It has been 75 years since Larry Flynt entered the world in Magoffin County, Kentucky, population 12,913.The big, sprawling, confounding real life he has lived since would not be believed if it were fiction:
Self-made millionaire (Celebrity Net Worth says his is at least $500 million), whose empire started in a string of bars-turned-strip-clubs in Ohio.
Which led to him being a world-famous pornographer with Hustler magazine.
Which led to the ire of polite society, women who felt demeaned by his products, would-be censors and even a would-be assassin.
Which led to him being in Gwinnett County, Georgia, to answer obscenity charges when a white-supremacist sniper (the same one who later would also try to kill political, business and civil rights titan Vernon Jordan) shot him, and led to Flynt’s partial paralysis and being in a wheelchair since 1978.
Which led to legal tangles that earned Flynt a reputation as a First Amendment crusader and free-speech advocate.
Which led him to the U.S. Supreme Court and a place in legal history as the victor of a suit in 1988 that was brought against him by evangelist Jerry Falwell, who was the subject of a lewd, insulting parody published in Hustler.
Which led him to being the subject of a Milos Forman-directed film about his life, free speech and that lawsuit (Woody Harrelson played him).
Which led him to being part of our culture, for better or worse, since shortly after he left Magoffin County.
And, oh yeah, about that: According to his official bio, he was fresh from Magoffin and working as a naval radar operator on the USS Enterprise when it helped recover John Glenn and his capsule from their splashdown near the Bahamas in the ocean after the Mercury astronaut’s three orbits of the Earth.
And, oh yeah, again: Did you know he and Falwell became friends after the dust, and the suit, had settled?
How do you even begin to talk to someone with this life story? This is a book, a binge-worthy Netflix series, not a 2,000-word interview.
But the idea for this longer than 2,000-word interview started here:
About every eight years or so, the hypocrisy of politicians will goad Magoffin’s most famous son into opening his checkbook and offering a $1 million reward, call it a freelance bounty, for information leading to the exposure of deeds that Flynt feels are damaging our democracy, or which offend his sense of decorum (yes, he has one). His most famous results came during President Clinton’s impeachment in the 1990s. Flynt most recently resurrected the reward last fall, when he placed a $1 million price tag on verifiable footage or recordings showing Donald Trump, now president, engaged in illegal activity, or in a sexually demeaning or derogatory manner.
Contact was made with his Beverly Hills, California, headquarters, and a few months later we were on the phone talking about Kentucky, politics, Trump and Flynt’s own reading habits.
Before hanging up, Larry Flynt said, “I hope you don’t get fired.”
LEO: You left Magoffin County about 50 years ago. Has Magoffin County ever left you?
Larry Flynt: Oh, I don’t think it ever does. I kind of subscribe to Thomas Wolfe’s philosophy, who said: You can’t go home again. But in a way I disagree with that. I miss Kentucky. I miss growing up there.
Some of the best years of my life, you know. We didn’t have nothing. We didn’t expect much out of life. It was a very simple life, and it’s something you can really learn to miss when you’re out in the real world.
I miss squirrel hunting. I used to do that a lot when I was a kid.
Good or bad, how did Kentucky leave its imprint on you?
I don’t think it left any kind of imprint, other than — we all come from somewhere. It’s those formative years that are important. Many of my family members have never left Magoffin County. They’ve lived there their whole lives. That’s their whole world down there. It’s that simple life we all miss, that we were raised in.
Do you think people would be surprised to hear you say that?
Probably, because most people don’t know me.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
Everybody thinks I’m a seedy old man in a basement, grinding out pornography every month. But I’m really a businessman who has a vast empire that’s worldwide, with a broadcast television business, a casino gaming business, a retail business, internet, publishing. We’re very widely diversified, and we operate in 57 different countries.
When you were describing your business empire a moment ago, except for the steaks, the vodka and the water, it sounded similar to Mr. Trump’s.
