THE BLOG
11/16/2010 03:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sins of Commission: The 40th Anniversary of the Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography

I used to housesit for this hippie couple when I was a teenager. While they were away, I searched their home for porn. This was the early 1970s; you couldn't just click and download the latest Jenna Jameson video to your iPad. I hit the mother load -- a copy of The Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. This was the Rosetta Stone of sex; it graphically depicted every sexual practice I had ever imagined, and many I had not.

But how did this informative document come to be published? Frankly, it didn't seem to be the sort of thing that then President Richard Nixon would be into (despite his nickname "Tricky Dick"). And how did it wind up hidden in the back of my neighbors' closet? I didn't know the whole sordid story then. But I do now.

***

Starting with Lady Chatterley's Lover: In 1959, the laws restricting what Americans could read, watch, and listen to were being steadily chipped away on First Amendment grounds. The US Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren -- the "Warren Court" -- was alternately praised by liberals and condemned by conservatives.

In 1967, Congress passed a bill authorizing a presidential commission to study the issue. In 1968, then President Lyndon Johnson appointed eighteen members to the commission. They were a cross-section of legal, medical, cultural, and religious experts. They were to be paid $75 a day for their efforts; they were going to earn their money.

History overtook the commission. The Vietnam War went sour. Johnson declined to run again. Bobby Kennedy, the putative Democratic frontrunner, was assassinated. Senator Hubert Humphrey eventually got the Democratic nomination, only to be trounced by Nixon in the general election.

The commission was a political headache for Nixon. The members appointed by Johnson were mostly academics, hardly representative of his "silent majority." There were alarming rumors that they were going to recommend repealing all remaining obscenity laws. Nixon had campaigned on a staunch anti-smut platform, at one point making the bizarre charge that the Boy Scouts of America sold their mailing lists to pornographers; the BSA angrily denied selling their mailing lists to anyone, let alone pornographers.

In 1969, Nixon made one critical change to the commission: he replaced judge Kenneth B. Keating (no relation) with attorney Charles H. Keating, Jr. (Kenneth Keating was fobbed off with an ambassadorship to India.) Charles Keating was an anti-pornography crusader: he was the founder and president of Citizens for Decent Literature, Inc. He was also later the center of the Keating savings and loan scandal.

The commission split into two warring factions. The minority, led by Keating, held their own hearings, drafted their own report (with help from then Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan), sued to block the release of the majority's report, and even urged Congress to investigate the majority for misuse of government funds.

All to no avail. On September 30th, 1970 -- the final day before the commission was scheduled to expire -- it delivered both the majority and minority's reports to the President, Congress, and the US Printing Office. As anticipated, the majority's report backed repeal: "The Commission recommends that federal, state, and local legislation prohibiting the sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed. Twelve of the 17 participating members [Keating refused to participate] of the Commission join in this recommendation."

As also anticipated, the minority's report was apoplectic: "Such presumption! Such an advocacy of moral anarchy! Such a defiance of the mandate of the Congress which created the Commission! Such a bold advocacy of a libertine philosophy! Truly, it is difficult to believe that to which the Commission majority has given birth."

The majority's report seemed DOA. It was denounced by Democrats and Republicans alike. The Senate voted to censure it. Nixon publicly repudiated it: "So long as I am in the White House, there will be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life...American morality is not to be trifled with. The Commission on Pornography and Obscenity has performed a disservice and I totally reject its report."

Enter William Hamling and Earl Kemp. They had been following these developments with professional interest; they were the president and editorial director, respectively, of Greenleaf Classics--the largest imprint of "adult books" in the United States (as many as four hundred a year at their peak).

They had already tangled many times with the law. In Redrup vs. New York (1967), their biggest case, they had argued successfully all the way to the Supreme Court that an adult in the comfort and privacy of his own home was the best judge of what was obscene and without merit. (Robert Redrup was a Times Square newsstand clerk who was arrested for selling two Greenleaf Classics to an undercover cop--Lust Pool and Shame Agent.)

