Watching Celebrities Self-destruct
I have been listening—and watching—Don Imus since the early 1970s when he was the morning “shock-jock” on WNBC radio.
In this age of political correctness, Imus has consistently been the media’s ultimate iconoclast.
He has been sued. He has been vilified. But through dumb luck, knowing his audience and perhaps divine intervention, Don Imus has endured.
His racist slur of just three words last week may have ended his career.
Don Imus was lucky to have self-destructed in his late 60s, with a pretty, young wife, handsome son and presumably plenty of money to last the rest of his days.
Orson Welles blew his career at age 26 with a single word.
Sticking It to the Second Most Powerful Man in the Country
In 1941, if you were to make a list of the five most powerful men in America, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst would certainly rank No. 2 behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his heyday, Hearst was proprietor of 28 major newspapers from coast to coast, 18 magazines, radio stations and movie studios.
One sentence describes the power of William Randolph Hearst. In 1897, the great illustrator Frederic Remington had been posted to Havana by the Hearst newspapers in anticipation of war. After cooling his heels for a while, the artist cabled Hearst for permission to return to the States. Hearst replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor and Hearst had his war.
Hearst was also a racist and a bigot. From the biography of Hearst in the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com):
Along with his sensationalism and jingoism, William Randolph Hearst was a racist who hated minorities, particularly Mexicans, both native-born and immigrants. He used his newspaper chain to frequently stir up racial tensions. Hearst’s newspapers portrayed Mexicans as lazy, degenerate and violent, marijuana-smokers who stole jobs from “real Americans.” Hearst’s hatred of Mexicans and his hyping of the “Mexican threat” to America likely was rooted in the 800,000 acres of timberland that had been confiscated from him by Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution.
It was this man that Orson Welles, age 26, elected to skewer in “Citizen Kane”—which he directed and starred in, and is considered to be one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. Welles’s portrayal of the Hearst character, Charles Foster Kane, is mesmerizing, as is the script, the acting and especially, the camera work.
Hearst went ballistic when “Citizen Kane” was released and did everything in his power to sabotage the film. The depiction of Hearst’s/Kane’s ruthlessness—and in particular, the relationship with his alcoholic mistress, in real life, Marion Davies, on whom he spent millions trying to make a movie star—would ignite the fury in any man.
But in my opinion, it was the opening scene where Charles Foster Kane lay dying that scuttled Welles’s career. The old man’s lips fill the screen and they utter a single word:
The rest of the film is a flashback—a search for the meaning of “rosebud.” Finally at the very end, we see a child’s winter sled being tossed into a fire that is incinerating some of the dead Kane’s possessions. On the sled was not the logo “Flexible Flyer”—the sled my generation grew up with—but rather, “Rosebud.”
It is now generally believed that “rosebud” was the real-life Hearst’s bedroom appellation for the most private anatomical part of his mistress, Marion Davies.
Hence the Hearst blitzkrieg against Welles, the film and the studio that made it.
How could Welles have known this intimate fact of the Hearst-Davies relationship? Gore Vidal describes the possible sequence of events:
Marion Davies was an alcoholic who surrounded herself with other merry drinkers and though Hearst and his servants did their best to keep the palaces dry, vinous times were had by Marion and such intimates as her nephew and niece, Charlie and Pepi Lederer, and, for a time, Herman Mankiewicz [“Citizen Kane” screenwriter with Welles]. Charlie Lederer was a screen-writer, a wit, a sometime drug-taker.
It was Charlie Lederer who persuaded “Aunt Marion” in 1957 to pony up $10,000 to produce Gore Vidal’s play, “A Visit to a Small Planet.” Hence the connection.
“Citizen Kane” opened on May 1, 1941, and Hearst mobilized the entire might of his vast media empire in the fight to bring it down.
Seven months and six days later, the Japanese launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the film basically faded away.
I believe that it was Welles’s declaration of war against Hearst that scared the wits out of studios and backers who would forever view him as an enfant terrible— a dangerous and irresponsible loose cannon. As a result, Orson Welles’s career was one of anguish, no financing and—perhaps most hurtful of all—loss of authority over his work. He was perpetually in debt, forced to scrounge money wherever he could—including TV commercials for cheap Paul Masson wine—so that he could finish abandoned projects, only to have the money-men edit his masterpieces.
At the end of his life, when Welles heard that Ted Turner was threatening to colorize “Citizen Kane,” Welles reportedly said, “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamn Crayola pens away from my movie.”
Don Imus—A Lifetime of Insulting Everybody
Where Orson Welles picked a fight with the second most powerful man in America, Don Imus went after the powerless.
Remember as a kid when you had a loose tooth that you couldn’t resist playing with, even though every time you moved it, it hurt?
That’s why I used to watch Don Imus.
