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The Texas Abortion Tango

Illustration by Miguel Valenzuela

In the winter of the Clinton impeachment, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, was a pornographer on a mission — determined to dig up sex scandals on the Republicans who’d come after Clinton. It wasn’t that Flynt was suddenly against sex or even scandalous sex , but that he considered the anti-Clinton ringmasters to be cynical, partisan opportunists — hypocrites who decried Clinton as morally unfit while being less fit themselves.

In December 1998, shortly before the impeachment trial, Flynt nailed incoming Republican House Speaker Robert L. Livingston, who resigned rather than endure Flynt’s public airing of multiple extramarital affairs. Flynt also contributed to the downfall of anti-Clinton attack dog Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican who was a House manager for the impeachment. Barr lost a re-election bid after revelations about his alleged adultery — and about how he allegedly paid for an abortion for one of his wives, even though he later referred to abortion as murder while in Congress.

Flynt helped wound but did not end the political careers of Representatives Dan Burton (out-of-wedlock child) and Henry Hyde (over a “youthful indiscretion” — Hyde’s words — with a married woman that lasted into his 40s). In some of these cases, Flynt’s role was to publicize information first unearthed elsewhere.

Eventually, Flynt set his sights on the biggest prize, George W. Bush, once again offering up to a million dollars for definitive dirt. He sent investigative reporters to the heart of Texas, first in 1999. They would look into an allegation that in 1971, George Bush, then about 25 years old, got a girlfriend pregnant and paid for her illegal abortion. Flynt got tantalizingly close to documenting such an episode, but never confirmed enough to justify a press conference. He would have loved to prove it. Flynt’s hatred of Bush is both visceral and principled. He’s a bona fide supporter of First Amendment rights and mainstream Democratic principles, and is commercially pragmatic — he knows that Bush and his anti-sin crowd would shut down Flynt’s business if they could.

So what was Flynt to do on the eve of the 2000 presidential election?

Lacking proof, Flynt instead dropped broad hints about the alleged abortion. He didn’t name names — other than Bush’s — because his lawyer told him he risked a libel suit from the woman in question. The mainstream press chose to ignore the story — which is a story in itself.

Flynt’s account finally gets told in the book Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth, scheduled to hit shelves late this month. Flynt avoids risk of libel by keeping the players anonymous and by avoiding flat-out claims. He offers instead an account of the investigation. Flynt provided additional information in interviews with the Weekly, as did people involved in the investigation, who spoke off the record.

The Texas tango remains something of a page turner. In 2000, Flynt thought the revelation, if true, ought to push some voters away from Bush based on what it revealed about his character. The alleged events of 1971 do say something about the privileges and purview of Bush and his family and, courtesy of Flynt and some of those involved in the investigation, you get to read it here first.

 

“Back in 2000, I got a phone call from an attorney from Houston,” begins Flynt in a passage about two-thirds of the way through his book. “He represented a woman we’ll call ‘Susan,’ who supposedly could prove that, back in the early ’70s, George W. Bush had arranged an abortion for his girlfriend.”

Flynt was immediately interested; here was ammunition to sink Bush in an election too close to call. It would be damning enough for Bush to have arranged an abortion, but, even worse, abortion was illegal in 1971, before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Laws didn’t stop abortions, of course, though they did make them dangerous and even life-threatening for most women. The wealthy or well-connected were frequently luckier; they could often find doctors willing to perform abortions safely in a hospital or clinic setting. That is what allegedly happened here.

All of this mattered in the year 2000 because “Bush was successfully slipping past allegations of cocaine use, drunk driving and being a useless rich boy,” writes Flynt. “But arranging for an abortion was a more serious matter. Bush’s own supporters said that abortion is murder.”

At the time, in 1971, Bush had been living for about two years in the Chateaux Dijon apartment complex, a Houston gathering place and party scene for the young and beautiful as well as the offspring of the rich and politically potent. Bush was three years out of Yale, where he’d been an unremarkable student. Soon after graduating, he’d joined the Texas Air National Guard, an escape valve for sons of the powerful seeking to avoid service in Vietnam.

The National Guard experience has been covered extensively elsewhere; long-established evidence suggests Bush jumped a lengthy waiting list to get in, with helpful intervention from friends of his father. The elder Bush, who became president in 1988, was prominent even then. He’d been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966 and served as ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to 1972, after losing a 1970 race for the Senate. Papa Bush also had a background as a Texas oilman.