Somehow Hamling and Kemp obtained a preliminary copy of both the majority and minority's reports. Kemp, in his introduction, thanks "the kind gentleman who insists upon remaining unnamed who caught that early Monday Washington plane to bring me his personal copy." Presumably, "the kind gentleman" was a sympathetic Commission member. (In his blog, Kemp maintains Greenleaf was working with certain unnamed Commission members behind the scenes since Nixon was elected.)

But Hamling and Kemp went further. They illustrated both the minority and majority reports with 546 explicit photographs. (Again, in his introduction, Kemp thanks "all the many persons, corporations, friends who made material available for this project.") They reasoned that the American people should be able to see the same evidence Commission members saw and judge for themselves. Besides, it wouldn't hurt sales.

On November 11th, 1970, a little over a month after the official, un-illustrated version was issued, Hamling and Kemp published their illustrated version . The same week the, The Sensuous Woman by 'J' and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex by Dr. David Ruben were first and second on the New York Times non-fiction bestsellers list.

No doubt Hamling and Kemp had similar dreams of success. At first it seemed they might come true. They sold 100,000 copies in three months at $12.50 a piece--$7 more than the un-illustrated version. They sold it through adult book stores and mail orders. (This is when my neighbors must have acquired their copy.) They also mailed 55,000 brochures for the book: "This book is a must for the research shelves of every library, public or private, seriously concerned with full intellectual freedom and adult selection....In a truly free society, a book like this wouldn't even be necessary.

The brochure, like the report, was illustrated with graphic photos.

Then a CDL member discovered a copy of the illustrated report in an adult bookstore he was "monitoring." He brought it to Keating, who brought it to Nixon. Neither Keating nor Nixon were amused: Keating demanded to know what Nixon intended to do about it; Nixon ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to "get" Hamling and Kemp.

On March 5th, 1971, Mitchell indicted Hamling and Kemp on obscenity charges. On the day before Christmas, they were convicted. The jury deadlocked on whether the illustrated version of the report itself was obscene, but agreed that the brochures were. Hamling was sentenced to four years, Kemp three.

Hamling and Kemp appealed. But the composition of the Supreme Court had changed since the heady days of Redrup v. New York. Nixon had made four appointments, including new Chief Justice Warren Burger. It was now the Burger court. On June 25th, 1974, in Hamling v. United States, the Court upheld their convictions 5-4. (The same day, the Court ruled the movie Carnal Knowledge was not obscene.) They only served ninety days--the minimum allowable--but had to sell Greenleaf Classics and cut all ties with the adult book industry in exchange for probation. They couldn't even publish anything about their own case.

In the meantime, history overtook the Commission again. On June 17th, 1972, a group of inept burglars was arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building. (Around the same time I was breaking into my neighbor's closet.) On August 9th ,1974--less than two months after Hamling v. United States--Nixon resigned in disgrace. Ironically, Woodward and Bernstein's source was codenamed Deep Throat after the X-rated movie that had become a mainstream crossover hit. In the political tumult, the Commission and the reports--majority, minority, illustrated, un-illustrated--were forgotten.

***

Until now. At least by me.

I ordered a copy from a third-party vendor through Amazon.com. It arrived a few weeks later in the traditional plain brown wrapper. I tore the innocuous package open. Would it still have the power to shock and awe me as it had forty years ago, or would time and a more sexually permissive society, not to mention my own personal experiences, lessen its impact?

I shouldn't have worried. The report still had the effect to titillate or nauseate, depending on the section and the sex act, the paragraph and the perversion. I slipped it back into its plain brown wrapper. There are some things man--and boy--was not meant to know.

A few weeks after receiving the report, I got an email from the vendor: "hello, you bought this book from me. please contact me as soon as possible." This was followed by a second email a few hours later: "anyway, I just wanted you to know the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] came by my house today and said I sold you an illegal book. I didn't know it had illegal material in it but they say it does. So I just wanted you to know."

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. So far Homeland Security hasn't kicked in my door. But I keep my copy hidden in the back of my closet, just in case. And I never, ever hire a teenager to housesit for me.