[Laughs] No, I think we’re miles apart. I know Mr. Trump. I’ve never met another man in my life who has an ego as big as he does. His whole world is about him, not about anybody else. I care about people. I don’t think he does.
Do you think Kentucky has anything to do with what you did and how you did it?
Yes and no. Ever since I was a small child, I’ve always questioned authority, I’ve always questioned government, I’ve always questioned religion, I’ve always thought there was more to the world than Magoffin County. I always had a world vision. When I left, I realized there was a different world out there … I always wanted to be an achiever. I never stopped. All my life, I was like a sponge — I absorbed things. I always remained curious. I think that’s the key to success …
… There are a lot of things that go into being successful. You can either be made stronger by your failures, or you can be made weaker — they can destroy you. I seem to always learn from my failures, rather than to have a defeatist attitude.
Like much of Kentucky, your home county has people who are poor and jobless and recently voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates who want to end Obamacare and other benefits. Do you understand that?
I understand it. Unfortunately, I wished they understood it a little bit better. At the beginning, our founding fathers didn’t want everybody to vote. They only wanted property owners to vote, because [James] Madison and the other founding fathers were concerned that an unintelligent electorate could be very dangerous to a democracy. And that’s what we got with the situation with Trump. I agree that the government should do something to help. They should bring other industry into the area, but for them to cast a vote for him like he’s going to wave a magic wand and bring all the jobs back, that’s not going to happen.
Did you talk to any of your family members who are still there, and who they were going to vote for and why?
I don’t discuss politics with them because most of them are Republicans. I’m progressive liberal. I’m about as far left as you can get.
Have you always been that way?
Yes. I realized that the advances we’ve made as a culture have come through a progressive administration, not a conservative administration — whether that’s the industrial revolution, the technology revolution or whatever. It’s always come from progressive people. The only thing Republicans do is try to hold us down.
Speaking of which, Kentucky is a small state by population and with a fair number of challenges, but with Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, Kentucky seems to have disproportionate power nationally. What do you think of McConnell and Paul?
They’re the worst of the worst. That whole Republican Party. I’m not saying that Republicans are racists, but I’m saying, if you’re a racist and you’re looking for a party, the Republicans are your party. These recent cuts that they’ve made — how could they cut Meals on Wheels? It’s a tiny fraction of the budget that can’t be measured. It enables old people to get a meal. One of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard of.
The senators from your former state — what do you think about them and the power these two guys from a small, relatively poor state wield nationally?
Mitch McConnell is nothing more than an obstructionist for the Republican Party, and Rand Paul is not making much headway on selling his version of civil liberties. I don’t think he’s going to go anywhere politically.
You have offered rewards in the past to flush out hypocritical politicians, most famously during the Clinton years. You have brought back the $1 million reward for (information about) Trump. Why did you do that and did you get anything?
I got a lot of stuff. Remember, the big misconception in Washington when you think of scandal [is] if it’s money, they think Republican, and if it’s sex, they think it’s Democrats. It’s really the complete opposite. If it’s sex it’s Republicans; money, it’s Democrats. But almost all politicians are corrupt to a certain degree, and the only way you can get people to talk is to pay them money. I’ve been criticized for doing that, but I see absolutely nothing wrong with paying for information if it’s correct. If it’s not correct, they have libel laws they can use to sue you for. We always try to keep the politicians honest.
I didn’t see that you revealed anything with the reward before the election. Is that $1 million still there for people who can provide information about Mr. Trump?
Yes. If they can deliver anything we can publish, we pay it. But I don’t deal in National Enquirer kind of gossip. If it’s a videotape, we have to authenticate it. If it’s a photograph, we have to authenticate it, you know. It’s not just doing an interview with someone saying they slept with Donald Trump. Probably a thousand girls would fit that description.
You’re still working on this?
We have several cases that we’re working on. We can’t discuss them because we haven’t confirmed anything. There’s going to be another shoe or two to drop — you can rest assured of that.
