I passed Jerry Springer on the stairs in a hotel the other night. I didn’t break stride. There were other people around I wanted to meet a lot more.
Now I realize this may have been the closest I’ll ever come to a U.S. president.
Last week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that several Ohio Democratic Party leaders are lobbying for Jerry Springer to run against GOP Senator Mike DeWine in 2000.
This is the sort of creative idea that political strategists normally term “thinking out of the box.” Especially if the box happens to be in your ass.
Let’s back up.
Prior to DeWine, the seat was securely in Democratic control for a generation, occupied by Howard Metzenbaum, who retired in 1994. In that year, the Democrats ran Joel Hyatt, Metzenbaum’s son-in-law, who had became rich and locally famous as one of those attorneys who do TV ads in front of a bunch of books so they look all legal and everything.
Hyatt lost. Big shock.
However, since DeWine only got 53 percent of the vote, and Ohioans voted for Clinton twice, Democratic leaders hope that a relatively rich and famous candidate might be able do the trick in 2000. The only problem? They ain’t got any.
What they do have is a Columbus lawyer named Richard Corday, who is a smart guy and fine fundraiser but nonetheless ran for Ohio Attorney General last year and got the polling equivalent of a chair upside the head from the GOP’s Betty Montgomery. Besides which, Corday has never once goaded a lesbian white supremacist into cross-checking a transsexual nun.
Thus the job might fall to Jerry.
Last week, Jerry, I, half of the comedy industry, and several hundred thousand revelers all came to Montreal for the annual Just For Laughs festival, in which many of the finest comedians on Earth perform for over a week at venues throughout the city.
Each night’s crowning event is an all-star Gala held at the gorgeous St. Denis Theatre. For publicity’s sake, the Just For Laughs folks get the biggest names they can to host the Galas, whether they have comedy experience or not. Luke Perry hosted one night. So did Rob Lowe. And so did Jerry Springer.
And that’s how come Jerry and I passed on the stairs in the Delta hotel.
I didn’t know then about the Ohio Democrats’ plans, and even if I had stopped to ask Jerry about his possible candidacy, he probably wouldn’t have said much.
“I am obviously flattered and honored by the interest,” Springer said in a written statement. “I respect the seriousness of their inquiry and will respond in a timely, sincere and appropriate manner.”
Obviously, the man is a natural politician. In two sentences, he uses the words “honor,” “respect,” “serious,” “sincere,” and “appropriate.” Which almost makes you forget it’s Jerry Springer you’re listening to.
So who is Jerry Springer, anyway? This much we know:
Elected to the Cincinnati City Council in 1971, Springer later resigned in disgrace after getting caught paying for a Kentucky prostitute with a personal check. (Incidentally, forget Vegas. All the best hookers work in Kentucky.) Springer apologized, wiped off, was eventually reelected to the City Council, and ultimately became mayor of Cincinnati in 1977.
However, in the 1982 Ohio gubernatiorial primary, Springer placed last among three candidates, earning only 20 percent of the vote.
Thus unable to continue in what we laughingly call public service, Springer turned to the only career left that would keep him in the public eye: in 1984, he became a Cincinnati news commentator.
In short order, Springer became the Tri-State area’s top-ranked news anchor, receiving seven local Emmys, a raise from Mr. Carlson, and a firm handshake from Herb the sales guy. However, Jerry was sadly unable to talk Jennifer the receptionist into a three-way with Venus.
(Incidentally, www.wlet.com, the website for the actual station where Springer really did win seven Emmys, takes this unforgiving shot: “#1 status was enjoyed by WLWT for nearly five years until Jerry Springer began his talk show and lost his news credibility with the viewers.” Sounds like they’re still pissed.)
Then Multimedia came knocking with an idea for a TV show.
But what if Jerry won’t or can’t run for office? What will Ohio Democrats do then? I have a certain empathy for these guys. I grew up outside Cleveland, and my Dad was a life-long Democrat. They need some sort of back-up plan.
Which is why, since I didn’t get to interview Jerry Springer himself, I asked fellow native-born Ohio celebrities Rob Lowe (Dayton) and Luke Perry (Mansfield) if they’d be willing to run for the Senate, just in case Jerry drops out.
After all, since celebrity is the key factor, it shouldn’t really matter which one winds up with the job.
Predictably, the idea of a Springer candidacy has been mocked by pols and pundits on both sides of the aisle. Ohio GOP chairman Bob Bennett went so far as to release a Top 10 list of other potential Democratic Senate candidates, none of which was remotely amusing. Then again, most Republicans would have trouble winning a smack-off against the Amish.
The main criticism? Many commentators have expressed doubt that Springer can overcome his image. Which misses the point entirely: Jerry’s image — the sole source of all his fame and fortune, remember — is his primary asset. It is image and little else which separates the potential winning candidate now under discussion and the last-place finisher of 1982.
