Tavis: Larry Flynt is, of course, the founder of Hustler magazine and a longtime advocate for free speech and First Amendment rights in this country. His new book delves into the personal lives of former presidents and first ladies and is called “One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History.” Larry Flynt, it’s always good to see you, sir.
Larry Flynt: Good to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: You are no shrinking violet, as we all know, so this is gonna be an interesting conversation. We’ll see what we can put out there on public television. Let me start by asking, though, because I was just up late last night watching for the umpteenth time “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” one of my favorite movies.
And whether people like or loathe what it is that you do for a living, no one argues – at least, I don’t argue – the contribution you’ve made to First Amendment rights and free speech in this country. When you look at that movie all these years later, what do you think of the movie, “The People vs. Larry Flynt?”
Flynt: I think what’s more visible there than anything is the price I paid for that fight.
Tavis: The price you paid for it.
Flynt: Yeah. Being in a wheelchair for 30 years. I’m not whining about it because I don’t dwell on things I can’t do anything about, you know. I never really think about until somebody mentions it. I did take a bullet. If I had it done over, I’d probably have done the same thing again.
Tavis: I was just about to ask whether or not, after being in that chair for 30 years, you would do the same thing again if you had to.
Flynt: I would have to. I felt so passionate, you know, about free speech.
Tavis: Why was that fight worth all of this? What makes it that significant for Larry Flynt?
Flynt: Well, one thing, you got to stand in a courtroom and listen to a judge sentencing you to 25 years in prison before you realize that freedom of expression can no longer be taken for granted. So that’s how fight got started, and it never seemed to end because every prosecutor in the country wanted a piece of me for years, you know. I was always there to oblige them [laugh].
Tavis: I wonder whether or not after all these years, 30 years later, whether or not we’re making progress, to your mind, in respecting First Amendment rights, free speech, or whether or not – and I could argue – whether or not we’re losing ground in that regard.
Flynt: You know, Janis Joplin 40 years ago sang the lyrics of a song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Well, those sentiments are more present today than ever before because freedom is not the freedom for the thought you love. It’s a freedom for the thought you hate the most. You have to be able to tolerate what you don’t necessarily like so you can be free.
You know, everybody believes in free speech until you start questioning them about it. Well, what do you think about [unintelligible], what do you think about hate speech, what do you think about pornography? Then they go, well, I didn’t know you were talking about that. So everybody has their own version of free speech.
Tavis: What most concerns you? You and I talk all the time. I know you’re a news junkie and I say that respectfully and lovingly. What most concerns you about the retread, the ground that we’re losing on free speech? What examples?
Flynt: What concerns me more than anything is a privacy issue, and the government is not doing anything about it in terms of the big companies like Facebook and Google or what have you. I don’t begrudge those people for making money. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But I think Americans need to know when they’re giving up their privacy. I think that’s just as important as the speech issue. So the government is really not necessarily protecting peoples’ right to free speech as well as they’re not saying they have a right to privacy.
Tavis: One last question on this. What could, what should, the government be doing better in that regard than what they’re doing now?
Flynt: Well, number one, you should not be able to infringe on anybody’s personal rights, you know. Government should not be doing it and nobody else should be doing it.
Tavis: Are you at all concerned that part of the ground that’s giving way on free speech is in the name of “protecting us” from terrorism, “protecting us” from the boogey man, “protecting us” from…
Flynt: Well, that’s how it all started. That’s how the Patriot Act got passed. Bush got that through and nobody objected because they felt that the country faced serious threats from abroad and it’s still in place. President Obama allowed it to continue. See, when you give up something, it’s very, very difficult to get it back.
Tavis: Thanks for answering those questions because I wanted to get your take on what was happening with these contemporary issues. Now to the book, “One Nation Under Sex.” Love the title, number one. Number two, to the title, though, the subtitle specifically, “How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Change the Course of American History.”
You’re arguing in this book and you believe that the sex lives of people in the White House really changed the course of history, Larry?
Flynt: Absolutely. But, you know, there’s more or less a denial from the beginning. Historians, journalists, never wanted to believe that the marvelous man that drafted the Declaration of Independence would father six children by a young slave girl, Sally Hemings. Although there were rumors down through the centuries, it wasn’t actually established until DNA until 1998. Now everybody knows it to be true.
But there’s many things in this book that aren’t true that’s very important. James Buchanan was the president before Lincoln came in. He was gay and you would think that someone who’s gay would sort of identify with people who were being oppressed, but he did. He was a staunch segregationist and an advocate of slavery. Lincoln came in to the mess, you know, which he left in 1860.
Tavis: How much of what these persons did or didn’t do has to do with the times? I hear people all the time make the argument that it’s the times that they were living in.
Flynt: Let me give you an even better example. Woodrow Wilson, his mistress at the time, Edith Galt, actually dictated a letter that was sent to the German Kaiser. Now this was before the United States ever decided they were gonna enter World War I. But later when Wilson had a stroke and eventually died – he was pretty much comatose after the stroke – and Edith, his wife, with the help of the White House doctor, hid this fact from Congress and from the press for like three months.
During that three-month period of time, there was a very important vote on the League of Nations which Wilson was trying to strike and have it part of the Versailles Treaty. Who knows? If that would have passed, we might not of even had World War I in Europe and not even later on with Hitler because nobody knows how effective the League of Nations would have been. Let’s hope it would have been more effective than the U.N.
But he was only three votes short in the Senate and the other votes were controlled by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. They could easily have negotiated with him to get the votes that they needed for passage, but Wilson was not available to do it and nobody else knew his medical condition. So the treaty lost in the Senate by three votes.
That’s actually a good example, but there are a lot of other examples. Roosevelt, a tremendous amount of effect. He had some very strong women in his life. I’m not saying whether…
Tavis: Franklin or Theodore?
Tavis: Franklin, okay.
Flynt: I’m not saying whether these relationships were physical or platonic or what, but it doesn’t matter. Roosevelt still surrounded himself with a lot of strong women. I think that they in many ways helped give him the strength that he needed to get us through the Depression and get us through World War II.
Another interesting tidbit in the book because I found out things that even surprised me in my research for the book. The youngest First Lady was only 19 years old and how that happened was, when Grover Cleveland was campaigning for the presidency, his wife died, so he married the nanny and the nanny was only 19 and had five children with her in the White House.
The reason why I thought about that and it struck me is today – you know, we’re supposed to be an advanced society today – but today we would not accept an 18 or 19-year-old as First Lady. It just wouldn’t happen.
Tavis: My time with Larry is up now, but I’m not done with this conversation. So I’m gonna ask you to go to our website because the good stuff we ain’t got to yet, and I’m gonna get to it right now [laugh]. If you go to pbs.org, you can see the rest of this conversation with Larry Flynt.
The new book is called “One Nation Under Sex” written by the one and only Larry Flynt. We’ll continue this on pbs.org. Check us out. Larry, good to have you on the program.
Flynt: Thank you.
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