Behold the most recent issue of Penthouse magazine, and a gamey one it is. There is a partially clad wench on the cover, a story about "North Carolina's Holy War on Sex," something about Sikh terrorists being trained in the United States and, in this magazine so dirty that it has been condemned by the government's commission on pornography, a book excerpt written by, of all people, William F. Buckley Jr.
Yes, William F. Buckley. The conservative columnist. The novelist. The host of "Firing Line." The editor of National Review and, along with his wife, Pat, a close friend of Nancy and Ronald Reagan and a frequent visitor to the White House. That William F. Buckley.
And, yes, that Penthouse. The very same magazine cited on page 9 of the draft report prepared by the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography -- the part dealing with soft-core pornography. In the draft the commission states that 7-Eleven stores "are the leading retailers of soft-core porn magazines in America" and "the single most important outlet" for Penthouse. "Profits made by 7-Eleven on porn run into the millions." In case you don't get the commission's drift, Penthouse is porn.
But is it? The truth is that I don't know. I know it's what we used to call dirty because, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I know dirty when I see it -- and I see it all over this particular issue of Penthouse. The letters are pornographic, the photos of naked women are lewd, and the cartoons are just plain dumb. Yet there is also fiction by Buckley -- an excerpt from his latest novel. Whatever it is, it is not pornographic and neither, for that matter, was Buckley's July 1984 Penthouse piece on Jesse Jackson -- although, truth be known, I'm just guessing there. I never read it.
It takes Buckley in his role as fellow traveler of porn (a Pornko) to point up both the absurdity of the Reagan administration's antiporn effort and, if I may be so bold, its epic hypocrisy. Not only is the president's pal-cum-intellectual mentor writing for a magazine his official censors consider pornographic, but so for that matter does his son. Young Ron now toils for Playboy. Like me and Saul Bellow, he is a writer.
Censors, though, are totally without subtlety. They don't realize that the president is not serious about pornography. Otherwise, as day follows night, he would banish Buckley and his son from the White House -- or make them both wear bags over their heads. Instead, the censors take both the president and Ed Meese at their word. They have made up their minds about Penthouse, Playboy and similar magazines. They have already defined pornography as "a serious national problem" and have been up to their ears in smut trying to do something about it. They would dearly love to censor. Only the Constitution stands in their way. Darn!
But others have already been moved to action. In Washington, for instance, the two largest drugstore chains have stopped selling Playboy, Penthouse and similar magazines. The result of all this misplaced moral piety is that you now cannot buy either Bill Buckley or Ron Reagan in many a Washington drugstore. That might not seem too serious a blow. But if the present rules had been in effect in September 1983, you would have had a difficult time finding the Playboy interview with members of the Nicaraguan junta -- the very same interview the president cited in his recent televised speech to the nation. The same holds for Jimmy Carter's famous lust-in-my-heart interview.
To all this, the president and his minions turn away -- saying nothing in behalf of the free flow of ideas. Meanwhile, the yahoos of the right prove once again that the First Amendment has no key on a drugstore cash register. The administration thumps for family values and seeks, with a commission, to prove that pornography is damaging. Maybe. But what is inarguably damaging is censorship -- even clumsy attempts at it. That's been proven time and time again.
If I were William F. Buckley, filthy rich and world renowned, I'd be damned if I would let my writing appear in Penthouse. Instead, I might sit down and pen a letter to my friend, the president, to show him what happens when the government sics the dogs of censorship on the public's right to know. To read William F. Buckley, you have to go to a dirty-book store.