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From his penthouse suite atop a tall black building in Beverly Hills, a man in a wheelchair looks out at the rolling hills and broad avenues of Los Angeles, feeling his power. It is a power conferred by great wealth and voracious drive, which over the years has exploded sexual mores, challenged the U.S. Constitution, and brought him celebrity as well as scorn. Recently, that power has been felt in national politics, toppling one high-ranking Republican congressman and leaving other politicians queasily wondering whether they will be next.
Larry C. Flynt wants to keep them guessing. Much like FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who kept dossiers on the sexual peccadilloes of America's most powerful men, Flynt claims to have his own files -- sworn testimony, audiotapes, videos, and other evidence -- that show Republican leaders engaged in behavior that belongs more in the glossy pages of Hustler magazine than in the august halls of the United States Congress.
Six months ago, the mere rumor that Flynt was investigating the sex life of U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) was enough to make the powerful congressman back down from his nomination as House speaker, admit adultery, and retire from politics. In January, Flynt unveiled legal documents from an ex-wife of Republican Bob Barr alleging that the pro-life congressman had helped her procure and pay for an abortion.
Since these revelations, the cigar-chomping porn king has lain low, saying he succeeded in achieving his initial goal of exposing Republican hypocrisy during President Clinton's impeachment hearings. But Flynt & Co. say they still have some semen-stained aces up their sleeves. And they are biding their time, watching and waiting for the Y2K elections to decide whether to lay them on the table.
Meanwhile, the publisher is amused that his revelations have already affected the way presidential campaigns are waged. No one running for president or any other high office in the upcoming election wants it revealed that he or she has a "Flynt problem." Perhaps that's why even before their candidacies got off the ground, White House contenders John McCain and George W. Bush were already making carefully worded and vague admissions about "youthful indiscretions." Lately, Bush has been on the defensive about claims that he used cocaine as a youth, but Flynt's team says it has had nothing to do with this would-be scandal; it has been considering looking into an alleged youthful indiscretion of another sort entirely.
"Obviously, it's an attempt at damage control," Flynt says, referring to the vague admissions. "There's no other motivation for it. But I don't think it will work because this election in 2000 is going to be a horse race. Everyone's going to be asking tough questions, and the politicians are really not going to have any wiggle room. Everything about them is going to be relevant, no matter how far back. The one redeeming factor about the Monica Lewinsky scandal is that the press knows Clinton got no break, and they're not going to give anyone else one either."
As for Flynt and his sleuths, "We've never been on any sort of witch hunt," he says. "But if they take a public position that's in conflict with the way they're living their private lives, we intend to expose them."
It's lunchtime. Flynt, nattily attired in black silk, sits in his gold-plated wheelchair in the cafe of the Hustler Hollywood store and takes a bite of his bagel sandwich and a swig of skim milk. His daughter Theresa, who manages the Sunset Strip emporium of adult toys, X-rated videos, and tourist tchotchkes, stops at his table to say hello and discuss sales, which are slower than Flynt would like. Theresa tells her dad he's looking good. This past spring, Flynt battled pneumonia that nearly killed him. Now, his face softens as he speaks to his daughter, the transgressions of the Republican right momentarily forgotten.
But he is soon back to his agent provocateur self, describing the explosive information he has, but for various reasons isn't using. "There were just volumes of information that we couldn't put in the report," Flynt explains, referring to The Flynt Report, a magazine-style compendium of congressional adultery that Hustler published several months ago. "We had to play it real close to the vest. We're very careful. This all goes through the lawyers."
Among the cases of hypocrisy Flynt has documented:
"A married Republican house manager who would argue for impeachment before the cameras, then fall into the arms of his mistress at night. When the woman got it on videotape, the Flynt camp was ecstatic and signed a contract with her. But greed intervened, as the mistress kept raising her price until it was four times higher than originally agreed.
"I don't mind paying money, but I'm not going to be played like a fool," says Flynt, who walked away from the deal.
"A high-ranking Republican who had phone sex with a woman; she recorded it. "I don't have moral values," the politician boasted. "I just talk about them on TV." The Flynt patrol was practically slobbering over that one. But on closer examination, it discovered the tape was made in Pennsylvania, a state that requires two-party consent for taped phone conversations; this would have subjected Hustler to possible criminal charges (which was Linda Tripp's recent undoing).