If you believe the TV commercial, Larry Flynt is the worst case scenario in California’s recall election. The Vote No on the Recall spot opens with panicked newspaper quotes: “158 File Papers for Recall Election” – Los Angeles Times 8/10/03; “Circus California” – Los Angeles Daily News, 8/8/03; “3-Ring Politics” – Daily News, 8/8/03.” A stern voiceover warns of an invasion of ” … millionaires, local gadflies, political mavericks, even a porn king.” Tiny thumbnail photos of millionaires, gadflies, and mavericks stream onscreen, too small to be recognizable, except one, the porn king, who is clearly Larry Flynt. “All running for governor – because someone could win with as little as 15 percent of the vote!”
The message has been hammered home. The sponsors of the commercial – Californians Against the Costly Recall of the Governor – view the threat of a Larry Flynt governorship as a fate worse than death, and one of the very best reasons to cling to Gray Davis.
Larry Flynt certainly possesses the imperial trappings of a fate-worse-than-death. The ovoid black monolith of Larry Flynt Publications towers over the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega boulevards, with an equestrian statue of John Wayne guarding the entrance. The interior of Flynt’s private floor is like the Palace of Versailles, or maybe mid-period Michael Jackson. The dense acreage of antique, art, and objets could also be the lair of a James Bond movie villain. I look for the stolen Goya from Dr. No. In his inner sanctum, Flynt presides behind a huge, Louis-the-something desk. I wonder if it’s real. An assistant, who would be played by Iman in the movie, ushers me in, but Flynt does not look up as I cross the expanse of carpet. He still doesn’t acknowledge my arrival as I seat myself, and place my recording device on his desk. He methodically signs a thick swatch of papers with a fountain pen, and makes a short call to confirm a detail. The game is so Auric Goldfinger that I wait, as patient and quietly amused as Sean Connery.
Finally, he gives me his attention. His voice is a soft rasp, and so ponderously slow I have to constantly resist the temptation to finish his sentences for him. Confined to a wheelchair since a 1978 assassination attempt by a born-again sniper outside a courthouse in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Flynt seems in poor health. He is pale and shaky, and years of both pain and painkillers appear to have taken their toll. He requires time to collect his thoughts, and falters while searching for words. But once he’s on track, the man is to the point. As we start, we both look at our watches. His is gem-encrusted, mine post-industrial from Sav-On, and I will throw it away when the battery runs out. That morning, the three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals put the recall election on hold, but, while both politicians and political observers are loudly wondering what next, Larry Flynt doesn’t appear bothered.
“When I entered this race, I didn’t have any dreams of going to Sacramento,” he says. “I just saw that there was a platform available, and I had some important issues that I had to get out.”
A Simple Plan
The most important of these issues is gambling. Since 2000, Flynt has operated the Hustler Casino in Gardena, and he could easily be accused of overweening self-interest, but, again, he is unconcerned. “If I hadn’t owned the casino, I wouldn’t have thought of the idea,” he admits. “Davis has been recalled because of the deficit. To expand the gaming regulations to allow slot machines in private casinos will allow the state to balance the budget. I felt that was the centerpiece of what I had to offer.”
To deny that Flynt’s offer is anything but fiscally attractive is hard when he details a casino tax of 30 percent on gross receipts across the board: “Any money manager could go to Wall Street and launch a bond issue on that projected income.”
The only real objection to a massive state gambling windfall, either in this election or as a future proposition, would be one of selective morality. “Many people have a problem with gambling, but many other people also have a problem with their taxes being raised,” he says. “California should have Vegas-style gambling. Vegas isn’t going to be happy about this, and they will fight it tooth and nail.”
California’s booming Indian casinos would seem to undercut any moral argument, and Flynt also sees them as a source of political corruption more immoral than any player merely placing a bet. He points out how, while paying no taxes, the Indian casino operators are able to make huge campaign contributions to sympathetic politicians, including Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and State Sen. Tom McClintock.
Another piece of selective morality that irks Flynt is the War on Drugs. “In the last two decades, we have built more prisons than we have schools,” he says. I suggest that marijuana has the primary case for legalization, but Flynt is ahead of me. “No. They should all be legalized,” he says. “You and I both know that we can leave this building and score whatever we want inside of an hour. So who’s kidding who about the War on Drugs? We spend billions of dollars on it, and we’ve accomplished nothing. The only way to get rid of drugs is to take the profit out of them. And how do you get the profit out? You legalize.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger may have made movies, but Larry Flynt is the only candidate who has been the subject of a major Hollywood biopic. Directed by Milos Forman and starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt, and Edward Norton as attorney Alan Isaacman, the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt chronicled how Flynt, a dirt-poor boy from the Kentucky hills, built a publishing empire on Hustler magazine, only to fall afoul of the judicial system and moralists like Jerry Falwell and Charles Keating (who would subsequently be jailed himself for his role in the Reagan-era savings-and-loan scandal). The Hollywood ending came when Flynt’s First Amendment protection was upheld by the 1988 Supreme Court decision that Hustler was equal under the law, and any litigation that threatened Hustler could also threaten The New York Times and The Washington Post. Flynt also gained a national reputation as a prankster and political gadfly, who, true or false, claimed to have the inside goods on everything from the JFK assassination to the Vicki Morgan murder. In 1998, during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Flynt offered a million dollars for evidence about sexual affairs of Republican lawmakers, and the results lead to the resignation of incoming House speaker Bob Livingston.
Little of the old confrontational spirit has so far emerged in his gubernatorial campaign. A few TV and print interviews like this one seem to be the limit of his endeavors. I ask him what happened to the stop-at-nothing, buccaneer porn king, and I believe I detect a wistful sadness. “You all get a little more conservative as you get older,” he says.
Look Out, Jackass
Not so conservative, however, that he bothers to conceal his contempt for George Bush and his cronies Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft. “I’ve been on Bush’s case from even before he was elected,” Flynt rasps. “He’s the most ill-prepared and ill-advised person we’ve ever had as president. He’s not a very smart man. He doesn’t have the vocabulary to carry on a deep conversation, deeper than ‘bring it on.’ I can’t imagine how one of the greatest, strongest, free-est countries in the world could elect a dumb bastard like that.”
I laugh, but also remember how the Vote No on the Recall commercial quoted the L.A. Times warning, “When the laughs are over, Californians will have to live with the outcome.” No, I don’t think Larry Flynt, even if his health could handle it, would make an acceptable governor of California. But toward the end of our encounter, his energy level rises and he makes a statement that, if only for me, renders him easier to live with than many of the other contenders. “I’ve been dragged through most of the courts, I’ve been jailed, I took a bullet for the First Amendment. A federal judge gave me 15 months for contempt. I don’t back down for any of the motherfuckers. I didn’t then, and I won’t now. I don’t care what happens to me. For the most part, I’ve already lived my life, so I’m not going to compromise any of my principles for any of those jackasses.”