Politics & Policy

Man’s Best Friend

Mark Levin shares his family's story of love and loss.

Mark R. Levin says he’s just done “the most important thing I’ve done in my career.” As his friends know, that’s not a line to sell a book with, it’s something he’s been saying for over a year, as he’s worked on, and lived, his new book (released this week).

This new Levin book is one that has the ability to make potential readers look twice: at the byline — you, mean, THAT Mark Levin? He’s written a heartwarming book about a dog? And at politics: While so many of us have opinions, we also have family lives. And though politics may divide us, we ultimately have a lot in common.

It’s that message that makes Mark Levin’s Rescuing Sprite a perfect book for the season we’re entering — a season of thanksgiving and family. To mark the release this week of Rescuing Sprite, Levin took some questions from NRO this weekend. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How the heck does a successful talk-show host — who is known for being a cerebral constitutional lawyer and delivering fiery monologues — pitch a heartwarming story about his late dog Sprite to a publisher? If you’re Mark Levin, don’t they want more of the same?

Mark Levin: I wasn’t planning on writing Rescuing Sprite. As much as we try to plan our lives, life is unpredictable. I was thinking about writing a book that was more along the lines you mention — about philosophy and politics. We had actually begun the process of talking to several interested publishers about that project, but then Sprite passed away. It was a crushing blow to me, as I am sure other dog lovers can relate. I put in very long days. My radio show finishes at 8 P.M. ET, after which I eat dinner with my dogs every night; I take long walks with them; I talk with them at length. They give me enormous pleasure and enjoyment. They keep me company. They give me far more than I could ever give them and, in return, they ask for nothing more than something to eat and drink, a warm place to sleep, and some loving attention.

It never occurred to me to adopt a dog from a shelter. It was my wife’s and kids’ idea, and their persistence, that brought this wonderful dog, Sprite, into our family.

You know, I’d never been to a shelter before. I’d never given them a first thought, let alone a second thought. But I have since come to know that there are literally millions of dogs (and cats and other animals) who are living in crates or cages in thousands of shelters across the country who are in desperate need of loving families. They became lost from their families, or were turned in by their owners, or had been abused. When you go to a shelter, it’s a difficult experience — at least it was for me. The people there are truly remarkable. They do something I could never do. They care for an endless stream of needy animals, and their contributions to society are enormous. But to see those dogs and cats in those crates, who have to wonder what happened to their world, and who are surrounded by strangers and strange sounds, is heartbreaking. In most cases, just a few weeks earlier, they were in a loving home.

Anyway, back to your question. It never crossed my mind to write a book like this, until my Sprite passed away. Simon & Schuster and several other publishers wanted me to write a book for them — a political book. Well, this was the book I wanted to write. I had to write it. It was this or nothing.

There are many, many people like me, who have lost a dog and who are deeply affected by it. The day Sprite died, I wrote a short essay to myself and my family about our Sprite and the light he brought into our home. I decided to share the essay with the folks at Simon & Schuster. Obviously, I’m not known for writing about dogs. There are other authors who are experts. But I am a dog lover with emotions and passions, and in this I’m no different than millions of other people — except that I am blessed with the opportunity to write a book about it. Every dog lover has a dog story. This is my family’s story. And apparently a lot of people can identify with it, which is what I’d hoped.

Although they liked my original essay, I’m pretty sure Simon & Schuster wasn’t 100-percent certain what to expect. In March, three-and-a-half months after Sprite passed away, I submitted the manuscript. They loved it.

I wrote the book late at night, after my radio show; I wrote it on the weekends. And there were many occasions when writing it became so emotional that I had to stop. And there were times I didn’t think I could finish. This is the most important thing I’ve done in my career. That may seem odd to some. So be it.

Lopez: You write how Pepsi, a dog you’ve had for over nine years, helped you recover from heart surgery. How so?

Levin: Pepsi is an extraordinary dog. He’s a mix breed — part Border Collie. He is so smart and so attuned to our family’s emotions. We bought him nine years ago after I saw him in our local pet shop’s window. The kids named him Pepsi because he’s mostly black.

I had a heart attack in June 2000, followed by bypass surgery. There were complications after the surgery. I was in and out of hospitals for a few months thereafter. At the time Pepsi was our only dog. He was two years old at the time. Well, open-heart surgery is major surgery. You really have to work at getting better. And you can start feeling a little sorry for yourself. You worry a lot — not so much about yourself, but about what might happen to your family, should you not recover as expected. When I returned home after the operation, Pepsi was always by my side. He was always smiling at me, his tail was wagging at the speed of sound, he wanted attention, and he wanted to play. I couldn’t help but laugh whenever he was with me, even when laughing would cause great pain because my chest had just been strapped back together with titanium wires. And he would loyally stay with me whether I was in bed or sitting up in a chair. As I got a little better, I would take short walks outside with him. I had to get better — for Pepsi! He wouldn’t have had it any other way. And he spurred me on.

Lopez: How’s your heart now?

Levin: It’s beating thank goodness. Thanks for asking.

Lopez: When did your love of dogs start?

