Imus biographies: tasteless, yearning

August 22, 1999|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Sun Staff

"Imus: America's Cowboy," by Kathleen Tracy. Carroll and Graf. 320 pages. $24.

"Everything Imus," by Jim Reed. Birch Lane Press. 224 pages. $19.95.

In 1992, Bill Clinton agreed to be a guest on Imus' nationally syndicated radio talk show, part of the candidate's dare-to-be-hip fling with alternative media. (The same fling got Clinton the boxers-or-briefs question on MTV.) In 1996, however, the president's love affair with the caustic Imus soured. The final break came during the annual Radio & Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington.

With the president and first lady seated to his right, Imus gave what Jim Reed, host of an Imus Web site and author of the brighter of these two biographies, calls "the speech from hell," and not because it was a lame performance.

It was vintage Imus, as bad as he gets. He joked about investigations of the first lady and the president's womanizing. ("The president was at Camden Yards doing play-by-play on the radio. Bobby Bonilla hit a double; we all heard the president in his obvious excitement holler, 'Go, baby!' I bet that's not the first time he's said that.") He suggested that Dan Rather had thoughts of shooting Connie Chung and that ABC's Peter Jennings got oral sex while anchoring the news.

Imus got more groans than laughs. Many dinner guests were appalled, as if they'd never heard his shock shtick before.

The I-man, whose New York-based morning show is simulcast on MSNBC -- so TV viewers can watch him chew gum -- has been debasing public discourse in America for a long time. Since his days on WNBC-AM, when he asked female callers to undress and sit on their radios, Imus has entertained millions with crude and sophomoric comedy.

As Reed's and Tracy's fawning biographies report, in leaps high over any substantive detail, Imus learned how to do radio as a Top 40 disc jockey. But he had too much lip, too quick a mind, too much talent for vulgarity. He was a fresh voice, saying things on public airwaves otherwise heard only in bars and lockerrooms. Soon the music was gone and it was all-Imus, all-the-time.

At least when he posted for a show.

Imus took a long, deep dive into cocaine and booze. But he emerged from that personal hell with a slightly different professional persona -- The Daring to Be Relevant Imus.

In his new radio gig, he talked politics and culture. Instead of interviewing strippers and transvestites, Imus interviewed journalists, politicians, authors, even the president.

He doesn't present this as parody or satire, or even as irony. As Imus grows older, he yearns to be taken seriously while keeping his abrasive, irreverent, independent-as-a-cowboy edge -- a tough act. His appeal is to the generation that came of age in the 1960s, rockin' through the sexual revolution, Vietnam and Watergate. He scores with men -- and some women -- who find themselves plodding through mid-life, nostalgic for youth and radicalism, while reluctantly accepting responsibilities as grownups in a democracy. He makes politics palatable. An interview of the speaker of the House with a tasteless joke thrown in? That works -- for up to 15 million listeners a day.

Dan Rodricks, a Sun columnist, has hosted radio and television talk shows such as "Rodricks for Breakfast."

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