The young George W. Bush of the 1970s was a partier, a drinker and — by his own hints in later remarks — a recreational-drug user. There’s long been speculation that he might have skipped a mandatory National Guard physical, in August 1972, to avoid a possible drug test. There’s also doubt about whether he actually completed his service in the Guard.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. In 1971, according to the account, an “agitated” young Bush supposedly called an older family friend. (Flynt calls the friend by the made-up name “Clyde.”) Bush allegedly confessed that he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant. It was natural that Bush would call Clyde, because Clyde had been “loosely assigned to keep the family black sheep, young W., out of trouble,” as Flynt puts it.

Flynt’s source, “Susan,” told Flynt’s investigators that she was Clyde’s girlfriend at the time. She said she was in the room when the call came from Bush. Clyde allegedly told Bush he’d take care of it, which meant arranging for an abortion. Susan named the hospital, and she named the doctor.

Flynt’s researchers found the doctor and confronted him. The doctor denied having performed an abortion, they reported to Flynt, but oddly enough, he did remember the woman from his own social visits to Chateaux Dijon. He described her “as the best-looking woman” who showed up for parties at the apartment complex.

“My reporters were unable to gain any evidence from the hospital,” writes Flynt. “The institution had been sold several times over the years and their records were spotty.”

Flynt’s account is seconded by some of those involved in the investigation. Flynt’s researchers spent about three months total in Texas trying to obtain documentary confirmation. In interviews with the Weekly, sources who took part in the investigation supplied details not in Flynt’s soon-to-be-published account. They told, for example, how his investigators tracked down Bush’s former girlfriend. They say the woman acknowledged, through her husband, that she had dated Bush for six months. But she also insisted to a friend (who spoke with Flynt’s investigators) that she and Bush never had sex. She said to the same friend that she’d been in the hospital for a dilation and curettage, or D&C, which is surgery involving a scraping of the wall of the uterus. It was a common form of doctor-supervised abortion in the early 1970s. But the woman maintained that her D&C was not an abortion, but for another medical purpose. A D&C is sometimes performed after a miscarriage or in non-pregnant women who have abnormal bleeding, fibroids or polyps.

In other words, the researchers found intriguing circumstantial support, but no proof. The investigators then tried a different tack. “Susan, in an effort to jump-start the investigation, contacted Clyde, told him that some reporters were bugging her about the incident, and asked for his help,” writes Flynt. “She told us that he first casually denied any knowledge of what she was talking about, then in a later conversation, threatened her and told her to keep her mouth shut.”

In interviews with the Weekly, Flynt said he is convinced that the former Bush girlfriend had been bought off. He said that before his investigation, the woman had a low-wage job and her husband was unemployed. After his researchers started poking around, said Flynt, the husband emerged with a well-paid federal law-enforcement job and the family moved into an expensive house in a Texas resort area.

That’s not exactly how some others involved in the investigation analyzed the evidence. The husband was a veteran law-enforcement officer, they said. In other words, it was neither peculiar nor improper that he would hold a job with a federal law-enforcement agency. In addition, the couple was not demonstrably living beyond their economic means. The woman’s husband also seemed surprised to hear about his wife’s alleged 1971 trip to the hospital when confronted, the sources said. This reaction was inconsistent with having been bought off.

You get the sense that Flynt wanted the story out so desperately that his own remembering became a bit skewed. He did, however, ask his researchers to fact-check the details that actually appear in the book. And the allegation about the woman being paid off is not in there.

The researchers finally told Flynt they felt they could take the investigation no further. “They said they didn’t want to waste my money,” said Flynt in an interview, “and I appreciated that.”

As one person directly involved in this investigation said to the Weekly, “Circumstantially, the story made a lot of sense, but none of the major figures were really talking.”

Flynt hoped the national media would take the matter further, perhaps by launching their own probes, or even by just asking Bush a pointed question during a press conference. Flynt called Tim Russert of NBC News, which sent a reporter to Flynt’s office to look over his material. This reporter, said Flynt in an interview, was David Bloom, the same reporter who died of a pulmonary embolism at age 39 while covering the war in Iraq in April 2003. Flynt said Bloom declined to pick up the baton. “He said, ‘Larry, I just can’t do it. Something like this could change the outcome of the election.’”

