Guru of the Airwaves

February 19, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Former Harvard professor, State Department official, foundation president and Maryland senatorial candidate Alan Keyes has reinvented himself yet again as a local radio talk-show host.

Mr. Keyes holds forth on WCBM-AM each morning during drive time, issuing conservative broadsides and puncturing what he sees as the overweening hubris of the ''liberal media.'' You don't have to agree with him to be intrigued by what he has to say.

On recent mornings, Mr. Keyes has lambasted Tonya Harding, the Washington Post, rap music, President Clinton, the NAACP and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. He is an equal-opportunity debunker. As a self-styled black conservative, he is also something of a media anomaly.

For instance, Mr. Keyes did his listeners a sterling service not long ago by playing taped excerpts from the notorious speech delivered last November by Mr. Farrakhan's former spokesman at Kean College in New Jersey, then providing a spirited and penetrating instant analysis. Of debates I'd like to see, Farrakhan vs. Keyes has got to be at the top of the list.

A few days later he skewered NAACP National Director Benjamin Chavis for traveling to Washington to express solidarity with "gangsta rappers." Mr. Chavis so far has enjoyed a reputation as a serious-minded reformer, despite some stumbles over a botched endorsement of a prospective NFL team in Charlotte, N.C., and a less than totally convincing response to Mr. Farrakhan's fork-tongued repudiation of anti-Semitism. But he is fair game to black conservatives like Mr. Keyes, who mischievously wondered why an NAACP that held itself aloof from Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s now rushes to embrace a bunch of tone-deaf thugs and pious haters.

As syndicated columnist Clarence Page pointed out recentlyAfrican Americans as a group are in fact slightly more conservative than Americans as a whole on social issues like crime, welfare and abortion.

Ironically, both Mr. Keyes and Mr. Farrakhan, in their own way, probably are more in tune with the core values of the black community than are many ''mainstream'' leaders. A cab driver I know, who listens to Mr. Keyes regularly, conceded that the man ''may not always be right, but he is certainly worth listening to.''

Mr. Keyes' reincarnation as a talk-show host has revealed talent for quick thinking and a gift for gab that, for better or worse, were more often liabilities than assets on the campaign trail. He can certainly sling the language around. If he comes across better as a disembodied voice than as a flesh-and-blood human being, perhaps that can be laid to the late media guru Marshall McLuhan's 1960s-era distinction between the "hot" medium of radio and the "coolness" of TV. Radio, McLuhan said, stirs people up, while TV is characterized by an aura of emotional detachment.

Mr. Keyes is definitely a stirrer-upper. Years ago, for example, when he visited Baltimore wearing his State Department hat, he struck some listeners as insufferably arrogant. At the time he was defending the Reagan administration's wrongheaded policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa's white minority government -- a policy the government was eventually forced to abandon.

Mr. Keyes seemed to think anyone who couldn't see the logic of his position was either a fool or a traitor. He was absolutely impervious both to rational argument and appeals to conscience. I distinctly recall a colleague aftwerward wondering out loud whether the man was mentally unbalanced.

Yet times change, and while Mr. Keyes has lost little of his infuriating edge, the same cocksure attitude that seemed so shortsighted and unbecoming a diplomat actually seems something closer to statesmanlike in a guru of the airwaves.

In any case, Mr. Keyes has made a career of saying things he believed needed saying, regardless of whether they seemed popular at the time. And in a town awash in conservative radio commentators, at least his voice stands out for its intellectual integrity and -- dare we say it? -- real compassion for those whom he, as a black American, sees as the victims of failed policies.

That is rare these days, on radio and elsewhere. So perhaps Mr. Keyes finally has found his calling in simply being himself. His niche on the radio dial may turn out to be his most fruitful forum yet for public service.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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