Consider the case of Michael Savage, right-wing radio guy, and the not trivial effect he could have on the upcoming election. What’s curious about him is the tantalizing possibility — now with a smoking gun — that his three-hour daily show is an act, a put-on.
According to Talkers magazine, he’s the country’s third-most-listened-to radio talk host, with 8.25 million listeners who frequently call in to hail him as a great patriot. As Publishers Weeklyrecords, his first book, The Savage Nation (2003), sold 400,000 copies while its rabidly titled successors (The Enemy Within, Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder, and The Political Zoo) have all debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. His shtick is that he’s an “independent conservative.” The San Francisco-based commentator with the honking Bronx accent reviles President Bush, supposedly from conservative principles, in characteristic way-over-the-top fashion.
The other day he was blasting the administration’s conduct of the Iraq war: “We need Patton, but instead we’ve got patent leather shoes from Yale.” Savage mused that “some [conservatives] are saying it would be healthy for the Republicans to lose” the election. “I’m not sure I agree with that,” he allowed, but permitted his listeners to draw their own conclusions and vote (or not vote) accordingly.
Admittedly, for Savage this is mild stuff. More typical are his comments, always straining to shock, on Jimmy Carter (“like Hitler”), Democrats who supported Michael Schiavo (“like Mengele”), Bill Clinton’s memoir My Life (should have been called “Mein Kampf”), Wolf Blitzer (“would have pushed Jewish children into the oven to stay alive one more day to entertain the Nazis”), and so on.
Of his own political identity, Savage says, “I’m a Goldwater conservative…. If [another] Goldwater appeared, I’d work for him, I’d give money to him.”
Interesting that he should mention money — which brings us to the smoking gun. Supporting a candidate out of your own wallet may be the most accurate gauge of what a donor believes in his heart. So it should come as a shock to fans to learn where their hero distributes his own political gifts. Which are not ungenerous. Just ask Jerry Brown, the decidedly liberal candidate (pro-abortion, pro-gun control, etc.) for California attorney general.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Savage is a top contributor to Brown’s campaign against conservative state senator Chuck Poochigian. His gift of $5,600, the maximum allowable under state law, was merited, Savage told the Chronicle after being outed. Why? Because “You have to make choices in an imperfect world.”
Undoubtedly so, but that’s hardly the red-faced extremist talking that Savage plays on the radio. So what explains the generosity?
There is much about him that would suggest, not an ideologue at all, but simply a performer. Then again, sometimes you get the feeling that a refugee from Air America (the failed experiment in liberal talk radio) has been writing scripts for him based on a lefty’s cartoon mental picture of a ranting right-wing caveman.
A performer doesn’t have to care about the consistency or credibility of his message. When Savage is not hinting that it might be a positive development to see Republicans booted out of Congress, he’s preaching in a ridiculously apocalyptic vein about the perils of Democratic rule: “My fear is that if the Democrats win, and I’m afraid that they might, you’re going to see America melt down faster that you could ever imagine. It will happen overnight, and it could lead to the breakup of the United States of America, the way the Soviet Union broke up.”
But what liberal’s imagining of a conservative demagogue would be complete without the invocation of a pipeline direct to Heaven? So Savages supplies it. Over the summer, in a parody of religious faith, he described his working relationship with the Almighty: “I’m a vehicle for God. Don’t you understand that? I’m not saying that I’m a prophet. Not at all. I’m simply a vehicle for God, I’m speaking to you the way he would speak to you if He could come down and speak to you. And he would say to you the very same things that I am saying to you. Because not only is God a conservative, God is a very, very far right conservative.”
This is the same Michael Savage — actually his legal name is Michael Alan Weiner — of whom his old Beat poet Sixties pal Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled that back in the day he was “always looking to make a fast buck,” “always trying to think up new schemes to get famous.” In his colorful Sixties period, Weiner studied herbal remedies and hung around with Allen Ginsberg.
Today, in a worst-case scenario he could be Lonesome Rhodes in the 1957 Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd, a pathologically insincere TV host who plays up his good-ol’-boy cracker-barrel persona but is caught off guard at the end of a broadcast, his voice carried live, revealing what he really feels about his adoring fans: “You know what the public’s like, a cage full of guinea pigs. Good night, you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs.”
I doubt Savage is that insincere. Maybe he is even for real. Certainly, people are complicated, and you can’t look into anyone’s heart. Too bad, though, that his fans hardly seem to wonder, as if they were reading The Onion, thinking it was a genuine news source. If he is a liberal provocateur pretending to be a conservative, or more likely just a performer, he is, either way, a lamentably popular one.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author most recently of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History(Doubleday).