Levin: When my parents brought home a dog named Prince. I was about eight years old. He lived to twelve. He was such a terrific family dog. He was part of my family through my teenage years and when I became a young man. I’ll never forget Prince. Prince, like Pepsi and Sprite, was a mix-breed. I never knew which breeds, but that has never mattered to me. We also had three Chihuahuas (not all at once, but in succession), which were great dogs, but were probably more my parents’ dogs.

But I like all dogs, regardless of breed or breeds.

Lopez: Is there something special about dogs? Something that cats and parrots and penguins could never offer?

Levin: I have never had a cat, or parrot, or penguin (laugh). Do you have to take penguins for walks? Anyway, my guess is for some people their love for other animals, and their grief when they pass, is no different. What matters isn’t what I think of them, but what their families think of them. If a cat, parrot, or penguin brings someone the kind of joy that my dogs bring me, more power to them.

Yes, I think there is something special about dogs. There’s a special connection or bond between humans and dogs. It’s as if dogs exist to bring people happiness. They teach us about life, loyalty, joy, trust, responsibility, and laughter. They help us clear out all the clutter that surrounds our busy lives and focus on what’s really important. They tell us it’s okay to take time to play sock-pull or have a catch, make silly noises, and enjoy yourself despite all the pressures we adult humans have deal with. Let me put it this way: Dogs are not pets. Dogs are family.

Lopez: Did you know before you got married that Kendall is a dog person?

Levin: Kendall’s family had Beagles when she was growing up. They were mostly outside dogs. But she has always loved dogs.

When I decided about ten years ago that it would be a good idea to add to our family with a dog, Kendall was a little hesitant only because we had two young children and she wasn’t sure we would have the time or energy to give it the proper attention. I spent a year or so wearing her down. It wasn’t that hard, really. And then we got Pepsi.

I was actually hesitant to add a second dog to our home. When, about three years ago, Kendall told me she wanted to adopt a dog a find a companion for Pepsi, I resisted. But she and the kids wore me down. I only took about three weeks. And that decision took us on this journey — where we adopted Sprite, who, along with Pepsi, changed all of our lives. Pepsi and Sprite, both males, became inseparable buddies.

Lopez: How often were Sprite and Pepsi in the room while you were recording the show?

Levin: Well, I reveal in the book that I broadcast my program from my home office in my basement. Most days, Sprite and Pepsi would hang outside the door to my office as I broadcasted. My basement is lined with windows, where you can look over the 15th hole of a golf course (I don’t play much golf anymore) and on to the Potomac River. Every now and then, they’d bark at squirrel or some golfer who hit his ball into my backyard. Sometimes, I’d let them sit at my feet while broadcasting. And I think once or twice they barked on the air, which I thought was pretty funny.

Lopez: What is it that your parents did right — to instill in you the God-country-family values you talk so much about in Rescuing Sprite?

Levin: My parents are the salt of the earth. They’re the hard-working, middle class people every politician claims to represent, but few do. Unlike their parents, and despite little money, my father and mother graduated from college. Without any help from government or anyone else, they started their own private nursery school and day camp. My father did most of the carpentry, cut the lawn, painted the fences and buildings, and all the other labor that needed to be done. He would help transport the kids to and from the school in his station-wagon. He was also a great swimmer, and taught the summer campers how to swim. And yet, my father is a schooled artist. As a young man, he had a comic strip for a while that was published in dozens of major newspapers. He wrote a book about Gettysburg, which was published in the 1960s. And to this day, he paints wonderful paintings. He has always been interested in history, current events, and politics. I consider him an expert in American history — self-taught.

My mother was a teacher. She was the impetus for starting the nursery school and day camp. She prepared all the lesson plans each day. She not only taught the children but oversaw the one or two other teachers who worked at the school. My mother would organize the holiday plays and help lead the songs. She was also in charge of the kitchen, which was no small task especially during summer camp. And she insisted on providing a hot meal as an option for the campers every single day.

When we were a few years old, we lived at the nursery school — or should I say the nursery school and our home were one in the same. I doubt the government would permit that today. But it was a terrific experience and upbringing.

My parents were always patriotic. They’ve always loved this country. They’ve always appreciated the freedom America offers anyone, with any background. They’ve always appreciated the opportunity this country provides anyone who wishes to take advantage of it with hard work. They supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 when nearly everyone in their family and neighborhood did not. My father once said to me, “I knew everything they said about Goldwater couldn’t be true, so I voted for him.”

Everything I am I owe to my parents. They always supported my two brothers and me, and taught us by deed and example. They are the most decent and selfless people I’ve ever known.

Lopez: You came close to quitting public life when Sprite died. What made you decide not to?

Levin: I was traumatized by his death — by having to make the decision as to when Sprite would be put to death and the actual process. I’d never done that before. And I thought about all the people who commit their lives to helping others — including doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and people who work at shelters. These are people who’ve committed their lives to life itself. I very seriously questioned the contribution I was making to the well-being of others. I questioned whether my daily activities were really consequential. And I told Kendall that I was considering making a major change of course.

