Bob Guccione's pornographic legacy

Diana West
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Posted: Jan 17, 2005 12:00 AM

For about 24 hours, my hat was off to the seven members of the board governing the Jackson-George Regional Library System in southern Mississippi. They had decided, officially, not to make room on the shelf in any of their eight libraries in Jackson and George Counties for one of the best-selling books in America today, the book that Publishers Weekly named best book of 2004: "America (The Book)," a mock-textbook in mock-civics by mock-anchorman Jon Stewart and the writers of "The Daily Show."

Or maybe I should write: a "textbook" in "civics" by "anchorman" Jon Stewart and the writers of "The Daily Show." All of those quotation marks, of course, convey the nudge-nudge nihilism that is comedian-cum-author Stewart's stock-in-trade. Not that it was Stewart's brand of "comedy" (see, I can do it, too) that brought on the ban, briefly, but a visual aid in the pages of the book. On page 99, the book features a photograph of the nine justices of the Supreme Court posed to reveal what the skin mags not all that long ago taught us to call "full-frontal nudity." USA Today elaborated on the phrase to describe the poses as "full-frontal, sagging nudity." Which could be further amended to "full-frontal, sagging, puckered, spreading nudity."

The photos are fakes, of course, with naked bodies culled from a nudist Web site superimposed to match the familiar faces of the court. Cutouts of the justice's black robes hang nearby, with a caption instructing readers to "restore their dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe." It was all too much for Wal-Mart, which decided not to sell the book in its stores (although it is available at Wal-Mart online). And it was too much for the Jackson-George librarians.

"We're not an adult bookstore," said library system director Robert Willits. "Our entire collection is open to the public. If they had published the book without that one picture, that one page, we'd have the book."

Of course, they do have the book, now, after news of the ban triggered a wave of sentiment, local and national, in favor of circulating the book. The board has reversed itself, and "America (The Book)" has already been checked out in seven out of eight branches.

But it was nice while it lasted. The ban, I mean. For a minute there, it seemed that Babbitt was alive and well in Mississippi, striking a quixotic blow for the kind of middle-class morality that once strived to cordon off the public square to keep it neat and clean -- sterile, even, in that wholesome way that once drove true artists out of bounds and into paroxysms of creativity. In the age of the Internet and wireless communication, such boundaries are nothing less than quaint and nothing more than window-dressing, just a handsome-prince fantasy in a reality of cultural degradation.

The same day I happened on the library story, I came across a lavish profile in Vanity Fair of pornographer Bob Guccione. It is an exercise in hagiography, depicting the 74-year-old former Penthouse publisher as "the fallen king," "one of the greatest success stories in magazine history" blah, blah, done in by "Reagan-era censorship, the Internet, and a series of expensive dreams." In other words, no typography of irony here. (Save that for "democracy" in Jon Stewart's "America.") Lamented son Bob Jr.: "He wanted so much to be acknowledged for something other than pornography."

But what a pornographer he was. Having launched Penthouse in 1969, "Bob outraunched Playboy by displaying genitalia and pubic hair in a magazine," a colleague told Vanity Fair approvingly. "That had never been done before." Certainly not in a magazine that plied the mainstream, both as a widely available mass publication, and as a mass influence on a wide variety of publications.

Which is where "America (The Book)" comes back in. The Guccione article alludes to a hazard of the porn trade: jaded customers, which were already a concern for magazine pornographers by the middle 1970s. Simply having lived through the several decades since -- even through a brief description of those decades -- makes us all, to some extent, jaded customers. Which means that no one, not even in Mississippi, is shocked by nudity alone. What is troubling is the, well, naked intention to level a pillar of our democracy --the law -- and leave behind vicious little images of humiliation and shame, discomfort and exposure. Which is a kind of pornography in itself, I would argue, but one Americans seem happy to consume.

This gives Bob Guccione another legacy after all: "America."