maybe—isn’t this often so where powerful men are concerned?—something in between. Not that calculations aren’t made on Flynt’s side as well. “Look,” he says, “if we can take down a well-known U.S. senator, we’ll pay the money—we’ll pay the million dollars. But when you get down to congressmen, they’re a dime a dozen. If they’re from some remote area of the country, they’re not worth very much—maybe 25, 50 grand. But presidents and senators are really big paydays.” That said, he declines to lay out a detailed price list, though he estimates that over the years he has spent in total upwards of $5 million on such matters, between bounties and investigative costs.
Here’s a boring question: Is any of this ethical? Checkbook journalism—paying for sources—is frowned on by most journalists and forbidden at most mainstream publications and news outlets. The fear is that, for money, a source will tell you whatever you want to hear, true or not—like waterboarding but with a carrot instead of a stick. Another issue that journalists don’t typically broach is that paying sources opens up a can of worms: If you pay one, do you have to pay all of them? And at a time of shrinking news budgets?! On the other hand, for someone with a book or movie to promote, the publicity generated by an interview, especially a juicy one, could be considered payment in kind. And no one seems to feel that paying former public officials and other newsmakers to write book-length memoirs undercuts their veracity or is in any way unethical. Perhaps what’s good for Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins should be good for The New York Times and even Hustler? I don’t believe that, but you can’t dismiss the question out of hand.
As for anyone’s qualms about rummaging around in politicians’ private lives, that train seems to have left the station a decade ago, if not longer. You could even argue that sexual conduct is a relatively weighty issue in an era when presidential elections can be decided by the loudness of a candidate’s sighs during a debate. For his part, Flynt has long since made his peace with being vilified (if it was even an issue for him to begin with; he has, after all, admitted to having had sex with a chicken in his youth). He recounts a favorite anecdote, about an interview Livingston gave The New York Times shortly after the Speaker-elect resigned. “They asked him what he thought about me, and he said he thought I was a bottom-feeder. So they called me for a comment and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right, but look what I found when I got down there.’ ”
Speaking of descent, Hustler’s editorial offices are located seven floors below Flynt’s executive floor. The elevator opens onto an unmarked lobby whose only feature is a large table with a marble top upon which sits a Jacuzzi-size urn full of multicolored fake flowers. Beyond a door, the actual magazine offices are decorated with stained beige carpeting, filing cabinets with pornography piled on top, and battered, generic-issue office furniture. Though the magazine has been edited here for 12 years, the offices have the thrown-together, transient look of a TV production office or the headquarters of a political campaign.
A word about the magazine’s content. There is a popular conception among those who don’t read it—abetted by the 1996 Miloš Forman film, The People vs. Larry Flynt, which dramatized the publisher’s free-speech battles but downplayed how precisely he was exercising his rights—that Hustler is a slightly raunchier, blue-collar version of Playboy. This isn’t quite true. The magazine, which started publishing nationally in 1974, is much, much raunchier. In an airbrushed, Vaseline-lensed era, it established itself with brightly lit, sharply focused, speculum-like views of the female body. There has been evolution. Today’s Hustler pictorials feature not just genitalia but also penetration, ejaculation, sex toys, sodomy, and pretty much everything else that one or two or more people can do without endangering their health, risking arrest, or involving other species. (Though same-sex impulses are rationed strictly to the ladies.) None of this is unique on contemporary newsstands. What continues to distinguish the magazine from its competitors (in what the magazine industry refers to without embarrassment as the “men’s sophisticates” category) is (a) its calculatingly offensive, aggressively un-P.C., sometimes ugly, sometimes misogynistic sense of humor, a defining part of its editorial DNA, and (b) an increasingly liberal, or at least anti-Bush, political stance, an outgrowth of the magazine’s historic support of nose-thumbing politics. If Al Gore had an id, is this what it would look like? Though Hustler now publishes columns by old lefties such as Nat Hentoff and Robert Scheer, its singular voice, tapping into cultural resentments that more typically underscore conservative politics, is best captured in a recent cartoon that features President Bush ejaculating on Condoleezza Rice’s backside—semen features in a lot of Hustler humor—while comparing himself to Strom Thurmond and using a racial epithet. (Flynt says he usually votes Democratic, except when he’s casting protest votes for Libertarians, which is another way of cross-sectioning the magazine’s point of view.)