Kendall is not only a smart and beautiful lady, who has deep faith, but is also a very wise person. She understood what I was saying. She only asked that I not act too quickly in whatever I might do. My dear friends Sean Hannity and David Limbaugh did the same. They were very worried about me. They were concerned that I was about to throw my career away. Sean said, “Mark, you have no idea of the impact you have.” Well, whatever the impact, now or then, I thought hard about going in a different direction.

Then, when I was instant messaging with Rush, which we do most nights, he said something that ultimately stuck with me. I write about it in Rescuing Sprite. It’s probably too long to go into it here. But it made a big difference. So, what I’ve decided to do, instead, is contribute a significant portion of the proceeds I receive from Rescuing Sprite to animal shelters and welfare leagues. I figure but for Sprite, this book wouldn’t have been written. It’s only fair.

Lopez: Rush Limbaugh has to be one of the most vilified men in American media. Who’s the real Rush?

Levin: It bothers me to no end that people who don’t know Rush, or who hold different political or philosophical beliefs, spend so much time trying to smear him. But that, sadly, seems to be the nature of things today. If you can’t beat his arguments, then assassinate his character. Rush has flourished for 20-years as the nation’s leading talk show host, and that is what he will be as long as he wants to be. The conservative movement and the nation owe him a debt of gratitude. I know I do. And I think it’s time more conservatives, and citizens generally, realize it.

On a personal level, Rush is an extremely kind and thoughtful person. Rescuing Sprite includes some of the extended discussions we had about life, grief, and ultimately loss. I included our conversations because I think people will relate to what I was experiencing and Rush’s compassion. He’s a very busy man, but never too busy for a friend. And he is also tremendously generous — and not just to family and friends. The public got a small indication of that when he donated over $2 million to the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Association a few weeks ago. I am blessed to have him as such a dear friend.

Lopez: Sean Hannity is also a good friend of yours? How do you three manage it? Aren’t all you talk radio hosts competitors? How are you friends in that environment?

Levin: Yes, Sean is a great friend. He would also give you the shirt off his back. I included some of our discussions in the book as well. Sean has two dogs, one of whom is getting pretty old, and I could tell he was upset not only because I was crushed when Sprite died, but he knew his day with his dog would come. It’s an extremely difficult time, and Sean is a very compassionate person. He called me repeatedly. He was very worried about me. I will never forget his support. And there were others, like Debra Burlingame, who has become a close friend. Talk about a remarkable person!

I don’t view Sean as a competitor. Rush is #1 and Sean is #2 and there is no #3. But for them, I wouldn’t be in radio. They give me advice and more. I am indebted to them. Sean and I are syndicated by the same company, Citadel Broadcasting (formerly ABC Radio Networks). We try to help each other. That’s what friends do.

Lopez: Going forth, what is the future of talk radio? Are there real threats you worry about in the name of “Fairness”?

Levin: I truly believe talk radio will be targeted should a Democrat win the presidency. And it won’t be through legislation. My guess is they will use the Federal Communications Commission to impose anti-free speech regulations. It’s the course of least resistance for them. And I think the liberal media will praise them if they do it, just as Congress was praised when they passed the unconstitutional McCain-Feingold anti-free speech act. In fact, it’s congressional advocates were called “reformers” and “independents” when the truth is these are totalitarian tactics. We will definitely need to resolute in opposing any such effort.

Lopez: Do you worry people won’t get the book?

Levin: So far the response, based on pre-orders, has been very strong. So, this suggests to me that the book will resonate with dog lovers and others. The joy of family and life, and the grief and agony of loss, are universal feelings. And that’s what Rescuing Sprite is about. There’s nothing political about it. There’s nothing partisan about it. It’s a very personal and emotional book which I believe many people will relate to.

Lopez: Do you think a book like this has something to offer civics-wise? What, ultimately, do you want people to take away from the life of Sprite Levin?

Levin: I really don’t want to lecture anybody. That’s not the purpose of Rescuing Sprite. People will get out of it what they put into it. But what I got out of the experience was to appreciate more the people around me, my family, friends, and my dogs. Slow down. Spend more time with them. In the end, they matter more than anything else. One hundred years from now, most of us never existed — except, if we are lucky, in the hearts and minds of our family. I have never allowed “fame” — such as it is in my case — to go to my head. But there are too many times when I have been too focused on things that don’t matter. We only had Sprite for 26 months, but those were amazing months. His short and difficult life changed me for the better. That’s not to say I won’t remain a vigorous advocate of my views. But I believe it’s important that you step back now and then, take measure of what you are doing, consider whether you want to be doing it, and whether it favorably affects the people around you. Find time for your kids, find time to be circumspect, find time to help someone.

Lopez: To go out on a most serious note: You do realize, don’t you, that in Mayor Bloomberg’s fantasy New York, dog names like “Sprite” and “Pepsi” would likely go the way of transfats?

Levin: Well, in Mark Levin’s world, Michael Bloomberg’s political future will go the way of transfats. I’m 50 years old and I don’t need any politician telling me what I should or should not eat. As a matter of fact, now that this interview has ended, I think I’ll go to McDonald’s and get a big, juicy Big Mac with fries.

LOPEZ: Well, thankfully we will remain a free country until Mike Bloomberg becomes president … so we’ll remain a free country. But watch that ticker, Levin.


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