Sanders as ‘Uniter’? First Jewish President? Flynt’s Arrows

14 mins read

Good morning. It’s MondayFeb. 24, 2020. It’s now apparent, if it wasn’t previously, that the Democratic Party has a clear frontrunner for the 2020 presidential nomination. His name is Bernard Sanders, though he’s answered to “Bernie” since he went into politics in the 1970s. Until about five years ago, however, if you called him a “Democrat” he would correct you. 

The “democratic socialist” who attracted the most votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada — by increasingly large margins  was born in Brooklyn three months before the attack on Pearl HarborThis was five years before Donald J. Trump was born at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, about 12 miles away. 

Although Sanders put down roots in Vermont, he and President Trump are New Yorkers in every way, including the not-so-good ways, as Howard Fineman recently explained. To say that they can be salty is an understatement. You don’t have to be on Twitter to know that The Donald ran for national officeand has governed for three years, with the sensibilities of a New York insult comic. Bernie Sanders is no piker himselfWhen I was covering the Clinton administration, I recall then-Rep. Sanders comparing the White House to “a mental hospital where people are completely divorced from reality.” He hasn’t mellowed in the meantime. Sanders routinely derides Trump and other rich people, along with entire sectors of the U.S. economy, as “crooks.” Recently he said, “I don’t think billionaires should exist,” which would not only magically do away with the incumbent president, but also eliminate one-third of the Democratic field still competing with him. 

Trump? Don’t even get me started. Here’s my point: At a time of weaponized social media (some of it from foreign governments), “fake news” from various points on the ideological spectrum, and politicians untethered from good manners or even simple civility, do the American voters stand a fighting chance of doing the right thing? 

I’m not sure of the answer, but on this date in 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously gave the citizenry the benefit of the doubt. On an 8-0 vote (Justice Anthony Kennedy didn’t participate), the high court affirmed the right to freedom of expression — even involving the most unsavory form of satire. 

I’ll have more on that epic case in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters, columnists, and contributors, including the following: 

*  *  * 

After Big Nevada Win, Sanders Claims “Uniter” Mantel. Susan Crabtree reports on the campaign’s euphoria — and the party establishment’s unease. 

RNC’s Record January Haul Dwarfs Dems’ Total. Phil Wegmann has the story. 

Reforming the Impeachment Process. Frank Miele shares ideas about how justice, and the American public, could be better served. 

Will America Elect a Jewish President? With Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg vying for the Oval Office, Myra Adams explores a longstanding question. 

Republicans, Oppose Tax Hikes (and That Includes Carbon Taxes). In RealClearEnergy, Mike Paliczurges the GOP to honor its platform. 

Time to Retire the No-Tax-Increase Pledge. In RealClearPolicy, James Capretta argues that the boilerplate GOP stance adds to government dysfunction. 

Congress Can Stop Ticketmaster’s Monopoly. In RealClearMarkets, Mark Perry touts the BOSS Act as a long-overdue way to protect consumers. 

As Nurses Suffer Burnout, Education May Be Best Medicine. In RealClearEducation, Patrick Donovan spotlights a way forward for health care providers overwhelmed by job stress. 

*  *  * 

In the 1970s, Larry Flynt emerged as a pornographer and social critic who, in his own words, was intent on “pushing the envelope of taste” in the pages of Hustler, his unapologetically raunchy magazine. 

In this aim, Flynt did not fall short. His publication stood apart, even within its genre, for its misogyny, gynecological depiction of the female form, racial stereotypes, bathroom humor, and general irreverenceNot to mention vicious political satireusually aimed at Republicans. 

Hustler featured a regular running cartoon of a pedophile named “Chester the Molester,” published a photograph of Jackie Kennedy Onassis sunbathing nude, and made fun of first lady Betty Ford’s mastectomy. (The latter was the only one for which Flynt expressed remorse.) 

Sometimes the material was there for its shock value; some of it was to titillate readers; some was there, well, just because Flynt could do it. After a woman was raped by several men on a pool table at a bar in New Bedford, Mass., Hustler produced a mock civic billboard, “Welcome to New Bedford, the Portuguese Gang Rape Capital of the World.” 

