When the two most exciting presidential candidates this country has seen in 10 years are a black guy and and a white woman who between them have raised more than $50 million in campaign contributions, isn’t it sort of – what’s the right word? – stupid? – to go calling a winning women’s basketball team both “ho’s” and “nappy-headed” as Don Imus did last week?
Not if you’re sitting deep inside the locker room of American politics. The rest of us may know it as the Don Imus show – more formally, Imus in the Morning. But for Don and the boys – Sens. McCain, Kerry, Biden, Lieberman, Dodd and former Senators Rick Santorum and Bill Bradley and Al Gore, TV commentators Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Mike Barnacle and Jeff Greenfield, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas and political reporter Howard Fineman, NBC anchorman Brian Williams, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Boston Globe writer Tom Oliphant, former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani and perennial blowhard Donald Trump – it’s really just a big ole friendly game of access and insider baseball.
It’s not about us listeners and it hasn’t been for years; it’s about the white guys sitting ’round talking politics and important stuff. On a sports radio station that most folks living off the East Coast can’t hear or, even, see – assuming anyone bothers to click off the “Today” show and watch MSN’s simulcast of Imus’ radio show. Ohhhh. There’s exciting TV: Watching radio get made.
This isn’t new. Imus is the guy who, brought down to Washington, D.C., to host the terminally boring but mysteriously well-attended Radio and TV Correspondents cattle call dinner, stood up and told jokes about President Bill Clinton’s infidelities. In front of the president and his wife, now-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then, as now, Imus endured a few months of bad press – how could he say that? said the boys and girls who listen regularly to his morning schtick – then he and his crew of misogynistic racists were back on the job cracking wise. And they got away with it because no one with any power felt like – really – correcting them. But times have changed; power is shifting. Being rude to everyone except your powerful white guy guests isn’t as socially acceptable or as politically astute as it once was. Particularly when you’re picking on a women’s basketball team – Rutgers’ Scarlet Knights – who had an almost classic Cinderella season.
Back when I figured politics would always be white guys talking to white guys about things that were important to white guys – in other words when I lived in The Old Country (Washington, D.C.) – I used to listen to Imus. His great talent in those pre-Internet days was a simple one: Get reporters and insiders to talk – in casual, understandable terms – about what they were doing. It’s good radio. Imus – who is a king size horse’s ass but not stupid – talked to insiders as a smart outsider; a savvy media consumer. He often got his guests to go beyond sound-bites. On his best days, which are, one suspects, fewer and further between, he probably still does.
But then there’s the cruelty. The ugly, teenage boy, towel-snapping nonsense that demonstrates just how scared Don Imus – who turns 67 this July – is of the world around him. Imus regularly refers to Hillary Clinton as a lesbian – the knee-jerk insult that insecure men throw at women who can’t find the time to play up to them. What does he call Barack Obama? A “jug-ear mulatto.” Mulatto? Does anyone still use that word? Why not call Obama a “high yaller” like they did when Don was a boy and be done with the niceties?
Of course, that’s just this year’s raft of trash talk. Imus called Gwen Ifill a “cleaning lady” – that’s when she worked at the New York Times covering the White House. He told Laura Ingraham – who he seemed to like – that no man would marry her – she was “too scary.” The number of women who appear on his show is laughably small and although he can have moments of “gentlemanly” behavior, they’re really just that, moments – occasions when he puts on a polite face and acknowledges that the world isn’t ordered as he would like so he’ll play along. So some of the people are fooled some of the time into thinking that Imus is a nice man who says rude things about everyone.
By contrast, the always polite and reasonable – a class act if there ever was one – Ifill doesn’t bother filling out these points in her op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times; her casual aside about no black journalists appearing on the show is enough condemnation. As is her off-hand remark that covering the Clinton White House left her too busy to humor Imus with an appearance on his show. Dissing Don – not playing up to the big man and his radio show – well, that’s a career killer, huh?
Yup. Where would Gwen be without Don Imus? So let’s take a minute to look – closely – at Ifill and the work she does. There is no more eloquent repudiation of the anachronistic nature of Imus’ show than a look at the breadth and depth of the columnist and beat reporters that Ifill regularly has as guests on Washington Week, a show that used to be nothing more than a stultifying round-up of white guys talking to other white guys about oh, yeah, the things that matter to white guyzzzzzzzzzz….
It’s Ifill who has asked her viewers to comment on the use of the word “ambitious” in describing presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. It’s Ifill who asked presidential candidates in the last election what – if anything – they proposed doing about the rising rate of AIDs among African-American women. And she keeps it up – every week asking good questions that reveal a quiet kind of thinking. It’s no coincidence that Ifill’s asking them and that she hits a nerve – deliberately – when she does. And no, it’s not riveting edge-of-your-seat TV but it’s smartly done and it’s found both sponsors and and, unlike Imus’ TV show, an audience.
The key to the Washington Week success is Ifill’s clear determination to spread the conversation about politics beyond a club to beat reporters of different genders, sexual orientations and races. You can, on any Friday night (I Tivo it) see more women, blacks (not counting Ifill) and Asians talking about policy and politics than you can in weeks of watching Imus’ buddies Tim Russert or Mike Barnacle talk to other member of Imus’ guest list.
Gwen’s guests know the times have changed. They’ve changed with them. So maybe Ifill can have Don Imus on her show so he can see for himself – up close and personal. You know, it wouldn’t be the first time a “cleaning lady” taught an old man a lesson or two.