Don Imus’ long-standing acceptance by the political establishment is a contemporary illustration of 1940s socialite Perle Mesta’s famous advice about how to draw Washington’s power set to a soiree: “Hang a lamb chop in the window.” Politicians like John McCain and Barack Obama, and famous TV journalists like Tim Russert and Cokie Roberts, are no more standoffish than their predecessors; the only difference is that the lamb chop has been replaced by a microphone. For some years now, the broadcast industry has conducted, via talk radio and reality TV, a series of experiments to gauge precisely how much personal humiliation the species Homo sapiens will consent to endure. The most surprising finding is that even people with constant access to the media will make themselves available to interviewer-comedians like Sacha “Ali G.” Baron Cohen or Stephen Colbert *—performers whose sole aim is to get laughs at these celebrities’ expense. If there’s an outer boundary to what a famous journalist or politician will put up with, science has yet to find it.
In the direct-humiliation department, Imus falls well short of Colbert or Ali G. Imus in the Morning is a variation on the experiment, wherein the belittling is indirect. Here, the research question is how long respectable journalists and politicians will associate themselves with a radio host who spews continual invective based on race, ethnicity, and religion. Without exception, every political and journalistic celebrity who appears on Imus’ show is diminished. Yet they keep coming back. Is it because they don’t know what Imus says when they aren’t around? That’s what they tend to claim. “I don’t listen to the show,” McCain told journalist Philip Nobile in June 2000. In an April 9 appearance, Tom Oliphant told Imus, “Solidarity forever,” but later covered his ass by saying, “I don’t know beans about hip-hop culture or trash-talking or, what do you call those things where you run on forever? Riffs.” One person who can’t claim ignorance about Imus is Evan Thomas, who on April 9 told the New York Times’ David Carr that it would be “posturing” for him to refuse to go on Imus’ show after Imus got dinged for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Thomas puffed Imus in a 1999 Newsweek cover profile (“The Ringmaster”). “With his quick takes and sense of the absurd,” he wrote, “Imus is the perfect voice for an age that prizes irony over solemnity.” The Newsweek piece made only glancing reference to Imus’ penchant for uttering racial and ethnic slurs on the air, overlooking, for instance, the shock jock’s admission the previous year on CBS News’ 60 Minutes that he’d once told a colleague he hired producer Bernard McGuirk to tell “nigger” jokes. (“That was an off-the-record conversation,” Imus protested to Mike Wallace.)
In the unlikely event that McCain, Oliphant, and others don’t know who they’re dealing with, let’s review some of Imus’ remarks (if you prefer, riffs) from the past. This stuff isn’t hard to find. Many thanks to the Web sites Media Matters for America, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and TomPaine.com (where Nobile tracked Imus’ show) for the quotes that appear below.
“William Cohen, the Mandingo deal.” (Former Defense Secretary Cohen’s wife is African-American.)”Wasn’t in a woodpile, was he?” (Responding to news that former black militant H. Rap Brown, subsequently known as Abdullah Al-Amin, was found hiding in a shed in Alabama after exchanging gunfire with police. Imus is here alluding to the expression “nigger in the woodpile.”)”Knuckle-dragging moron.” (Description of basketball player Patrick Ewing.)”We all have 12-inch penises.” (After being asked what he has in common with Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Latrell Sprewell from the New York Knicks, and Al Sharpton.)”Chest-thumping pimps.” (Description of the New York Knicks.)”A cleaning lady.” (Reference to journalist Gwen Ifill, possibly out of pique that she wouldn’t appear on his show. “I certainly don’t know any black journalists who will,” she wrote in the April 10 New York Times. The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page used to appear, but after he made Imus pledge not to make offensive comments in the future, he was never asked back.)
“I remember when I first had [the Blind Boys of Alabama] on a few years ago, how the Jewish management at whatever, whoever we work for, CBS, or whatever it is, were bitching at me about it. […] I tried to put it in terms that these money-grubbing bastards could understand.”“Boner-nosed … beanie-wearing Jewboy.” (Description of Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, a frequent guest.)
“That buck-tooth witch Satan, Hillary Clinton.” […] “I never admitted it when I went down there and got in all that big jam, insulting Bill Clinton and his fat ugly wife, Satan. Did I? Did I ever say I was sorry for that?”
On Native Americans:
“The guy from F-Troop, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.” (This is a reference to the zany Indian characters on the 1960s TV sitcom F-Troop. They had names like “Roaring Chicken,” “Crazy Cat,” and “Chief Wild Eagle.”)
“Old Kabuki’s in a coma and the market’s going up. […] How old is the boy? The battery’s running down on that boy.” (Reference to Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who died the following week.)
“I didn’t know that Allan Bloom was coming in from the back end.” (The homosexuality of the author of The Closing of the American Mind became widely known when Saul Bellow published Ravelstein, a novel whose protagonist was based on Bloom, who by then was deceased.)”The enormously attractive [NBC political correspondent] Chip Reid, I can say without being accused of being some limp-wristed ‘mo.”
On the handicapped:
“Janet Reno’s having a press conference. Ms. Reno, of course, has Parkinson’s disease, has a noticeable tremor. […] I don’t know how she gets that lipstick on (laughter) looking like a rodeo clown.”
Every one of these statements came directly out of Imus’ mouth on his program. That’s striking because Imus usually leaves it to other show regulars (especially McGuirk, the aforementioned point man on “nigger” jokes) to say the most offensive stuff, with Imus feeding them straight lines. It’s safer that way.
* Correction, April 11, 2007: An earlier version of this column misspelled Colbert’s first name and referred erroneously to “Sacha Baron ‘Ali G.’ Cohen,” which suggested the comedian’s last name was “Cohen.” His last name is “Baron Cohen.” Click here to return to the corrected sentence.