Congress has the reputation for being kind of prude. But never was that truer than in the 1980s, when Congress actually cut off taxpayer funding for making Playboy Magazine in Braille.
So, here's the story: The Library of Congress has been publishing magazines in Braille since the 1970s for the visually impaired. In the 1980s, Republican lawmakers concerned with the moral implications of taxpayer-funded pornographic material (and hoping to save a penny) tried for years to stop performing this service for Playboy.
We first heard about this Thursday from Senate minority leader Harry Reid, who made an offhand comment about the decades-old controversy on the Senate floor.
Reid was bidding goodbye to the outgoing director of the Library of Congress, James Billington. As he is wont to do, the 75-year-old Nevada Democrat began with a story:
"It seems only yesterday that I was chairman of the legislative branch of the Appropriation Committee. A new senator here. And one of the first attacks we got from Republicans at that time was to whack the Library of Congress. They even went after the magazines that were produced in Braille. I can remember the debate we had with Playboy Magazine. I don't know what they were trying to eliminate, but they tried. I don't know what they could do with the Braille on Playboy Magazine, but we were able to turn that back."
Nonsense, we at The Fix thought. There's no way that could be true. Reid, after all, has been known to ... well, say things.
But sure enough, news articles from The Washington Post and Associated Press detail what we're going to call "The Playboy Braille Budget Battle of 1985." Here's the tale:
The first reference we can find is from David Espo, writing for the Associated Press in 1981. Congress reached a late-night agreement on its annual budget, which raised lawmakers' pay to $60,662.50 a year. It also, according to Espo...
...forced Sen. Mack Mattingly, R-Ga., to back down on a proposal to prohibit the Library of Congress from spending any money to translate certain parts of Playboy Magazine into Braille. Mattingly said he wanted the Library to stop making "Party Jokes," "Ribald Classics," and "Playboy Forum" available to the blind.
Mattingly's idea was apparently hotly debated, even among members of his own party. From Michael Goldfarb in The Washington Post that same year:
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) came out against the ban. "It's one of the few enjoyments people with that infirmity could have."
Eventually, though, the Playboy-Braille haters got their way. In 1985, Lloyd Grove covered their victory for The Washington Post:
The House of Representatives moved yesterday to stop the Library of Congress from continuing to produce a braille edition of Playboy magazine.
Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin promptly condemned the vote as "censorship," while Playboy's editorial director, Arthur Kretchmer, defended his magazine's "literary merit."
Grove reported the torch was carried by Rep. Chalmers Wylie, an Ohio Republican "who has been trying for the last four years -- ever since a blind constituent complained about the edition -- to have the magazine dropped from the library's Braille offerings.
"I just think that when we have a budget deficit of $200 billion, this is an unwise use of taxpayers' money," Wylie said after the vote. "I think Playboy assails traditional moral values and peddles licit as well as illicit sex. I believe that promoting the reading of Playboy in this way does lead to undesirable activities."
The Senate apparently agreed with Wylie and voted soon-after to banish taxpayer funds from publishing the magazine. Kretchmer offered this zinger when he lost:
"I think that one of the few useful things Congress does is bring the literary quality, the style, and the fun of Playboy to handicapped people."
Naturally, the next chapter in this story is that a group of blind Playboy readers sued for their right to read the magazine.
A U.S. District Court judge overturned the Braille Playboy ban, saying it was a 1st Amendment violation. The Library of Congress resumed publishing them, which it still does to this day. Playboy is among 30 general-interest magazines published in Braille by the library's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, according to a spokeswoman.
And every once in a while, a journalist stumbles upon these mysterious magazines.
In 1992, syndicated columnist Roger Simon (yes, that Roger Simon of Politico) went to the Library of Congress to check out a rumor that lawmakers were checking out Madonna's erotic bestseller, "Sex." (This story just keeps getting weirder.)
Simon confirmed it was a popular item. But a clerk, named Elsie, wouldn't tell him which members of Congress checked it out. She did, however, mention the Playboy Magazine controversy.
"We are here to document contemporary American civilization," Elsie said. "And part of the reason is so future historians can look back and know what America was like in 1992."
Then, in 2000, Washington Post columnist Bob Levey devoted a whole piece to a reader who was riding the subway in Washington and saw a blind man pull out a magazine that "bore a familiar bunny logo."
A proper sort, John was a bit worried that the blind man might try to "read" "Playboy's" always-revealing pictures in public. The man "ran his fingers across the bumps on the totally blank pages," John reports. Whether he was reading an article or ogling a curvaceous cutie, John couldn't tell.
A little research reveals that the braille "Playboy" does not offer breasts or buttocks. It restricts itself to words.
The director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped told Levey the Braille version of the magazine has about 500 regular readers.
So there you have it. The "Playboy Braille Budget Battle of 1985." Say what you will about the man, but Sen. Reid knows his Playboy budget history.