“The porn king and the preacher,” a sketch drawing of Larry Flynt sitting in bed, staring at a nudie mag with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, thumbing through the Bible, by his side—that was the cover of yesterday’s Opinion section in the LA Times. The cover opinion piece was a first person appreciation of Falwell, who died Tuesday, and it was far more interesting than the other Falwell stories I’ve mentioned here.
Falwell and Flynt were for years pitted in an incredibly ugly freedom-of-speech battle. Flynt had been a whipping boy for Falwell’s preaching, and Hustler’s hero decided to fight back. His magazine ran a spoof in which Jerry Falwell was purportedly describing his “first time”—in an outhouse with his mom, “drunk off our God-fearing asses.”
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Flynt won. It remains a critical free-speech case taught in universities and law schools.
THE FIRST TIME the Rev. Jerry Falwell put his hands on me, I was stunned. Not only had we been archenemies for 15 years, his beliefs and mine traveling in different solar systems, and not only had he sued me for $50 million (a case I lost repeatedly yet eventually won in the Supreme Court), but now he was hugging me in front of millions on the Larry King show.
It was 1997.
In the years that followed and up until his death, he’d come to see me every time he was in California. We’d have interesting philosophical conversations. We’d exchange personal Christmas cards. He’d show me pictures of his grandchildren. I was with him in Florida once when he complained about his health and his weight, so I suggested that he go on a diet that had worked for me. I faxed a copy to his wife when I got back home.
The truth is, the reverend and I had a lot in common. He was from Virginia, and I was from Kentucky. His father had been a bootlegger, and I had been one too in my 20s before I went into the Navy. We steered our conversations away from politics, but religion was within bounds. He wanted to save me and was determined to get me out of “the business.”
My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.
He was definitely selling brimstone religion and would do anything to add another member to his mailing list. But in the end, I knew what he was selling, and he knew what I was selling, and we found a way to communicate.
I always kicked his ass about his crazy ideas and the things he said. Every time I’d call him, I’d get put right through, and he’d let me berate him about his views. When he was getting blasted for his ridiculous homophobic comments after he wrote his “Tinky Winky” article cautioning parents that the purple Teletubby character was in fact gay, I called him in Florida and yelled at him to “leave the Tinky Winkies alone.”
When he referred to Ellen Degeneres in print as Ellen “Degenerate,” I called him and said, “What are you doing? You don’t need to poison the whole lake with your venom.” I could hear him mumbling out of the side of his mouth, “These lesbians just drive me crazy.” I’m sure I never changed his mind about anything, just as he never changed mine.
I’ll never admire him for his views or his opinions. To this day, I’m not sure if his television embrace was meant to mend fences, to show himself to the public as a generous and forgiving preacher or merely to make me uneasy, but the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.