Laura Schlessinger, God's gift to radio Advice: Don't call "Dr. Laura" with excuses. You want this conservative's views on a moral life, you've got them. Her tough-love, she says, is a godsend to her callers.

July 02, 1996|By Adam Pertman | Adam Pertman,BOSTON GLOBE

LOS ANGELES -- Lee is sobbing.

Five years ago, she explains, she left her husband at the urging of her minister. The experience left her so depressed that she had to be hospitalized and, as a result, she lost primary custody of her two young children.

She's better now, but she'd like some guidance about how to deal with the feelings of guilt and distress that still grip her periodically.

"Do you have a sense of when you choose to bring this out and beat yourself with it?" Laura Schlessinger, talk radio's fastest-rising star, asks her caller. "Is it that time of the month or what?" Then, continuing her joke, or perhaps making clear it was one, she raises her voice a couple of octaves and adds: "Oh, that was so sexist."

Schlessinger -- whose starkly conservative views have catapulted her to No.2 in listenership nationally, behind Rush Limbaugh -- goes on to provide more serious advice. She likens Lee's problem to relapses in a medical condition and assures her that her children won't fault her past decisions as long as she's a good mother now.

First and foremost, though, Dr. Laura (as she's known on the air) hammers home her guiding principles to the audience at large, including her opposition to premarital sex and almost all abortions. And she doesn't waver even if it sometimes means chiding the distraught individual who phoned for advice.

No excuses! You are responsible for your own actions! Don't be swayed by your emotions! And probably most important: The kids come first. Period.

There's no hint of self-doubt in her voice, no trace of equivocation in her manner, no subtle shading in the potentially life-altering suggestions she makes to the people who reach out to her. "I'm giving absolutes and hoping they can rise to the occasion," says Schlessinger, who describes her "unbelievably consistent unwavering values" as a "godsend" to those who tune in for a daily dose of her moralistic medicine.

On a continent apparently teeming with people yearning -- or at least saying they yearn -- for a return to a more conservative, family-centered culture, we're talking a lot of potential patients. Indeed, after less than two years in national syndication, Schlessinger's call-in program now boasts 10 million listeners weekly on 250 stations in the United States and Canada; she even beats Limbaugh in a few markets and, by some estimates, earns $1 million a year for her efforts.

That's not all. Schlessinger, a youthful 49-year-old firebrand with a black belt in karate, has written two sizzlingly popular books in the last few years: "10 Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives" and, premiering at No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list last January, "How Could You Do That?! The Abdication of Character, Courage and Conscience."

And that's not all. A few months ago, Dr. Laura began publishing a thick, glossy newsletter (subscriptions cost $34 a year for 10 issues) containing stories, pictures and letters promoting her views. That publication joins her merchandising catalog, through which fans can order items such as $19.95 T-shirts with one of her mottos, "I AM MY KID'S MOM."

Schlessinger's tough-love message and engaging personality -- she's smart, quick-witted, charming and has a broad, alluring smile -- have made her a megaplayer on the national lecture circuit and a prime draw at family-values conferences, some of which are held by conservative Republican politicans. She adamantly swears off political affiliations or even any interest in politics, however; all she wants to do, she insists with such vigorous sincerity that there's little room for skepticism, is to steer people onto a straighter, more righteous path, one on which they can "rise above" their feelings and "do what's noble."

Schlessinger certainly gets her share of criticism, both from callers who feel she's been insensitive to them as well as from counseling professionals who decry her cut-to-the-chase style as too simplistic, resent her disparaging of traditional psychotherapy and generally find her approach, well, too insensitive. But those clearly are not the majority opinions.

About 50,000 people, mostly women but also a high percentage of men, try to reach her by phone each day for help with their lives. Of those, about 350 get through for screening by her producer and up to 20 make it onto the airwaves -- and almost everyone who does, including those who get scolded for their questions or their conduct, invariably winds up thanking Dr. Laura.

"Part of feeling bad is supposed to motivate you to do better," Schlessinger tells Lee, who eventually seems to agree she should have stuck with her first marriage for the children's sake, despite her own misgivings, the minister's admonition and her happiness with her second husband.

The notion of doing almost anything to keep a family together, or at least making sure the children remain everyone's first priority, is the foundation upon which Schlessinger builds nearly all her social views.

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