Nixon: The Naked Truth

I don’t have much to say about this, just wanted to share it with the world: a whole new view of that randy 37th president, Richard Milhous Nixon. I can’t even be arsed to come up with a good Tricky Dick line, but by all means, indulge.

I came across this randomly in the archives today–a forgotten smut mag that I was only browsing past to get to a few citations in Stallion. And there it was, the world’s least enticing porn headline of all time:

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Bad fluorescent glare, I know; but wait, does that say…

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Yep. It does.

Do you dare to see it? Well, first, some lazy research: I think this is new to the Internet. A quick Google search for “Richard Nixon nude” (I’d love to see the stats on how often that search is undertaken) yields mostly a few old newspaper items from 1977, when sculptor Ron Kron visualized Jimmy Carter “emerging from peanut,” as one headline read. Apparently Kron had also done a nude Nixon–but “under a Watergate towel.”

So, I believe I present the naked internet debut of one fully naked Nixon. I’ll leave some space–a last exit–for the weak of heart. But for the prurient, the curious, or that one person who has been googling “Richard Nixon nude” for the last decade without satisfying results, voila:

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I know, the Marlon Brando and Chuck Connors porn pics of underground-zine-days-of-yore were better. But this could be worse, I suppose. It could be Gerald Ford.

The Pornography of Exhaustion and Tape Decay: Fred Halsted’s Fast Friends (1986)

Spend any significant amount of time on cult-movie internet discussion boards and you will come across plentiful grievances against the IMDB. The complaints are well founded, though I will confess I’ve generally found them to be fairly minor—the release date of a 1971 grindhouse film off by a year, the running time of a Jess Franco film wrong by twelve minutes, etc.

When it comes to Fred Halsted, though, I’ve never seen a more egregiously inaccurate IMDB page for such a significant filmmaker. He gets credited as director of seven features—barely half of the titles listed at the more comprehensive IAFD (Internet Adult Film Database). By IMDB’s narrative, Halsted’s career ended in 1982.

I’ll be blunt: if Fast Friends (copyright 1986 but listed everywhere as released in 1987) is representative evidence, it probably should have stopped there. This is a sad, dispiriting effort all around, and it’s merely to contribute some commentary on the late-Halsted oeuvre that I even bother here; it seems nobody else has seen fit to do so. BJ Land, a great repository of info and commentary on gay porn history, makes the briefest of comments; Jeffrey Escoffier’s Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore contains no mention; in his Bright Lights Film Journal essay on Halsted, Gary Morris simply asserts that “his artistic achievement can be said to have ended in 1975”;  and even William E. Jones, undisputed Dean of Halsted Studies, says in Halsted Plays Himself only this of Halsted in the 80s: “most of his feature films and videos from that period have little to recommend them beyond the obvious attractions.”

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The attractions are not always so obvious in Fast Friends, which opens with a blurry shot of the Los Angeles skyline, then some traffic shots that recall the beginning of Halsted’s 1975 Sextool, probably his last interesting effort. Invocations of the past largely stop there, however, as the film immediately moves into a bland apartment and remains almost wholly interior for the rest of its duration—a shift away from the public sex culture of L.A. Plays Itself, and a move that was paralleled by both the straight and gay porn of the 1980s (not to mention the broader privatization of life under neoliberalism that emerged from the expanding carceral state, but I digress).

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Halsted gives us four friends sitting around a couch sharing sexy stories; indicative of the film’s emaciated erotic imagination and threadbare budget is the fact that we get only three scenes; guess someone had to save his tale for a sequel that thankfully never happened. The young men are utterly anonymous, not even bothering to devise full porn pseudonyms, such that one is credited simply as “Dean,” another as “Gregory.”

In the first scenario that emanates out of their conversation, a diminutive young man lathers and then services two bodybuilders; in the second, a young man submits to a spanking by his father after being caught masturbating; finally, we move ever so briefly back outdoors to a gym, where another discussant meets a straight guy, quickly draws him back inside, and turns him out. All of this is shot and performed in the most perfunctory of manners, without much in the way of flourish or enthusiasm (except perhaps the straight guy, who sweats rather impressively). Then it’s over.

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Only a few noteworthy elements bear mention. Halsted himself plays the intruding father in the second scene, and it’s somewhat depressing to watch. No longer the iconic sexual outlaw of the 1970s, he looks more like an ordinary middle-aged man. Which is fine, of course—it’s commendable to age without desperation. Except that readers of Jones’s book know that he was desperate, self-conscious about his skin and weight gain, and it’s impossible not to invoke that extra-textual knowledge while watching this. Even his usual dirty-talk grunts—“what kinda shit is this,” he asks of his son’s porn mags; “buncha faggots”—sound tired, and though he briefly paws at himself through his pants, Halsted remains clothed throughout the scene, which drags on interminably, punctuated only by the grotesque, inadvertent humor of Halsted’s frequent references to the son’s hardness, a claim visually belied by the cutaways to the poor performer Al Jones struggling valiantly to stay engaged and engorged for over twenty grueling minutes.

