The Keyes Factor

Move over, O'Reilly: Alan Keyes brings his God and Country rhetoric to television with a new MSNBC talk show.

February 04, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Forget politics, Alan Keyes is talking sex.

It didn't take long for the former presidential candidate, the fringe phenomenon from the 2000 campaign, to push that hot button on his new MSNBC show, Alan Keyes Is Making Sense. With the Capitol dome gleaming through the set's plate-glass window, Keyes appears in a jaunty suede jacket on a recent evening next to his guest, the talk radio host known as Dr. Laura. The firebrand conservatives are feeling frisky, in a family-values kind of way.

"By the way," Dr. Laura leans in to tell him, "married sex turns out to be -- "

"Pretty good!" Keyes interrupts.

"More exciting than unmarried sex!" she retorts.

"Ha ha ha!" they both say.

Keyes' wife, Jocelyn, a quiet woman with a long braid who is watching off camera, is the only one not laughing. But then again, she doesn't have her own talk show.

It's hard to say what qualifies Keyes to land in thousands of living rooms on weeknights -- his resume includes two unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate from Maryland, two failed runs as a Republican presidential candidate and one ambassadorship to a United Nations panel in the 1980s. But there is this: He never seems to run out of ways to sell himself.

The 51-year-old commentator and former Reagan administration official from Gaithersburg generated a small but fervent base of support in the 2000 presidential race. His God-and-Country rhetoric delighted conservatives, his romp in a mosh pit entertained the bored, and his command of the microphone always pleased himself. He packaged his message as common sense for the common man and galvanized his voters against critics who said he was just using them to enhance his speaking fees.

Now Keyes is repackaging that campaign performance for television, starring in his own cable show from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The set is as close as he's ever been to elective office (it sits just a couple blocks from the Capitol), and he seems entirely comfortable in it.

As a TV host, Keyes breaks a lot of rules. He wags his finger at the camera. He quotes dead philosophers at length. He dreams up stuff off the top of his head, including occasionally baffling sound bites (What is a "double dichotomy"?). He has "regular people" for guests, people with no TV experience who sometimes stare into the lens with a vague look of terror.

But so what if it's untraditional. It's not TV. It's Alan Keyes.

"Actually, the whole show is spun out of my head," he says calmly, just three minutes before going live one night last week, wearing a suede jacket that he soon will ditch for a man-of-the-people sweater. "It's not like I'm `doing TV.' I'm doing what I always do. I'm just doing it through the medium of a television set."

On the air

On last week's program, Keyes and pop-therapist Laura Schlessinger gab like girlfriends at a ladies lunch. They theorize -- about mental problems among children of divorce, excessive federal aid for welfare mothers, societal ills created by birth control -- and wrap it up with Dr. Laura's rant against people who, "like animals, can get it on every time they have a vibe."

Keyes, wearing an anti-abortion lapel pin depicting the feet of a fetus at 10 weeks, praises his guest for telling the "uncomfortable truths" and adds with an impish grin, "People tell me I do that a little bit sometimes."

They go to commercial, which also features Alan Keyes, this time in an MSNBC ad that advises, "Stop screaming at the TV. He can't hear you." Aside from riling up the mainstream, MSNBC hopes Keyes will eat into the conservative crowd normally drawn to Fox's cable channel. Fox News Channel just signed Greta Van Susteren, the former CNN personality with a reputation as a liberal, to the dismay of many of those viewers. Van Susteren, newly refurbished with a much publicized eye lift, debuts her new show tonight at 10 p.m. against Keyes.

MSNBC executives are pleased with Keyes' debut, saying their host already is outperforming the program that once occupied that slot, an investigative series with reporter John Siegenthaler.

People are watching

Still, Keyes commands a sliver of the national TV audience, delivering an average 288,000 households in his debut week in mid-January, according to Nielsen Media Research. By comparison, CNN anchor Aaron Brown reaches about 830,000 homes each weeknight, usually dominating that time slot among the three cable news channels. As Fox News Channel and CNN wage a high-profile war for cable supremacy, MSNBC remains last in the ratings.

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