Bruce David, Hustler’s editorial director, has been working for Larry Flynt on and off since the magazine’s earliest days, not long after its birth as a newsletter for patrons of Flynt’s original, Ohio-based strip-club chain. Sour and rumpled, David looks and sounds like a more dyspeptic version of the actor Dan Hedaya. He is talking to me in his somewhat kempt office, which is probably a hundredth the size of Flynt’s and is notable mainly for the sliding piles of Hustlers on his desk. Joining us is Mark Johnson, the magazine’s assistant managing editor and research director, who has been with Hustler for three years. He cut his teeth working as an editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition. He speaks straightforwardly, says he also writes plays, seems pleasant, and gives off an air of not really belonging here. (Though later, flipping through the magazine, I note he also contributes DVD reviews. Hustle and Blow #3 was “underlit,” he maintains.)
David and Johnson run the magazine’s investigations of politicians—manning the shovels, as it were. So far, the two men say, they’ve received roughly 350 responses to the recent Washington Post ad. Screening sounds easy. “The majority of the calls are from nut jobs,” Johnson explains. Other callers’ stories have the ring of truth but are “essentially unverifiable.”
Still, David says, “There’s a lot of information out there.”
The tips concern members mostly of Congress; a few wriggling administration figures and presidential candidates get caught in the nets as well. All told, Hustler’s investigative team has followed up on approximately 100 leads. While some have come from escorts and rent boys, most of the tipsters are what Johnson calls “kind of straight-arrow people who’ve heard something. And they’re not all anti-Republican, either. We get a lot of calls from people who say they’re conservatives or they’re Republicans, and they’re just outraged by the information they have, and they think it should come out.” Much to their surprise, though, they haven’t received tips in the form of “opposition research” from rival political campaigns. “Why aren’t political enemies calling us?” Johnson wonders. “I guess the Democrats are just too virtuous, or something.”
Digging dirt, it turns out, isn’t easy, even with cash burning a hole in your wallet. “I got a couple of good stories about someone—you know, places, times, details about the sexual act,” Johnson says. “And it sounded good to me—it sounded plausible. I mean, you can tell if somebody has just kind of made something up or if they’re suffering from delusions. But in this case it happened like 10 years ago, in a hotel. So there weren’t many witnesses—you know, maybe one witness. So what are you going to do? It’s just too easy to deny. And then if we print it we end up looking like we’re just, you know, blogging nonsense. I mean, we consider ourselves a print magazine.” Indeed, Hustler swears it holds itself to a J-school-worthy standard of multiple witnesses or other forms of corroboration before going public with a story. (Says Flynt, “There’s nobody more cautious than we are, because the mainstream media hold me to a whole different standard. And if I’m wrong once, they’ll step on me like a bug.”)
Unfortunately, sneaking around on one’s spouse, by its very nature, makes this kind of documentation hard to come by. Even solid leads evaporate. “The sources get a little bit frightened,” Johnson says. “I don’t know if they get paid off, or somebody knows they contacted us. But we’ve gotten a couple of calls, at least, where there have been conversations back and forth—and these are involving presidential candidates—and then I’ll kind of lose contact, or the phone number won’t work, or they’ll call back a couple months later and say, ‘Yeah, sorry, I changed my mind.’ ”
Cost-benefit ratios are another concern. “Sometimes you get a good story, but it’s not going to sell any more magazines or move things politically,” David says. He and Johnson tell me about a lead they were working on regarding a state legislator on the East Coast with gubernatorial aspirations. The male politician, who was married, had gotten involved with a woman he’d met through a “BDSM” Web site. (That would be bondage, domination, and sadomasochism.) It was a juicy story—the legislator “liked these fetishy sex games,” Johnson explains—and the source, the mistress, had also supplied the magazine with corroborating e-mails; the legislator had been careless. “But the source wanted too much money,” Johnson says, “and there was a lot of haggling back and forth. And since it was a state-level politician, we weren’t going to pay as much as we normally would.” Eventually Hustler and the woman came to terms, but when she refused to go on the record, the magazine moved on.