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The overall absence of penetrative sex is the only other aspect of note. Penetration is obviously not the all-hallowed telos of sex, but it most assuredly has been the pornographic imperative since the dawn of cinema, and Fast Friends shies away from it. Halsted had consistently emphasized his relative lack of interest in conventional sex since the early 70s, so we might—if we’re extraordinarily generous—read Fast Friends as a defiantly counter-penetrative inscription of bodily pleasures; we might also read it through the lens of contemporaneous AIDS concerns—Cindy Patton has written brilliantly about the safer-sex “pornographic vernacular” fashioned by gay stars like Al Parker at this exact moment; was Halsted engaged in a related project?

I’m not sure, though it’s impossible not to read all 1980s porn (not to mention all 1980s politics, period) through the AIDS crisis. In any case, the Halsted of Fast Friends is no longer the Halsted of L.A. Plays Itself, as performer or filmmaker, and the film is a slog, effective only at arousing feelings of despondence and pathos over the ravages of time and history.

The most interesting aspect of my own viewing experience was the beat-to-hell VHS tape I scored cheap on eBay. Decrepit and deteriorating into oblivion, it played with drained color and a flickering, horizontally rolling image that gave it the not-inappropriate feel of Bill Morrison’s Decasia. While this aesthetic layer was obviously unintended by Halsted, it actually made the film far more engaging than it otherwise would have been, though it also accounts for the abominable image quality of the screencaps (the tape would momentarily bleed into full color upon unpausing, hence the “play” sign).

I’ll close with my own visual remix of the film, as experienced on my own couch:

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Billy James Hargis and the “Bible Made Me Gay” Defense

At this point, the conservative closet is large enough to contain entire genres of alibis for reactionary antigay figures exposed as harboring desires or practices at odds with the missionary-position-to-make-babies sexual politics of the modern (well…) Right. There’s the “three weeks of counseling cured me of that pesky meth-and-rent-boys habit” that left the Reverend Ted Haggard “completely heterosexual.”

There’s the ex post facto trajectory of rightwing activists who do terrible things for the  antigay movement, come out, and try to make up/and or disregard the past (see: David Brock, Ken Mehlman). There’s sheer denial, from Larry Craig’s foot-taps to Ray Cohn as written by Tony Kushner. Then there’s always the sporadic freakshow, like the Florida story of Republican state legislator Bob Allen, left somewhat in the shadows of the bigger state scandals such as Mark Foley and the Charlie Crist “rumors.” Allen, as far as I know, pioneered the race-panic defense for his restroom cruising in 2007, claiming he offered to pay $20 to perform oral sex on a Black man because . . . he was afraid of him. Perfectly logical.

I’m only scratching the surface here, but here’s one alibi I don’t think I’ve ever seen elsewhere: The Bible Made Me Gay.

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Genes get the headline, but Hargis “justified his homosexual acts by citing the Old Testament friendship between David and Jonathan.” The bride and groom realized what was going on because they’d both slept with him–something that otherwise happened only at David Bowie concerts, I believe.

This is perhaps the single most radically relativist reading of the Good Book I have ever seen a fundamentalist offer. History would not suggest it as a winning strategy; the Bible seems uniquely immune to against-the-grain readings. A Kansas freethinker in 1894 thought he could beat obscenity charges because the graphic sexual quotes he had included on postcards came directly from the Bible; nope, he was convicted anyway, apparently holding the Bible legally obscene. Then there’s the sad fate of Christian socialism, which isn’t even against the damn grain. So blaming the Bible here was something of a long shot.

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Billy James Hargis was a far-right preacher who capitalized on Cold War anxieties to promote the speeches, books, sermons, and other merchandise of his Christian Crusade. Representing one of the more vigorously anti-intellectual strains of midcentury conservative Christianity, he hated communism, he hated sex education, and he hated queers (he wasn’t much fond of Black civil rights either, shockingly). His organization published a notorious 1968 pamphlet with one of the best titles in all of reactionary literature, Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? Its title, suffice it to say, was not a nod toward prophylactics and safer sex (all sex is raw sex when it ain’t the married type).

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In any case, Hargis founded the American Christian College in Tulsa in the early 70s, and this scandal broke a few years later. I came across this clipping in the Press-Scimitar morgue at the University of Memphis and did a double take: wait, did he really just suggest that the story of David and Jonathan led him to pursue coercive sexual encounters with his male undergraduates? The implications are rather staggering.

A day later, he changed his tune to denial:

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The college wound up closing a few years later, after banishing Hargis. But what I wonder about is how this episode registered to various audiences in the mid-1970s, particularly the evangelical rightwing Christians who had kept Hargis afloat for decades at that point. There’s probably no way to really reconstruct the immediate affective response, but surely someone took pause and thought, “wait, what?” Hargis and his colleagues hardly cultivated engaged critical reading practices in their texts, but this . . . this is a doozy. Were there letters to editors? Personal correspondence? Other venues for grappling with the meaning of Hargis’s initial excuse?

There are some very good studies of Hargis in such recent works as Daniel Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and Heather Hendershott’s What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Rightwing Broadcasting and the Public Interest, but the sex scandal receives only glancing attention (Lee Roy Chapman also has a nicely done piece on Hargis here). Given its uniqueness—I’m not aware of any other public figure utilizing this argument, ever (probably for good reason)—I’d be curious whether the evangelical press grappled with Hargis’s faltering, secondhand, quickly retracted explanation, or just ignored it.

File it under topics for further investigation, I suppose—but it deserves to be highlighted as a reminder of the sheer, utter perversity of antigay discourse, then, now, and always.