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The Pastor and the Porn King

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They acted like long-lost pen pals. They said all the vitriol was behind them. They promised next time, they’d do lunch--or dinner, even--and since they were meeting at Larry’s office in Los Angeles, next time they’d do it near Jerry’s church in Lynchburg, Va.

Larry Flynt, the bombastic head of the publishing empire that puts out Hustler magazine, had Jerry Falwell, the conservative gadfly Baptist minister, over for coffee.

Really. We saw it happen Tuesday.

“I don’t think either one of us has ever really hated the other person,” said Larry Flynt, whose legal battle with Falwell over a smutty, insulting Hustler magazine cartoon about Falwell’s mother wound up in the Supreme Court and was the backdrop of the recent movie, “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

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“No matter how much you might not like them,” mused Flynt, “when you wind up meeting someone, you usually find out that there are qualities about someone that you can like. One thing that I admire Jerry for--above all of his colleagues--and even when I don’t agree with him, I don’t sense a lack of commitment. I think he’s been rather steadfast in his beliefs.”

Gushed Falwell: “He is a warmhearted, very talented and very generous person whom I believe has much to offer the world. And I’d like to be his pastor and his friend for the rest of my days.”

Talented?

“Well, anybody who publishes 30 magazines and sustained 18 years in a wheelchair and physically, mentally stayed on top of such a thing has got to be one of the most talented men I know. I have a hard time running what I run with good legs and good health.”

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Now, wait a minute! Wasn’t there a time when Falwell called Flynt a “sleaze merchant” and Flynt called Falwell a “big windbag”?

They laugh in unison.

“We put all that behind us,” says Flynt.

In the annals of historic meetings--and, yes, Flynt did proclaim to Falwell that their meeting was “historic"--it’s not Gorbachev being toasted at the White House by Reagan in 1987. Nor is it Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the first time last year in the Gaza Strip.

But it was the first time the preacher had sat down privately with the porn king--the man who had published a 1983 cartoon satire of the preacher saying that his first sexual experience was with his mother. Falwell was emotionally distressed enough to sue for $45 million. A lower court award of $200,000 in damages was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was finally overturned.

The pair had already chatted after a joint appearance on the “Larry King Live” show several months ago, but that was nothing like this summit in Flynt’s office in the glossy high-rise office building of Larry Flynt Publications on the edge of Beverly Hills.

Falwell instigated it, saying simply that he was in town and wanted to see Flynt.

He wants to be Flynt’s pastor.

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So there the two men sat, crisply suited and cuff-linked, facing each other, chatting for a while, then finishing up in front of a reporter--perhaps for historic reasons.

Flynt, crippled by gunfire in 1978, was in his wheelchair behind his massive English antique glass-covered desk, drinking coffee and puffing on pungent cigars.

“Kinda strong,” commented Falwell at one point.

The minister sat in a chair on the other side of the desk, just inches away from a neatly organized spread of the magazines Flynt publishes. The top of a copy of Hustler peeked out discreetly from the pile. Falwell sandwiched his meeting with Flynt between a trip to the Dreamworks film studio offices to take a look at part of its upcoming animated Biblical film “The Prince of Egypt” (“It’s unbelievable,” he raved. “It’s going to be one of the top 10 movies of all time, I think.”) and an appearance on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” TV talk show.

“My ultimate goal--I have no ulterior motives, no hidden agendas--is for Larry to really irrevocably and permanently and publicly give his heart to Christ,” Falwell said with just a hint of a mischievous, almost I-dare-ya grin.

Flynt laughed a bit and puffed a lot on his cigar.

“I’ve been through that once before. I got over it.” His conversion lasted a year. He went back to overseeing his empire. “I’ve still got an open mind.”

Not that Flynt goes to church.

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“We just did. For the last hour or so. We had church right here,” said Falwell with a chuckle.

As unlikely as his conversion is, Flynt probably has a fraction more of a chance of becoming a religious Christian than Falwell does of becoming a subscriber to Hustler.

“Well, Larry and I will never agree on Hustler magazine,” Falwell said. “You can be sure of that. But we do have some strong agreements on where the problems are in this country and as a society we’re not addressing them today.”

Falwell has never seen “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

“It’s not personal,” he said. “I’m not a moviegoer. I speak 25 times a week, travel five, six thousand miles a week.”

When Flynt’s lawyer, Alan L. Isaacman, walked in, Falwell greeted him with a big smile and hearty handshake and a hand on the shoulder. “This is the lawyer who beat me in court,” said Falwell, as if the whole thing had just been a challenging tennis match.

Next year in Lynchburg.

“He’s a hillbilly just like I am,” the minister says of the pornographer. “He came out of Kentucky, and I came out of Virginia.”

Flynt is 54; Falwell is 63 with a shock of white hair. “You get a little of Bob Dole’s hair color and you’d look 50,” suggested Flynt.

But before Falwell takes his leave, Flynt’s assistant slips in with a video copy of the movie and Flynt hands it to Falwell.

Falwell hands it off to his son. “Jonathan, see? I didn’t have to rent it.”


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