An NBC spokeswoman essentially confirmed Flynt’s account in an e-mailed response to a series of questions. “No discussion about the substance of the rumor took place with Mr. Russert,” said Barbara Levin. Flynt “contacted Mr. Russert, NBC News’ Washington Bureau Chief, and as is often the case, Russert simply passed the information on to a reporter to follow up. As you note, David Bloom did follow up and used his editorial judgment that the rumor was not solid enough to go with a story.” Levin commented that Flynt “called several news organizations, including NBC News,” but she declined to address why NBC reporters elected not to question Bush about the subject.

An exasperated Flynt decided to get the message out himself, though time was running short. Howard Stern interviewed him, but the segment ran only once, writes Flynt, on Stern’s live show. He also appeared on KROQ-FM’s Kevin and Bean Morning Show in August.

Then, on October 20, 2000, Flynt appeared on CNN’s Crossfire. The subject of the show concerned porn and the Internet, but Flynt took advantage of live TV to launch his spiel. Conservative host Robert Novak challenged Flynt as having “no proof.”

“The hell we don’t have proof,” Flynt retorted. (Of course, Flynt didn’t have proof.) Novak then asked Flynt if he was a Gore supporter. Flynt responded that he didn’t like either candidate and that he’d vote for the lesser of two evils.

The camera cut from Flynt, never to return. Liberal but skeptical co-host Bill Press sardonically remarked, “You never know. Live television.” Flynt claims that CNN expurgated this exchange from its transcript, and at the time, some online wags came to the same conclusion and quickly posted alerts. Currently, two versions of the transcript appear on the widely used Nexis database. One version has the full exchange about the alleged abortion. The other omits the discussion entirely. It’s identified as a “rush transcript” that “may not be in its final form and may be updated.”

Syndicated gossip Liz Smith finally picked up the story, with a few details off- kilter, on November 6, the day before the election. She wrote:

 

Hot on the heels of the George W. Bush DUI revelation (in Maine, it’s called OUI — Operating Under the Influence), comes word that porn-king muckraker Larry Flynt is charging that a girlfriend of W.’s, back in 1970, had an abortion. But that’s not the story, as there’s no evidence that Bush even knew about the pregnancy. The real story — according to the Internet’s About.com — is that Flynt’s remarks were apparently censored from CNN’s Crossfire, and the entire transcript of the show vanished from the CNN Web site. The media has been willing to crucify Bill and Hillary Clinton with the worst sort of specious rumor-mongering, so why was this sleazy tidbit too hot for the “responsible” press to ask about?

 

Her item on Bush was cut from her column everywhere, in more than 100 papers, except for the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Flynt then contacted Daily Variety’s gossip columnist Army Archerd, who wrote on November 7, the day of the election:

 

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS? Larry Flynt says his comments about a hush-hush 1970 Houston abortion, on a rumored girlfriend of George W. Bush, have been stifled by the mainstream media. (Flynt claims knowledge of the identity of the girl, the hospital, etc. He never printed it, “because she’d deny it; you’d have egg on your face and you’d face a libel suit.”) Still, he’s more concerned with the fact that the media is ignoring the rumors . . . “My whole focus,” said Flynt, “was on the lack of investigation by the media — in other words, they never asked Bush.”

 

The story did get some international play just before the 2000 election in newspapers in England. And that was pretty much the end of it. Bush claimed the presidency unbesmirched by this particular tale. Eventually, Flynt decided to include the episode in his book.

The subject first came up at the Weekly, in recent times, when Flynt stopped by last fall to tout his vanity candidacy for governor during the campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis. Flynt took advantage of the interview to promote a proposed initiative that would permit non-tribal casino gambling — he owns a casino — as a way both to get personally richer and to help solve the state’s budget crisis. An editor asked offhandedly whatever happened to his investigation into Bush. That got Flynt going:

“We worked that story for six months,” he said. “We had everybody, including the hospital that performed the abortion, the doctor who did it, you know, affidavits from four of her friends. You know, we, we had it all. But at the last minute she stopped cooperating, and this was just about a month before the election.”

