It's...Gerry from Pikesville

Calling in to blast Bush, needle the host and otherwise vent steam.

April 05, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Gerry from Pikesville is sitting in his kitchen, listening to Bruce Elliott ("the world's worst," Gerry says) denounce the Colorado Supreme Court on WBAL Radio. It's 9 o'clock -- time for Gerry to go to work. He lifts the phone next to the kitchen table. He punches the numbers without even looking at them. And then he waits.

"I'm retired," explains the 81-year-old former federal lawyer, perhaps the most prolific radio talk show caller in town. "I could sit and drink a cup of coffee down at Starbucks and not get anything done. Or I could do this. These guys are bullies, and they need to be exposed."

And so Gerald G. Altman Jr. calls. He calls Marc Steiner, and he calls Les Kinsolving. He calls Diane Rehm, and he calls Talk of the Nation. He calls the conservative hosts on WBAL even if they don't always put him on the air.

(It should be noted for the record that Elliott disputes that he is "the world's worst" and says the reason Gerry doesn't always get on is to give new callers a chance.)

In almost four decades of calling radio talk shows, Gerry has received death threats against himself and his children (white segregationists, he thinks), had his house egged (ditto), been banned from numerous shows (like Ron Smith's, for life) and had his cardiologist tell him to kick the habit for his own health.

But still he calls.

"You live in the world. You can't wall yourself off," he says of his decision to keep calling, even though he had a pacemaker and defibrillator installed last fall. But, he says, "The thing that keeps me going is, literally, honest indignation. And [President] Bush plays a major role in that, so I'm really indebted to him."

Gerry is certainly no fan of the president's ("the idiot," he calls him), or of the war in Iraq, which he thinks was started under false pretenses. He doesn't like the president's tax policy and, as a veteran of World War II, he particularly dislikes the hypocrisy of those who support the Iraq war but won't send their children to fight.

"He reminds me of my father and a lot of guys in his generation, whose values came out of their Judaism, who loved their country and believed in serving it," says Steiner, host of The Marc Steiner Show on WYPR. "I get a lot of e-mails about Gerry. People love him and say we should have him on as a guest, and other people say can't you shut him up?"

Because Gerry and some others were dialing in so often, Steiner instituted a one-call-a-week rule, but Gerry often slips in more frequently anyway. Steiner says his father, before he died, told him to keep Gerry on the air.

"He loved Gerry," Steiner says, though his father only knew Gerry from the radio. "He would say to me, `Marc, Gerry's a smart guy. Let him talk. Don't cut him off.' What was I supposed to do? He's my father!"

Steiner calls Gerry "the master of parenthetical phrasing" -- a spot-on description to anyone who has spent a few minutes with Gerry. During a discussion of his youth in Ohio, Gerry says, "The thing that is the heart, and why I revere Reform Judaism (which began in the Midwest, in fact in Cincinnati), was its basic tenet that you understood if you wanted to be understood and accepted."

Gerry was born in Cincinnati in 1923, and he grew up in "genteel but grimy poverty." The city was conservative and his family was conservative. Gerry was, too, until he entered the Army Air Forces during World War II (he didn't wait to be drafted, he volunteered) and had a political discussion with another soldier.

Gerry was parroting what his family had told him -- that the Depression and rampant joblessness wasn't Herbert Hoover's fault -- when the other soldier grabbed him by the throat. Gerry feared the guy would strangle him. Instead, he says, it was the first step in his political re-education.

"I began to think, could everything I've been taught -- or a lot of it -- be wrong?" he says. "Well, yes."

Les Kinsolving: It is the incomparable Pikesville Gerry. Welcome!

Gerry [on the Terri Schiavo case]: I think, Les, and I won't dwell on it because I want to congratulate you for being back ... but what some right-wing commentators have done this week in massive numbers (I've been following this all over the dial), they have condemned as mightily as anyone, including the most egregious communists, two major professions and they've done it root and branch and I think they're unworthy.

Les: ... I've had e-mails from all over the country, by the dozens, most of them denouncing me and calling these judges killers and murderers.

Gerry: I've heard that. Not only have they condemned these folks -- the total American medical and legal professions -- but they've assaulted, this whole exercise has assaulted a lot of, I know precious to you, conservative values -- states' rights, separation of powers, the sanctity of marriage, a non-activist judiciary, forum-shopping -- all of these things have been vilified by the folks who claim to be their principal defenders. ...

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