The Enablers of Imus: A Study in Careerism
Mahatma Ghandi called forgiveness “the virtue of the strong.” Certain presidential candidates and political insiders pride themselves on forgiveness. They are so forgiving, in fact, that they were willing to forgive Don Imus, the nationally syndicated radio kingpin with a long and well-documented history of bigoted remarks.
Last week, as public pressure for the resignation of Imus increased in the wake of his characterization of Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team “nappy headed ho’s,” the I-Man received a much-needed boost from an old friend.
“He has apologized,” Sen. John McCain said of Imus. “He said that he is deeply sorry. I’m a great believer in redemption.”
“I’m a great believer in redemption.”
For decades, Washington’s political class has relied on Imus and his massive audience of politically independent white males for notoriety and book sales. McCain is no exception. He has been one of the most frequent and favorite of Imus’ guests since his maverick 2000 presidential run earned him national name recognition. Imus’ impending departure from the national airwaves threatened to deprive McCain of a key platform going into the ’08 primaries. McCain was determined to protect that platform, whether or not it simultaneously served as a constant launching pad for the crudest of racial slurs.
Only one prominent Republican denounced McCain for defending the indefensible. Michael Steele, the black former Maryland gubernatorial candidate, told the right-wing webmag Newsmax, “In my view, [McCain's defense of Imus is] not presidential. I don’t know the kind of advice that he’s being given right now, but as a candidate, I wouldn’t touch it. I wouldn’t go near it. In fact, I would make it very clear that there is no place in our dialogue in this country for those kinds of remarks.”
(In 1983, McCain joined ranks with then-Rep. Dick Cheney to http://www.rawstory.com/news/2007/Sen._McCain_once_against_King_holiday_0115.html”>oppose designating Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday.)
With his defense of Imus, McCain revealed himself as a creature of Washington’s careerist political culture. The one-time maverick had merged with the herd. Indeed, his remarks were echoed almost word-for-word by a potential opponent for the presidency, John Edwards.
“I believe in redemption, I believe in forgiveness,” Edwards said about the Imus controversy last week. As for whether he’d appear on Imus again, Edwards just wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure whether Imus’ racism merited an unequivocal condemnation. Whether you’re John Edwards or John McCain, you never know. Maybe you’ll need Imus when the campaign heats up.
“I believe in forgiveness.”
Not to be outdone by his rivals, Rudy Giuliani joined the ranks of Imus enablers. “He seems sincerely sorry about it and seems like someone who will endeavor not to do that again and I take him at his word,” Giuliani stated.
While McCain, Edwards and Giuliani counseled understanding for Imus’ plight, the Washington press corps that had embedded itself with Imus despite his pattern of racism was thrown on the defensive. Appearing on Imus in the Morning a week after the controversy began, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman admonished his buddy not for making explicitly racist comments, but for falling behind the political zeitgeist.
“[I]t’s a different time, Imus.. it’s different than it was even a few years ago, politically,” Fineman said. “I mean, just looking specifically at the African-American situation. I mean, hello, Barack Obama’s got twice the number of contributors as anybody else in the race.” He concluded, “[T]hings have changed. And the kind of — some of the kind of humor that you used to do you can’t do anymore.”
“It’s a different time Imus… the kind of humor that you used to do you can’t do anymore.”
In Fineman’s guide to winning friends and influencing people inside the Beltway, going along to get along is rule number one. Imus’ sin in Fineman’s book was not bigotry, but a failure to go with the flow.
For other Beltway media stars who delighted in bantering with Imus, silence was the order of the day. On “Meet the Press” last Sunday, PBS anchor Gwen Ifill grilled Tim Russert and David Brooks about their mum reaction to the controversy. “Tim, we didnâ€™t hear that much from you,” Ifill said, turning to the husky standard bearer of Sunday morning talk. “David, we didnâ€™t hear from you,” she said to Brooks. “What was missing in this debate was someone saying, you know, I understand that this is offensive.”
Whatever white liberal guilt Russert and Brooks had, they left the task of holding Imus accountable to Ifill and the black employees at NBC and CBS. If newsrooms were as racially homogenous as they were in the past, Imus would still be on the air and Glenn Beck would have a show at CNN. Oh, wait… he does.
Even the New York Times’ liberal standard bearer, Frank Rich, appeared compromised by his relationship with Imus. In an uncharacteristically defensive and barely coherent column last Sunday, Rich bemoaned the “media lynching” (“lynching?!”) of Imus, and assured his readers that his friend is not a racist “in real life,” because, as everyone knows, radio is not real.
“If we really want to have this conversation, it also means we have to have a nonposturing talk about hip-hop lyrics.”
But for some reason hip-hop is. In Rich’s mind, it’s mad real. “If we really want to have this conversation,” Rich declared, “it also means we have to have a nonposturing talk about hip-hop lyrics.” Without citing any offensive lyrics or naming the wack rappers, Rich seemed to suggest that hip-hop — and by extension, black youth culture — had somehow planted the terms “nappy headed” and “ho” on the tip of Imus’ tongue. No word from Rich on whether country star Toby Keith and Willie Nelson’s ode to actual — not media — lynching deserves a “nonposturing talk.”
(By the way, what’s up with Imus’ trademark ten-gallon hat? Where’d he get that from? Certainly not country music.)
It’s hard to predict when you will be confronted with a moral test. The Imus controversy arrived suddenly and challenged the vital interests of the Washington press corps and political pantheon. In the end, they willfully overlooked Imus’ bigotry, advocating forgiveness to protect their platform, their careers — and their paychecks. For the enablers of Imus, it was never about freedom of expression, it was about themselves.