Flynt was shooting from the hip, without reviewing his own investigators’ files. The Weekly asked for documentation, but Flynt and his representative never provided it, though Flynt did discuss the matter at length in a late-April interview, after he reviewed his documentation. His book publicist said there were still libel concerns regarding the release of original documents. She said she also didn’t want articles to appear before they could assist book sales. Obtaining Flynt’s files became less necessary after people directly involved in the investigation agreed to talk freely and separately about their work, provided that their names not be disclosed. They were willing to share the real names, confidentially, of all the persons involved. The Weekly has not independently verified their accounts, which is why real names aren’t used here either. But their chronicles are believable, especially because they acknowledge that they ultimately failed to deliver the goods. There could be no hedging the evidence on a story like this, they said, especially when their employer was Flynt, whose credibility would be questioned.

Even though his book was still months away, Flynt finally couldn’t contain himself during a February 2004 interview with New York’s Daily News.

“I’ve talked to the woman’s friends,” Flynt is quoted as saying. “I’ve tracked down the doctor who did the abortion, I tracked down the Bush people who arranged for the abortion . . . I got the story nailed.”

The anecdote got some airing, especially after it was repeated by pop musician Moby. But the attention came almost entirely from the British and Australian press. They played it up as an example of mudslinging, sometimes pairing it with unsubstantiated rumors of a John Kerry affair.

 

In 2000, if the story had taken off, would it have mattered? Should it have mattered?

In the razor-thin 2000 election, it’s hard to deny that anything that could change votes could have made a difference. Flynt hoped the abortion account would paint W. as a hypocrite. Bush already looked every inch a hypocrite to critics who saw him ally with rich corporate interests, while savaging the poor behind a façade of “compassionate conservatism.”

But Bush supporters see the world and Bush so differently. Many are drawn by his appeal to traditional values and free enterprise, regardless of his actual policies. And many of Bush’s die-hard religious-right supporters had ample reason to forgive Bush, even for an abortion. His entire story, from their perspective, is one of a sinner redeemed, the type of soul who can, in an odd way, sometimes shine brighter than the less fallible person who never required such redemption. It didn’t matter so much, therefore, if Bush had been a drunk, if he had used cocaine, if he’d had premarital sex — if he’d been the wayward prodigal son. At one level, such behavior made him an ordinary guy, just like ordinary people everywhere. At another, his reform underscored his exemplary born-again identity and his unwavering commitment to conservative Christian values. For many Christians, Bush stands on the upright side of the before-versus-after divide intrinsic to a belief system in which a person must be personally saved from his sins by Jesus. Indeed, to the religious right, George W. Bush is more the real deal than his better-behaving, high-achieving father ever was.

How about the fence sitters of 2004? Should the alleged incident matter to them?

Maybe, but its relevance stacks up weakly compared to that of the Iraq invasion, the ballooning federal deficit, the erosion of civil liberties and the ongoing subjugation of environmental protection to corporate interests. It is with such matters that even Flynt’s own book is primarily concerned, though he does spare a few words to discuss his boyhood experience of sex with a chicken.

 

Flynt’s investigators weren’t bloodhounding this one anecdote alone. Along the way, they also met with author J.H. Hatfield, who alleged that, in 1972, George W. Bush was arrested for possession of cocaine and, with the help of his father, got the charges erased in exchange for performing community service.

Hatfield cited anonymous sources in his book Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President. Hatfield’s first publisher got cold feet and ultimately destroyed its copies of Hatfield’s book.

Flynt’s investigators met with Hatfield and repeatedly pressed him for additional details. They wanted to pursue the story further. But Hatfield finally stormed out of their meeting. Hatfield died, an apparent suicide, in July 2001.

The researchers also checked out rumors of a Bush cocaine binge in the early 1990s that were called into Flynt. If true, it would mean Bush lied about when he’d given up drugs. When asked in 1999 about drug use, Bush was quoted as saying, “As I understand it, the current [FBI] form asks the question, ‘Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?’ and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is no.” He also said, “Not only could I pass the background check of the standards applied in today’s White House, I could have passed the background check on the standards applied on the most stringent conditions when my dad was president of the United States, a 15-year period.”

Once again, the researchers came up with nothing that met journalistic standards of proof, although their entire chasing-Bush experience would make a heck of a plot for a buddy movie.

“Flynt was interested mainly in two things: pussy and drugs,” noted one researcher, who now considers that preoccupation quaint and ironic. “Here we were looking at Bush’s personal life and the whole Enron scandal was happening right under our noses.”

Larry Flynt will sign copies of Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth, at Brentano’s, in the Century City Shopping Mall, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd; Wed., June 30, 7 p.m. And at Hustler Hollywood, 8920 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; Thurs., July 1, 7 p.m.


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