In interviews last year and earlier this year, you were talking about a lack of decorum in the campaign and the election. What does it take to appall Larry Flynt?
Whatever comes out of his [Trump’s] mouth, he lies. We’ve never had a president like this in all the history of the country. And he gets away with it. And the press let him get away with it. They keep replaying those tweets of his, and they don’t call him out on their shows, even back when he was running for president. They should have told him: If you want to come on our show, you have to tell the truth. You don’t tell the truth, you can’t be on the show. Trump has to have his publicity. If they cut him off of that, that’s his lifeline.
You think their biggest failing was not to point out earlier every time that he was not telling the truth.
Absolutely. Not only not pointing out, but not telling him he couldn’t come back on the air unless he apologized, and that if he lied again, they’d bar him completely. So what, he goes to Fox. Let him go to Fox with the rest of the degenerates over there. Mainstream news has lots of other news to cover.
What’s the scariest part of all that to you?
The scariest part is that the First Amendment has lost its value. We pay a price for everything. The price we pay to live in a free society is toleration. We have to tolerate things we don’t necessarily like so we can be free. But we don’t have to tolerate lies. No broadcasting company, and no newspaper, should be allowed to print them. It’s one thing to take an editorial position and even if you’re staking out a position that’s completely wrong, at least you’re giving it as an opinion. But to make a factual statement that’s incorrect, you’re crossing a line.
You went to the U.S. Supreme Court over a parody. Every day people are being hit with fake news — stories about fake news and actual fake news. What do you think about this, and what’s the difference between the two (fake news and parody), and where do you think we’re going to end up with this?
I watched on the History Channel a documentary on [former Italian fascist leader Benito] Mussolini a while back. And he’s got all of Trump’s mannerisms, and he talks just like [him]. Part of Mussolini’s philosophy was: If you tell a lie often enough, people will start believing you. You have people who only believe what they read on the internet. They’re what we call the low-hanging fruit. They’re the low-information voters. They don’t need factual information to guess their vote. That’s what’s so dangerous about the lies being spread — they’ll just blindly make up their own mind based on something they read on the internet.
What do we do about this?
We have to be diligent. We have to guard against it. And like I said, unless mainstream media gets a spine and starts to stand up on this matter, I don’t think we ever can correct. They’re the elephant in the room. They have to be out front, taking a strong position on behalf of their viewers, that they’re not going to tolerate this.
Do you ever pick up the phone and call the editors of The Washington Post or The New York Times or, out where you are, The Los Angeles Times? Or would they take your call?
You’d be surprised at the people who take my calls. I don’t want to drop names, but I’ve even surprised myself when I wanted to reach somebody and I’m able to get to them.
Do you think people respect this part of your life and your career, that you have made First Amendment law?
I think they respect the fact that my case was one of the most important First Amendment cases decided in the history of our country, making parody and satire protected speech, and eliminated the fact you could no longer collect damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress — you had to prove libel first. That was a huge, huge victory for the First Amendment. I think a lot of publishers are grateful this law is on the books.
I’ve read where you say you celebrate women. A lot of women would disagree with that. What do you mean by that?
I love women, I worship women. The only people that will disagree with you are some of the feminists around the country, but I don’t think they speak for most American women.
The word ‘pussy’ has entered our lexicon. Women wear hats that look like vaginas. Do you think you’ve had anything to do with any of this?
No. I think Trump’s got that hat to wear. He’s done more to degrade and dehumanize women than anyone I know of.
What do you read every day?
The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, every day.
What about favorite books?
I was book-of-the-month club for many years. I’ve been an avid book reader up until the last few years. I like biographies of successful people, like… [Winston] Churchill, people like that. I find them very inspiring.
If you have a headstone and an epitaph on it, what will it be?
They told me I couldn’t take my money with me, so I decided not to go.
I don’t think much about epitaphs. I just want them to drop me in the ground and write my name on my shoe sole.
Is that how they do it in Magoffin County?