The D.C. Madam’s phone bills proved to be something of a minefield. They were brought to the magazine by Dan Moldea, a Washington-based investigative journalist who had first worked for Flynt during the Clinton impeachment and helped to expose Livingston. (His most recent book investigated the suicide of Vincent Foster, debunking right-wing conspiracy theories, but Moldea is probably most famous for suing The New York Times after a reviewer dismissed a book he had written about the N.F.L. and organized crime as “sloppy journalism”; he lost the suit.) It was Moldea who linked Vitter to Deborah Jean Palfrey’s escort service. After that promising start—there’s gold in them thar hills!—Hustler hired a couple of office temps to start plugging the numbers into reverse search engines and cross-referencing them with various databases. With the bills spanning 13 years, from 1993 to 2006, there were upwards of 50,000 numbers to check (though many were repeats)—a four-month task in the end. As records of Palfrey’s outgoing phone service, they presumably represented her return calls to potential clients. But many of the numbers belonged to hotels—not surprising, but an investigative dead end. Others were innocuous: calls to the dry cleaners and such.
Of the numbers that could be linked to presumptive clients, most belonged to relatively low-level figures: congressional aides, lobbyists, bureaucrats, local politicians, state legislators and judges in town for conferences, the occasional diplomat. According to Cheryl Smith, the temp who ran most of the numbers—“not my favorite assignment,” she says; Hustler’s atmosphere “kind of wears down on you”—only three post-Vitter numbers could be reliably linked with instantly recognizable names. One of those was the ABC newsman Sam Donaldson. As Hustler eventually learned to its disappointment, Donaldson’s cousin, whose new cell-phone number was similar to Palfrey’s, had apparently left him a message and accidentally gave Palfrey’s number.
The magazine hit another dead end with Larry Craig. Moldea (who is at pains to make the distinction that when he works for Flynt he is working for Larry Flynt Publications and not Hustler magazine) says Flynt called him last February to ask him to look into rumors that Craig and another senator were gay. “It was a hunch,” Moldea says. “What he proposed was to put a tail on these guys, and that’s a complicated operation, putting a tail on a United States senator.” Moldea hired a surveillance expert he had used during the 1998 investigations—“he nailed someone for us”—with the initial expectation that the operative would put Craig under round-the-clock watch. Fortunately for the magazine’s budget, the operative found a source who alleged he could offer advance warning if Craig was going to have some kind of assignation, eliminating the need for long, high-billing nights sitting in a van and drinking cold cups of bad coffee. By the end of May, however, nothing untoward had been observed. (Despite the assumptions of late-night comics and pretty much all other Americans, Craig has insisted on numerous public occasions that he is a practicing heterosexual.) In June, when Flynt ran his ad in The Washington Post, Moldea’s operative said it was time to throw in the towel. “Are these guys going to go on with their ‘routines’ now that they know everyone’s gunning for them?” the operative asked rhetorically. “No, they’re going to head for the hills.” Or maybe Minneapolis.
When Trent Lott announced his resignation from the Senate in late November, Hustler got two dozen calls from reporters and bloggers assuming, wrongly, that Flynt had a hand in it. As someone who has worked closely with him for more than a decade says, “Larry is now the go-to guy for this sort of thing.”
Certainly Flynt has a lot of sleaze at his fingertips. He tells a great story about Richard Nixon’s brother Donald sneaking the then president out of the White House in the backseat of a beat-up old Chevy to visit hookers—a story he claims was told to him by someone who had been an adviser to the Nixon White House. “And he couldn’t get it up,” Flynt says. “And that was the same time he was telling Kissinger to bomb Hanoi. I felt there was a little irony in there: He can’t get it up for sex but he can get it up for war.” Flynt also offers to show me what he says are topless pictures of Jessica Lynch, the soldier who was rescued in the early days of the Iraq invasion and turned into a propaganda figure by the Pentagon; Flynt says fellow soldiers sold the photos to him, and angered by the administration’s exploitation of the war, he planned to publish them until a close associate threatened to quit in disgust, drawing the rare line.
