Senatorial Skin Flicks

If Sen. Phil Gramm loses the Republican nomination for president because -- as he admitted last week -- he once invested $7,500 in a failed project to make a T&A movie called "Beauty Queens," at least no one will be able to accuse him of betraying his principles. To be sure, the dour, single-minded Gramm seems an unlikely candidate to get into trouble over women. Most politicians do this sort of thing more straightforwardly. In fact, on the very day Gramm acknowledged his brief soft-core foray (in response to an article in The New Republic) the Senate Ethics Committee released accusations that Gramm's colleague Bob Packwood had for years been trying to stick his tongue into the mouths of women who wandered unescorted into his office. But Gramm was true to his principles as one of America's most uncompromising advocates of free-market enterprise. When he saw naked women in a movie, according to his former brother-in-law George Caton, his first instinct was to ask how can I make money from this?

The movie, by Caton's account, was "Truck Stop Women," an R-rated bra-buster about a gang of prostitutes who murder drivers and steal their trucks. Caton--now a successful investor in Spokane, Wash., who was then a Hollywood lawyer and small-time producer-says Gramm found teasing promotional materials for the movie in 1973 when the future senator, then a professor, visited the Catons in L.A. (Gramm's wife, Wendy, was the sister of Caton's wife then, Sharon; the Catons divorced in 1975.) Caton told The New Republic's John B. Judis that Gramm was "titillated." But the action Gramm sought was financial. The following year, Caton showed Gramm the script for a new project by the same director, Mark Lester. Caton described "Beauty Queens" to NEWSWEEK as "high jinks at a beauty contest, with some sexual activity but not overt." Gramm ponied up.

The amount of Gramm's investment, along with other key facts, remains in dispute, Caton says it was $15,000, and that Gramm tried to conceal his participation (legally, if hypocritically) by using the name of an acquaintance. Gramm says it was $7,500, in his own name. What is certain is that "Beauty Queens" was never made. Lester took the $100,000 he had raised and made another movie altogether, "White House Madness," a demented spoof of the Nixon administration that had the misfortune to be released on the same day Nixon resigned.

This is, as even Gramm's enemies would concede, a scandal that barely reaches the ankles of Chappaquiddick. When the news broke, though, President Clinton did remark wistfully to his chief of staff, Leon Panetta, that it was "too bad it didn't happen later." Gramm, whose candidacy has been idling, hastily died religious-right leaders to alert them to the story and beg their indulgence. They seemed inclined to extend it. "This is a nonissue," said Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association. Whether it hurts his chances of becoming president or not, the affair has certainly taught the senator a lesson about the pitfalls of capitalism. He never saw any return on his $7,500.