Politics & Policy

Kant, Not Cant

Actually, morning talker Bill Bennett has a much better taste in philosophers than that, but you've got the idea.

It’s a curious thing, the angst over Don Imus. What’s most interesting is not what he said, but how people are reacting to his possible impending demise.

If Don Imus goes, we are worrying — at least, the Washington Post is, but it’s not alone–will there be “No One to Talk To?

What the Post piece actually described is what a humiliating experience it is for a luminary to lower himself to go on Imus’s radio show–to sell books, or a policy. Said respected person will get down in shockjockville lite–even now, chancing the taint of racist–because it is understood that Imus sells books and the guest will reach people.

So they’ll go on and be yelled at by the I-Man, put up with being asked if “Dick Cheney is a war criminal,” and subject themselves to below-the-belt ridicule (just ask Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, who, Imus suggested, was being beaten by his wife because he sounded tired during an interview; listeners would eventually learn it had to do with the chemo he was undergoing). They put up with it; in part because, CBS’s Jeff Greenfield explained on Tuesday’s show, it has become a “salon where people talk about events in a way that they don’t talk about in most other places.”

But will the world really never be the same if he is cancelled? Early risers will simply go elsewhere for their morning radio–perhaps to the show that more of them have been going to anyway, even pre-“nappy-headed hos”: Bill Bennett’s Morning in America. In recent editions of Talkers magazine, Bennett’s show–on opposite Imus in the Morning–has rated higher than Imus, with 3 million cumulative weekly listeners to Imus’s 2.25 million.

The morning shift is actually a pretty competitive time of day. Imus is obviously a success. But there are other places to go. And other places to sell your books, too. There is hope for the authors of our country.

In fact, if you tuned into Morning in America on Wednesday morning — even as the Washington Post was bemoaning the “moral dilemma” facing some of America’s finest thinkers in the Imus controversy–you would have heard former Time magazine editor Walter Isaacson on air for an entire hour of the show talking about his new book on Albert Einstein. (Isaacson, by the way, had appeared the previous week on Laura Ingraham’s later-in-the-morning show, which has some 5 million listeners according to Talkers.)

When Bennett celebrated his third anniversary on the air last Thursday morning, surprise callers congratulating him included Rudy Giuliani (“you’re terrific!”) and Newt Gingrich.

Bennett, the former secretary of education and drug czar, has the mix of light and heavy and other curiosities in between. Once Walter Isaacson hung up the phone on Wednesday, conversations with his on-air production staff included a (weird but entertaining) debate about the Boy Scouts vs. the Indian Guides (producer Seth Leibsohn, in the minority, had been the latter). Music would go from Mozart to Blue Öyster Cult. Topics on the show would hit Pelosi and McCain and everything you’d expect Bill Bennett to be talking about. But the show would also break out into a little cowbell–a gift from a listener after hearing a few too many references to Christopher Walken’s cult-classic plea for “More Cowbell” from Saturday Night Live.

Bill Bennett’s daily listeners include former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy (he prosecuted the Blind Sheik–thank you, Andy), a frequent caller-in and guest. Of Bennett and the draw of the show, McCarthy says, in part: “Bill is very, very likable. Besides being charming, he’s learned in an inoffensive ‘I’m just a kid from Brooklyn so you’d never guess that I’m actually the smartest kid in the room’ kind of way.”

During the on-air conversation with Gingrich last week, Bennett recalled how Mario Cuomo assured him the show couldn’t be done. Bennett wanted to “pitch it a little higher”; his friend Cuomo told him it couldn’t be done. Bennett couldn’t get on the air with philosophy and history and current events with some doo-wop and comedy thrown in for balance and get an audience.

So much for that. “People go for it,” Bennett, who along with Leibsohn is a fellow at the Claremont Institute, said last week. Speaking of the media more generally–maybe with competitor Don Imus in mind, among so many others — he said, “We pitch it too low to the American people.” Not on Bennett’s show though, where, as Newt Gingrich described it, listeners go for participation in “the life of the mind and the pursuit of ideas. There is substantial market that actually relishes learning.”

And so there is — even at 6 A.M. With, as anyone who listens to the show knows, an audience base that includes stay-at-home moms, truck drivers (who must blow their horns for Morning in America), and college professors.

And despite the early hour, Bennett manages to get top-notch guests — as good as anyone a Don Imus might get. And from both sides of the aisle. Yes, you’ll get Rich Lowry and Bill Kristol and David Frum and Jon Kyl and Mitt Romney and John McCain. But you’ll also get Alan Dershowitz and Christopher Hitchens and Joe Lieberman and Donna Brazile. Plus the occasional interview with classic rockers like Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind”) or current country singer Chely Wright. And Morning in America guests spare themselves humiliation and ridicule.

Well, usually. Ask Mark Steyn, but I think he enjoyed singing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” The opportunity arose in a conversation stemming from the October discovery of Rod Stewart music in terrorist leader Mullah Omar’s cave.

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker — who frequently does the Bennett show — has written that “stumbling across Bill Bennett on the radio is like bumping into Socrates at Starbucks.” Why does she wake up early to sound coherent for Morning in America? “I do it because Bill is smart and interesting and he makes me feel smart and interesting, which is not easy to do at that hour of the morning.”

It sure beats the berating Imus guests frequently get.

One of those professor listeners, Matthew J. Franck, chairman of the political-science department at Radford University, explains why he listens: “Bill promises ‘candor, intelligence, and good will,’ and he delivers. Most mornings I learn something, from Bill or one of his guests, and every day I hear arguments well-made and smart questions raised about the events of the day. Plus Bill, Seth, and Jeff [Crites] have a kind of fun that is infectious, while treating serious things seriously. If you want angry shouters you have to go elsewhere. If you want a ‘shock jock,’ go elsewhere. If you want smart analysis and good spirits, go to Morning in America.”

So maybe, even if that day comes (soon, after MSNBC cancelled their simulcast?) when Imus goes off-air, there will be someone to talk to. Someone to listen to. (And all day, too. When Bill goes off, catch Laura Ingraham. After Laura, number-1 top-rated Rush Limbaugh will be on. Right behind him will be Sean Hannity. Right behind him will be Mark Levin.)

If the best way to show that a stick is crooked is not by arguing about it or spending time denouncing it, but to lay a straight stick alongside it, “nappy-headed hos” may have just shone a light on the talking sticks. And, long story short, sparing you the Al Sharpton details: There may be some savagery out there, but in the end, rest assured, it is Morning in America.

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