Hefner's the Man, Unfortunately

As of January 1, 1951, the entertainment media dealt with sex obliquely on the rare occasions when they dealt with it at all. Real-life premarital and extramarital relations were frowned on. Abortion and homosexuality were beyond the pale.

Then came the most significant sociocultural development of the second half of the twentieth century: the sexual revolution, which no one has done more to advance than Hugh Hefner, the mastermind of Playboy magazine. By my reckoning, that makes Hefner the most influential person of that period. And even if you believe the century has another year to go, it's highly unlikely that, in the next 360-odd days, anyone will knock Hef off his pedestal, atop which he reclines in, of course, a bed.

The seventy-three-year-old Hefner is the Playboy Interview subject in the January 2000 issue. In such a context, you don't expect a balanced assessment, but interviewer Bill Zehme's introduction is way, way over the top. A sappy sample: "He created this magazine. As a result, the century was forever altered. Because it was awakened. He awoke us all...He fought bad guys and dour foes...some who held elected offices, others who preached from transparent pulpits and still others who refused to grasp the logic that his liberation of our sociosexual collective had truly liberated all people, female as well as male."

The great theme of the interview itself is the triumph of the Playboy ethic over the forces of darkness. "I was afraid I was going to turn into my parents," Hefner reflects. "I was raised in a typical Midwestern Methodist home with a lot of Puritan repression...My life is an example of how you don't have to live by somebody else's rules." Not even God's rules, opines Hef: "It's perfectly clear to me that religion is a myth. It's something we have invented to explain the inexplicable."

Nowadays, Hefner states, "we live in a Playboy world...You see it reflected on television and the Internet, in newspapers and magazines." And, one must add, in the failure to dislodge a corrupt - sexually and otherwise - president from office: "The public reaction to the Clinton scandal would not have been as tolerant if we were still in the dark ages of not so long ago...Americans proved to be much less prudish and puritanical than right-wing politicians...would have us believe."

A major difference between Clinton and Hefner is that Clinton publicly, if insincerely, professes shame over his immaturity, while Hefner publicly delights in his. A long time ago, Hef remarked that Playboy "is a projection of...my own adolescent dreams and aspirations," and in this interview, he says, "Most of my dreams come from childhood and adolescence." (As you've no doubt heard, Hefner's current relationship is with three women. Talk about adolescent: It's not hard to imagine a fourteen-year-old saying, "Three chicks! Awesome!")

Obviously, there's nothing inherently wrong with knowing from an early age what you want your life's work to be. That's not what Hefner means, though. In his case, realizing his youthful dreams has meant living perpetually as a youth would prefer - self-indulgently, essentially free of long-term personal commitments - and prospering by enticing men to do the same. But since Hefner is, chronologically, a grownup, no one can keep him in line the way parents do with teenagers - and, since he's rich and famous, hardly anyone will tell him to, shall we say, act his age. Certainly Zehme didn't.

At this point I must address my fellow conservatives who would argue that the most influential person of the period in question simply must be Ronald Reagan. I would ask them to think about how Reagan disappointed many on the right by going the extra mile on defense and tax cuts, but not on abortion or other social issues.

What happened? The short answer is that even then, we lived in a Playboy world, and Reagan knew it. Since the '70s, the majority of Americans have supported a vague form of sexual liberalism. They may not apply it to their own lives, but neither are they inclined to judge others' behavior.

Hefner reports to Zehme that "complete strangers still come up to me when I'm out on the town and say, 'You're the man! You are the man!'" In a completely amoral sense, I regretfully agree with them.