I remember the horror of a speech he made at the Radio/TV Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 21, 1996, with President Clinton and the first lady in attendance. He shamelessly stuck spikes in the eyes of the Clintons and a slew of noteworthy people in the audience. It was loose-tooth funny, but also so very hurtful, embarrassing and horrifying that the White House requested that C-SPAN not rebroadcast it. (C-SPAN ran it again, anyway.) Here’s a sampling of vintage Imus from what he later referred to as the “Speech from Hell”:
And then there’s Peter Jennings, who we are told more Americans get their news from than anyone else — and a man who freely admits that he cannot resist women. So I’m thinking, here’s Peter Jennings sitting there each evening, elegant, erudite, refined. And I’m thinking, what’s under his desk? I mean, besides an intern. [audience groans] The first place the telecommunications bill should have mandated that a v-chip be placed is in Mr. Jennings shorts.[audience groans]
The speech caused a tsunami in Washington. The question that was endlessly debated for weeks: How could the correspondents be so stupid as to invite Imus?
One reporter—I think it was Sam Donaldson—said, “If you put an alligator in the swimming pool, somebody’s going to get a leg bitten off.”
On “Imus in the Morning,” the cowboy-hat-wearing host and his merry band of truly nasty regulars—producer Bernard McGuirk, sportscaster Sid Rosenberg and comedian Rob Bartlett—hurl insults at all religions, all races, all lifestyles as well as at celebrities, politicians, reporters, philanderers, businesspeople and the idiocy of government and the media.
Even his sullen, humorless wife, Deirdre Imus, shows up occasionally to radiate contempt for everyone in the world who is not vegan.
Only Imus’s sycophantic announcer—the perpetually beleaguered Charles McCord— plays the embarrassed good cop to everybody else’s bad cop.
The tension is palpable.
Why did I watch? Why did I play with a loose tooth as a kid?
Getting His Life Together
A number of years ago, Imus gave up drugs and drinking and devoted his spare time to the Imus Ranch, an enterprise that gives the Western cowboy experience to desperately ill little boys and girls. It is a quirky but beautiful charity.
In addition, only a handful of interviewers are as masterful as Don Imus in drawing information out of people—Tim Russert, Brian Lamb of C-SPAN, Dick Cavett, Charlie Rose, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, and Gwen Ifill, the enormously capable and intelligent African-American moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week,” and senior correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”, whom Imus once called “a cleaning lady.”
For example, last Nov. 22, the elegant Jack Valenti, former advisor to President Lyndon Johnson and recently retired president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, was Imus’s guest on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. Imus asked Valenti where he was on that day, and then shut up as Valenti delivered a riveting, incredibly moving 15- or 20-minute monologue describing the events of that dark day 44 years ago in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. Unlike MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who listens with his mouth, Imus remained silent throughout. I pulled into the supermarket parking lot and sat in the car, totally enraptured by the story and Valenti’s mellifluous voice.
Radio doesn’t get any better than that.
Of course, Imus could not resist destroying the magic by asking Jack Valenti if Lyndon Johnson had sex with Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Valenti was appalled and denied it hotly. And then he added, “Don Imus, you are a naughty, naughty man.”
This Story May Have a Long Fuse
The racist slur against a women’s college basketball team should end the career of Don Imus. Quite simply, if the galaxy of luminaries whom he interviews—usually by phone—has any guts, they will no longer appear. Among them: Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, John McCain, Jeff Greenfield, Donald Trump, Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden and a slew of others.
Hereafter, by coming on the program, they are legitimizing the kind of naked racism that takes the country back to the ugliness of the 1930s.
No celebs, and “Imus in the Morning” will wither and die.
Alas, as David Carr wrote in yesterday’s New York Times:
“Imus in the Morning” is scheduled to start this morning like any other, with Don Imus and his crew cracking wise about the weekend’s events, riffing off the news and chatting with Evan Thomas, one of Newsweek’s top guns. Later Tom Oliphant, Washington author and former op-ed columnist for The Boston Globe, will check in for some political talk.
Given that Mr. Imus spent part of last week describing the student athletes at Rutgers as “nappy-headed ho’s,” you might think he’d have trouble booking anyone, let alone A-list establishment names. But Mr. Imus, who has been given a pass for this sort of comment in the past, also generously provides airtime to those parts of the news media and political apparatus that would generally be expected to bring him to account.
Imus was once quoted as saying, “My goal is to goad people into saying something that ruins their life.”
He may well have been hoist by his own petard at last.
Don Imus spent yesterday in full-grovel mode, even going so far as to appear on Al Sharpton’s talk show to apologize. As MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson said, “He’s an old man desperately trying to keep his job.”
Last night NBC gave Brian Williams the scoop for his “Nightly News” that Imus has been suspended for two weeks starting this coming Monday by MSNBC and the CBS Radio Network.
My bet: If you were to stick a fork into the I-Man, you would find that he’s done.
Yet, in the back of my brain is the refrain of the 1893 Henry S. Miller children’s song performed with such charm by the late Cisco Houston:
But the cat came back the very next day,
The cat came back, we thought he was a goner.
But the cat came back; it just couldn’t stay away.
Away, away, yea, yea, yea!
P.S. Last week, Jack Valenti, 85, suffered a stroke and is in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The family reported “that the doctors are encouraged by his progress.” I, for one—and I am sure all readers—wish this estimable gentleman a speedy and full recovery.