Indeed, precisely for that image, some Democratic leaders consider Springer the perfect choice. “Springer would be a viable, fascinating, interesting candidate,” says Tim Burke, Hamilton County Democratic chairman. “Did you know his TV show is the number two television show of the world?”
Uh, yeah, actually. That’s one way to put it.
Likewise, Ohio Democratic political consultant Gerald Austin notes that politics are rapidly becoming nothing but entertainment anyway, comparing Springer to Jesse Ventura. Which makes sense: we live in an age where celebrity has become desperately confused with leadership.
Also, like Ventura, Springer has had to overcome allegations that his TV show is fixed.
But then again, so is the whole damn system. In over 96 percent of federal elections, the candidate with the greater financial resources wins.
Gore and Bush are the chosen candidates for the White House, and the first actual vote by an actual American citizen is still six months away.
I encountered Rob Lowe backstage during the Gala he hosted.
My buddy John Wing was on the bill that night, so I hung out with the other performers. Crammed into a narrow hallway behind the stage, we ate pretzels, kibitzed each others’ acts, and watched the big show on TV.
The Gala writers had turned much of Rob’s hosting gig into a series of sketches involving a drunken French-Canadian dwarf. (This is exactly the sort of bizarre yet accurate sentence I just live to write.) At several points, Rob needed to move quickly through the hallway to set up for the next bit. We were all therefore instructed to stand up, stand back, and make way.
OK, everybody, one-time matinee idol reduced to straight man for a dwarf, coming through.
A few of us saluted and hummed “God Save The King” as he passed.
Rob smiled a bit sheepishly.
And then he gave the skits his best sincere shot, never once playing above the material. I actually really respect the guy for that.
During a break, Rob slowed up enough that I could ask him if he’d run for Senate if Jerry Springer had to bow out.
Rob looked straight at me, shook his head, smiled, and said nothing. Either he couldn’t hear, or — my opinion — he thought the concept behind the entire sentence was insane. Then he ran off to put on an eye patch to do his Robert Wagner impression. (This is another one of those sentences.)
Memo to Ohio Democrats: Rob Lowe has grown into a decent, honest guy working way harder than people realize. He’ll never make it in politics. Scratch him off the list.
We live in an era when Bill Clinton’s personal behavior toward one individual woman has received literally hundreds of times as much ink as Clinton’s public policies, which have negatively impacted the lives of millions of lower-income women nationwide.
In the years since Tip O’Neill said “all politics is local,” our focus has narrowed even further — to the merely personal.
As this space has pointed out, a study by Durants Press Cuttings found that the death of Diana Spencer received more press coverage than any single event of World War II — Dunkirk, D-Day, Hiroshima, et al. More recently, the Kennedy plane crash — tragic, of course, but an event which significantly affected virtually no one outside the victims’ family and friends, and which had no impact whatsoever on public policy — is currently receiving more column inches than U.S. military actions in Kosovo, Iraq, Columbia, and elsewhere, and an impending trade war with Europe over the potential biohazards of Genetically Modified foods, combined.
These stories, and dozens of others of similar import, are simply pushed out of the national mind as the crush for ratings and riches drives reporters to ask Hollywood celebrities who didn’t know the Kennedys any more than you or I do to tell us, in the wake of someone else’s tragedy, how they feel.
And most Americans now truly regards this as news.
In that context, Jerry Springer is, in fact, the ultimate American political candidate.
Senate? Oh, let’s not stop there.
At one point, the backstage chair next to mine became vacant and was quickly filled by a lanky dude in a Hawaiian shirt and an Indians cap. I’ve never seen the zip code 90210 except in real life — I consider my neurons something of value, thank you — but the guy looked familiar.
Luke Perry introduced himself. I knew the name. Luke said he was supposed to host a Gala show later in the week, and he was nervous about doing comedy.
So I reassured him that Just For Laughs crowds are the most giving and appreciative audiences in the entire business, which is true. Luke seemed genuinely relieved.
Later on in the Delta hotel bar there was time for an actual conversation. He’s still an Ohio boy, easy to talk with. So I explained about Jerry Springer and asked if he’d be willing run for the Senate if need be. And Luke totally got what I was asking. Grinning playfully, with a knowingly Reaganesque gleam in his eye, he responded in character, and in one remarkable breathless blurt:
“Having grown up in Mansfield, I have a great natural concern for the people of Ohio, and if asked, I would be honored to serve them as their elected representative. The people of our fine state deserve good government, and while I lack a certain degree of experience, I would endeavor to do my best for my fellow citizens as their Senator.”
Dude’s a natural.
I think I’ve created a monster.
And then the subject wandered back to what it was like to work with Ashley Judd.
Even so, memo to Ohio Democrats: if Jerry Springer can’t do the gig, Luke Perry’s your man.
Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and stand-up comedian. His new book, Steal This Book And Get Life Without Parole, will be published soon by Common Courage Press.