IT WAS THE KIND OF ritual people think of when they hear the words ""Washington establishment.'' Democratic doyenne Esther Coopersmith hosted a glittering reception last week for Evan Bayh, the new Indiana senator. Ambassadors and politicians arrived at Coopersmith's town house to nibble canapes and meet the rising star. Most of the polite talk was about the future of the Democratic Party. But quietly, in the corners, the conversation turned to another question: what dirt does Larry Flynt really have on the Republicans?
When the flamboyant publisher of Hustler magazine took out an ad in The Washington Post last October offering ""up to $1 million'' for anyone who could provide ""evidence of illicit sexual relations with a Congressman, Senator or member of the executive or judiciary branches,'' it was brushed off as just another Flynt publicity stunt. But the pornographer's crusade is no longer a laughing matter. Late last month presumptive House Speaker Bob Livingston admitted to adultery and resigned from Congress when it was rumored Flynt was about to expose him. The publisher says he will continue to reveal the ""hypocrisy'' of those who have publicly denounced President Clinton's affair while concealing moral failings of their own. He claims there are ""about a dozen'' prominent Republican figures on his list.
Unlike Don Imus or many other new media figures, Flynt uses sleazy, cash-for-dirt tactics, not wit and insights on the news, to affect the political conversation. He may be a bottom dweller, and the mainstream press won't rush to promulgate his allegations, but politicians are nonetheless waiting anxiously to see who he'll try to expose next.
Flynt says he received thousands of calls from tipsters looking to cash in. About four dozen seemed credible enough for him to hire a team of investigators to check them out. Flynt had a tough time finding respectable journalists or gumshoes willing to take on the job. But at least one, NEWSWEEK has learned, eagerly accepted: Dan Moldea. An investigative crime reporter and author of controversial books about pro football and the O. J. Simpson case, Moldea is a Clinton sympathizer. Last year he approached the president's private lawyers with a tantalizing story: in phone calls Moldea secretly recorded, two of Kenneth Starr's top deputies admitted that their office routinely briefed sympathetic reporters. Moldea later repeated the leak charge in a sworn statement to the judge overseeing the Starr probe. Moldea investigated the allegations about Livingston. He confirmed to NEWSWEEK that he is continuing to investigate other Clinton critics. (Moldea and the president's lawyers deny there is any connection between the White House and Flynt.)
This week the Hustler publisher may start releasing damaging information about a different GOP pol as part of a campaign to derail the impeachment trial. In the chaos, one thing is certain: Flynt is having fun watching Washington sweat.