I ask about the picture on his desk of him with Bill Clinton. Back in 1998, many people claimed that Flynt’s revelations about Bob Livingston marked a turning point in the impeachment case, along with Hustler’s subsequent excavation of skeletons (infidelity; having paid for an abortion) in the closet of Representative Bob Barr, one of the House managers in the impeachment trial. Not that anyone expected Clinton to be convicted and forced from office, but for many people Flynt’s tattle-taling put the lie to the moral case against the president, turning what was already a circus into pure farce. As Frank Rich wrote at the time—approvingly, for the most part—“Larry Flynt is a bull in the china shop of false pieties, empty pretensions, and sexual sermonizing that have brought us to this low moment in American history.”
Flynt explains that the photo with Clinton was taken in 2006 at a Las Vegas fund-raiser for Jimmy Carter’s son Jack, who ran unsuccessfully that year for a U.S. Senate seat in Nevada. It was the first time the pornographer and the ex-president met. “When Clinton came in, the first thing he did was come over and grab my hand and say, ‘You’re my hero.’ I said, ‘Well, you made my day.’ ” According to Flynt, the former president then told him he had erred in not publishing the details of Livingston’s extramarital sex life. “Clinton was a little irritated about that. He said if I’d known the full story I would have printed it.” Did he and Clinton compare notes on Livingston? “No, because he knew what I knew. We had the same thing. But he realized how horrible it was, and he thought it should have been published.” (Later, I ask Clinton’s office about the encounter, The response: “President Clinton has a different recollection of the conversation. It had more to do with the search for the truth and wasn’t at all about settling scores. He doesn’t believe in that.”)
I toss a few dutiful questions at Flynt: Does he worry he’s had a negative effect on politics?
“No,” he says flatly.
Would he ever use his resources to investigate less colorful kinds of misbehavior—bribe taking, say?
That one prompts a smile. “I stick to what I do best. The sex business—I know it pretty good. Not saying if I could find someone who was corrupt I wouldn’t do whatever I could to reveal the story. But what we’re doing now is fun, especially the Republicans. When you’re born in a conservative family, raised conservative—conservatives come into life with so much baggage it’s unbelievable. It’s my theory that aberrant sexual behavior is caused by sexual repression, not sexual permissiveness. People have a lot of guilty feelings, a lot of insecurity about their sexual desires and appetites. It’s a never-ending story. I think about this minister that was seeing a gay guy”—Ted Haggard—“and Larry Craig. It’s baggage those people have carried all their lives. And they’ve deceived everyone. They’ve deceived their family. They’ve deceived their country. I don’t believe that these people should be politicians. Not because you’re gay or have some other peccadillo. But because, if you take a public position contrary to the way you live your life, you’re fair game. That means you’re a hypocrite. And that’s what we’re all about. What we’re exposing is hypocrisy.”
As the episode with Bonnie Livingston indicates, Flynt has a conscience to go with his moral compass. Moldea told me that Flynt once backed off on an exposé after it got back to him that the politician in question was on the verge of suicide. I ask him if he ever second-guesses what he does, if it ever makes him feel “bad.”
“Well, I look at it like this,” he says. “The lawmakers in this country don’t deserve a break, because they have so abused their authority by trampling on our rights and constitutional liberties. It’s just unspeakable the things they’ve allowed to happen, either through their inaction or taking an action on the wrong bill. I look at it like, people go to Washington with the best intentions, and they get their pockets stuffed with money from lobbyists and then their constituents can no longer get anything from them. I’m so angry with the political system that anything I can do to cause them misery I will.”
Postscript: Figuring I owed something to the memory of a president who birthed the E.P.A. (when not invading Cambodia or blaming his problems on the Jews), I ran Flynt’s Nixon story by a couple of experts. “It sounds totally incredible,” said Carl Bernstein, co-author of All the President’s Men and The Final Days. Robert Dallek, the historian and author of Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, agreed: “The impression I had was that Nixon pretty much kept it in his pants, that he was a straight arrow, though I suppose where politicians are concerned anything is possible