Beneath the crudity was a political message embracing libertarian views and a socially libertine lifestyle — and needling those whom Flynt deemed bluenoses or hypocritesHe could be mean about it, too. When “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace became an anti-porn crusader who said she was forced into X-rated films by her husband at the point of a gun, Hustler ran a bestiality snapshot of her from an earlier porn movie with the hideous caption, “Notice the gun in Fido’s paw.” 

His publication drew the ire of numerous cultural critics, from feminists to the faithful. Among was latter category was the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., a politically active Virginia televangelist who was also making a name for himself in the evolving media culture of the timesLarry Flynt wasn’t someone to turn the other cheek, and the November 1983 issue of Hustler included a parody of Jerry Falwell talking about his “first time.” The bit was modeled after contemporary Campari ads that included interviews with celebrities about their “first” times — ostensibly tasting the iconic liqueur for the first time — but with a sexual double entendre. 

In Hustlersatire, Falwell’s “first time” was a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his own mother in an outhouseThe famous preacher wasn’t a subscriber to the magazine, but a news reporter informed him of the offensive feature. As it happens, Falwell’s mother had recently died. Incensed, as anyone would be, Falwell sued for libel and intentional infliction of emotional stress.  

At trial, a jury of Falwell’s fellow Virginians ruled that a reasonable person wouldn’t believe that Hustler was really claiming these outrages were true — but they sided with the pastor on the emotional harm claim. A federal judge upheld the verdict, as did the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court took the case, and its Feb. 24, 1988 ruling surprised many  Flynt most of all 

“This case presents us with a novel question involving First Amendment limitations upon a states authority to protect its citizens from the intentional infliction of emotional distress,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the 8-0 decision.  

“We must decide whether a public figure may recover damages for emotional harm caused by the publication of an ad parody offensive to him, and doubtless gross and repugnant in the eyes of most,” Rehnquist added. “[Falwell] would have us find that a states interest in protecting public figures from emotional distress is sufficient to deny First Amendment protection to speech that is patently offensive and is intended to inflict emotional injury, even when that speech could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved. This we decline to do.”  

To decide otherwise, the justices reasoned, would effectively outlaw political cartooning. This, too, the high court ruled, would be an unwise and unconstitutional decision to render. Rehnquist, who as a younger man had aspired to be a cartoonist, approvingly quoted one in his decision 

“The political cartoon is a weapon of attack, of scorn and ridicule and satire; it is least effective when it tries to pat some politician on the back. It is usually as welcome as a bee sting, and is always controversial in some quarters.” 

Rehnquist did not identify the cartoonist, but I will. His name was Scott Long, and as the longtime editorial cartoonist for the Minneapolis Star, he was an equal opportunity offender. In a 1962 article for Quill, the magazine published the Society of Professional Journalists, Long wrote, “Those of you who have been on the muzzle end of a cartoon blast know the effectiveness of a good cartoon, and you have proven it to those of us who fire the blast by your heated phone calls to our homes at tender hours. 

But Scott Long also understood, as I fear too few journalists do today, that a little empathy for those wounded by the Fourth Estate’s slings and arrows is a good thing. The same is true about exhibiting humility now and then. Long’s tenure at the newspaper coincided with Hubert H. Humphrey’s extended political career in Minnesota politics as mayor, U.S. senator, and vice president.  

Known as a true “happy warrior” of American politics, HHH practiced his craft at frenetic pace. During his first year in Washington, Scott Long drew a cartoon titled A Day in the Life of Senator Humph, which showed his subject speeding through a day of frantic multi-tasking. In one panel he was simultaneously conducting four phone conversations, and in another one, he arrived at the family home where he promptly repaired the lawn mower. 

In the last panel, Scott Long drew a caricature of himself, exhausted, and being carried out on a stretcher. The caption: “Local cartoonist who tried to keep pace with Senator Humph for a day in Washington is being sent home to get some rest.  

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics 
@CarlCannon (Twitter) 
[email protected]  

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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