Every week, more than two million Americans tune in to The Michael Medved Show to hear Medved’s thoughts on politics and entertainment. On the show, Medved taps his varied experiences as a liberal political operative, advertising executive, screenwriter, movie critic, synagogue president, and nine-time author to entertain and educate his radio listeners. Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life tells Medved’s story of his political and religious journeys from left to right, as well as his quest for authenticity and his growing appreciation for America’s core traditional values of family, prayer, and self-reliance.
Right Turns is divided into simple lessons, with each chapter mirroring a lesson from a specific moment in Medved’s life that went on to shape his current philosophical outlook. Each chapter’s lesson is summarized in the chapter title, and then repeated in the chapter’s closing paragraph for good measure.
The story begins with “America Isn’t Normal,” in which Medved describes how his family came to understand that poverty and disease were not the endemic problems in America that they were in early 20th-century Europe. For the Medved family, America was a beacon of promise and opportunity in a bitter world. Medved’s grandparents, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, had struggled for ten years to unite in America. During that time of separation, the couple lost five of their six children.
Medved went to Yale in 1965, and after graduation continued on at the law school, although he never finished his degree. While at Yale, he met future political stars like Hillary and Bill Clinton, and John Kerry. Medved’s tale of his one meeting with the young John Kerry paints a devastating portrait of the perils of ambition: “[Kerry] droned on in portentous tones and at appalling length about the way the Liberal Party and the [Yale Political Union] would enrich our lives and the possibility–nay, the virtual certainty–that if we worked with single-minded intensity we might one day rise to the unspeakably glorious heights of party chairmanship and union-wide office that he, the Great Kerry, had achieved.” Afterwards, Medved and a classmate would recite a mantra of authenticity that echoed in the background of future life decisions: “We can’t turn out like John Kerry.”
Medved’s staunch opposition to the Vietnam War led him to pour heart and soul into Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. After Kennedy’s assassination, Medved continued to sweat and toil for liberal candidates, but his quest for authenticity exposed a growing gap between rhetoric and reality, ideology and integrity.
The Kennedy campaign may have been a labor of love for Medved, but he was a reluctant warrior for the McGovern campaign. Medved was uncomfortable with McGovern’s neo-isolationism and lukewarm support for Israel, but he joined because of his personal associations with the McGovernites, as well as McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Like millions of Americans, Vietnam was the issue that linked Medved to the left. Once that issue receded, Medved became receptive to conservative ideas as he became increasingly uncomfortable with what he saw as the excesses of radical liberalism.
For Medved, the first conscious breaking point was the realization that “Liberal Heroes Aren’t All Heroes.” In 1972, he signed on as campaign manager for Ron Dellums, the fiery African-American congressman from Berkeley California. Medved quickly soured on Dellums and his associates, who acted as though the rule of law, personal ethics, and high standards did not apply to them. Dellums’s people, in turn, viewed Medved as a token Jew–a gambit to attract suburban Jewish voters. The Dellums staff, Medved claims, also used drugs excessively and flamboyantly, and suspiciously ran the campaign as an all-cash operation. Medved felt that the Dellums operation abused white sympathy for African Americans both to obtain power and to avoid responsibility.
As he lost interest in liberal politics, Medved went into book writing, and found he had a knack not just for writing books, but for selling them as well. Medved’s Whatever Happened to the Class of ‘65, a review of his high-school classmates ten years later, became a bestseller, as did his The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. The film book turned out to be the key development in Medved’s career, ultimately leading to his becoming a film critic.
When The Tonight Show invited the Sabbath-observant Medved to discuss his awful movies, he had to beg off because it was scheduled for the night of the second Passover Seder. The producer suggested an alternate date, but that date was on the last days of Passover, which also precluded participation. At this point, the disbelieving producer said that there would be no more alternative dates.
Desperate, Medved read the producer the biblical passage forbidding work at the end of Passover, and the producer relented. Medved’s eventual appearance was viewed by another producer, of Sneak Previews, who offered Medved a spot on the show. Of course, the episode on which Medved appeared was the only time that year the Sneak Previews producer had watched The Tonight Show, making this the 20th-century equivalent of a Hasidic tale, where strict observance begets material success.
Medved’s work on “The Tonight Show,” among other places, led to his becoming a television film critic. In that capacity, he both gained exposure and also became known as a conservative analyst of films, both of which led to his current incarnation as a conservative radio host.
Medved’s description of his travels from the Left to the Right is one that many people can identify with–and which may describe his radio and book-selling popularity. As Medved describes it, his transformation was based on “a belated awakening to economic realities, the embrace of the traditional family, and America’s ongoing and underreported religious revival.” Or, more concisely and alliteratively, “our experiences with paychecks, parenthood, and prayer.” On its own, Right Turns is an engaging memoir and a moving tribute to America. But it is also a very accessible road map for explaining the practical reasons old radicals often become older conservatives.
–Tevi Troy is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and the author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency.