Enough jokes about Larry Flynt’s Late-Night Bust. After launching a flutter of rumors around the world, with journalists trying to figure out whether the time announced for his press conference was Eastern or Pacific standard time, the only meat that America’s second-best-known pornographer could wave before a room of reporters the night of Jan. 11 was a paid-for affidavit from the former wife of Representative Bob Barr. She swore that the House impeachment manager paid for her 1983 abortion and did not object to it, contrary to what he testified under oath during their 1986 divorce proceeding. “Televised theatrics,” huffed Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post , after The Post a day earlier had run a front-page style-section piece whetting appetites for Mr. Flynt’s forthcoming barrage. Geraldo Rivera rose to Mr. Flynt’s bait, almost alone among the media. Said Mr. Barr: “I have never perjured myself.… I have never suggested, urged, forced or encouraged anyone to have an abortion.” It was a nondenial denial, of course. On CNN’s Larry King Live , Jan. 12, the anti-abortionist Mr. Barr said he didn’t “condone” the abortion, either. (His ex disagrees.) He admitted signing the abortion check on their joint account, but Mr. King failed to ask why she couldn’t sign on her own.
Still, in the great game of expectations, Mr. Flynt crashed. His hot potatoes proved minuscule, though he claims to have more on the fire. Having shoved Representative Robert Livingston into the fastest fall in American history since William Henry Harrison died a month after his inauguration, Mr. Flynt flubbed his encore. What he did was join Matt Drudge as a mighty shoveler on the dungheap of accusations. For that matter, Mr. Flynt also joins the New York Post , that shrine of family values, which on Jan. 3 front-paged Mr. Drudge’s canard about Bill–sorry, William Jefferson–Clinton’s hypothetical Arkansas love child. (Mr. Murdoch’s sheet somehow neglected to front-page the DNA results when they proved negative.)
Leave aside, for the moment, the question of Mr. Flynt’s integrity, not to mention his journalistic acumen, his letting rumors of truly stupendous revelations fly around so long that they may have flopped of their own weight. The truly interesting question is how Larry Flynt moved to the heart, or the spleen, of the current culture jihad. There has never been a war without vile allies joining in common cause.
So there is something as fitting as it is disgusting to see Larry Flynt, the man who once displayed on Hustler ‘s cover a cartoon of a woman being ground into chopped meat, appear as a warrior for the libertarian side of the culture war. Like it or not, he belongs there with Hugh Hefner, Madonna, Barney Frank, Dennis Rodman and, in their own ways, Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton. History, mocker of distinctions, dropped him there.
The culture war of the last 30 years revives an epochal collision, two centuries’ worth of clashes between America’s modernizing individualists and its authoritarian theocrats. It has always been a regional fight, pitting the Southern-and-heartland booboisie against the city slickers. It would be delightful to read H.L. Mencken on Jerry Falwell. In the second half of the 20th century, city slickers spawned suburban slickers and swingers, who now far outnumber their country cousins. What Mencken didn’t live to see were the heartland boys, Midwesterners Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt prominent among them, who knew where to butter their bread. The same Jerry Falwell who marketed a video charging Bill Clinton with murder was destined to fall afoul of Mr. Flynt’s brutal cartoonists. The same Milos Forman who felt the brunt of Czechoslovakia’s Communist censors was destined to apotheosize Mr. Flynt’s contributions to the bizarre saga of American liberty.
The fabled 60’s can be sliced many ways, but the version in play all year during the Republicans’ siege of the White House is, as promised, no less than a culture war. The cleavage divided libertarians from moralists; the Playboy philosophy, contraception and abortion, sex equality and gay rights, all wrapped up together and damn the contradictions, versus Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott; Geraldo and Jenny Jones versus Kenneth Starr and Henry Hyde. The broadcast of outrage through scads of channels amounts, in William Bennett’s terms, to the death of the popular outrage he longs for–and gives rise, as Republican pollsters are finding out, to a second birth of outrage against Mr. Bennett and his crowd. It is because the libertarian side of the culture war prevails that public opinion has hung with Bill Clinton for a full year now, and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party is in a disloyal mood.
Most people don’t give a damn for a culture jihad. They’ve long since decided that different folks practice different strokes with folks who are different from the folks with whom they practice their own strokes. They relish tales of other people’s transgressions, but call that entertainment. They know there is something else called “government,” which requires focus–the very trait that now goes by the name of “compartmentalization.” They knew who they were getting in Bill Clinton–not the guy they wanted to marry their daughter or sister. They were getting government. Their own lives have been too jagged to permit them to remount the high horses Mr. Bennett and the family Kristol favor.
As I argued in my last column, most voters are not most people, which is the only reason the two sides of American culture look so evenly matched. The Republicans now tremble at the libertarian beast they have waked from its slumber. Jesse (The Alliance-Builder) Ventura has given them another scare: a guy who has publicly worn a dress and who got young, white working-class men–the kind who once put Ronald Reagan over the top–to turn out for him in droves. If Mr. Ventura didn’t directly target Hustler readers, it’s because he didn’t need to. His proclaimed mix of conservative economics and moderate culture is not so different from Mr. Clinton’s. It is the American norm now. The libertines have won, though it’s taking a while for Mr. Barr to get the news. The normalization of outrage is the name of America’s favorite game, and not any of the smug Republican choirboys–not Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, or Orrin Hatch of Utah, or the aptly named Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, or George Will, or Ralph Reed, or Mr. Starr, not any of those smooth-faced culture warriors–are ever going to get Mr. Flynt back under his rock.