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GP 3 May 2006: Imus: Almost Walking Wounded

Charles Tuttle.  To celebrate the Bicentennial back in 1976, we went to Tokyo.  Along the way, we put in a call to Charles Tuttle, a friend of the family, who had lived there so long that the locals had long since adopted him as their own.  He had gone out during World War II, and never quite came back.  For his contributions to the dialogue between East and West, the Emperor of Japan had awarded him the Order of the Sacred Treasure.  As we remember, he had made a fair patch of money in Japanese real estate but his fame came from the founding of Tuttle Publishing, the supreme English language publishing house in Asia that brought the art and literature of Japan into America and the Western world. 

His secretary had warned us to meet early because he was apt to take up liquid refreshment early in the day.  So he came over for a long breakfast at the Hotel Pacific in Shinagawa where we had camped on that trip, radiating modesty and wit.  “Fine hotel,” said Charlie.  In fact, he had stopped there many a night after carousing to clear his head in the steam bath.  On one visit, he shared the steam with a coterie of strange men bedecked with tattoos.  When he asked about their decorations, they humored him—the intrepid gaijin—and owned up to being yakuza, local mobsters.  As we said, Charlie was known to all the locals, from the upper crust to the bottom rung. 

Imus in the Morning.  We imagine that’s why John Donald Imus wound up with a morning show, a very early morning show that runs from 6 to 9 a.m.  Surely there were times, perhaps even now, when he was not fittin’ after lunch.  As he himself says, his best companions were for many years booze and cocaine.  We think along the way he was an habitué of the Lionshead, now just a memory, but for years a village hangout where all the almost greats—writers, poets, journalists, and conversationalists of the second rank—hung out and got super wasted which you can read about in “Roar of the Lion’s Head.”  The McCourts, sometimes Mailer, and a few others added a little lustre to this accident-waiting-to-happen barstop which we zipped by on our way through Sheridan Square.  One visitor asked if the Lionshead was where “a lot of writers with drinking problems hang out.”  A regular said, “No, this is where a lot of drinkers with writing problems hang out.” 

A Strange Success.  Imus’s morning show is a tremendous success, and he is vastly influential throughout America.  This is all a bit strange, because he serves up an often boring, repetitive stew of politicians, media people, and average authors without cutting to their essence.  He and they, to use his words, indulge in endless “ass-kissing.”  His staff is a harmless and not too talented crew, with the exception of actor Rob Bartlett, who is far and away the one and only real star of the group, Imus included.  He mostly does parodies of Jack Nicholson, Dr. Phil, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Bill Clinton, and other hapless public figures. 

Back when, we understand, Imus in the Morning did a lot more music, and a lot less chatter.  That was a better format.  Even now he occasionally does long bouts of good  country fare, turning his shrill little show into something special.  Recently, he featured a very long set of Emmylou Harris and Mark Klopfer, who sang from their new album, All the Roadrunning.  It was moving, well-sung, and well-constructed.  All Imus had to do was get out of the way and be quiet. 

Some say he’s the 3d greatest talkshow host of all time—after Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, not exactly an admirable trio to part of.  But advertisers will pay up 3 times as much to be on his show, rather than the others.  In 1995 Howard Kurtz, the media analyst at the Washington Post, remarked: “True, Imus doesn’t have the top-rated morning show (he’s fourth in Boston, tied for fourth in New York and twenty-sixth in Washington).  But many of his two million daily listeners—about two-thirds of them men—are the kind of high-income, highly educated folks advertisers love.”  When he does shows around the country we notice that his audiences are well past middle age, looking like empty nesters with time and money on their hands.  We know a West Coast venture capitalist who shaves by Imus every morning: we pray that he does not use a straight razor. 

Imus is far from wonderful, but the terrible truth is that there is nothing else on.  NBC ruined the Today show years ago, and all the other network shows are even more abysmal.  All the channels have turned to idle chatter, because talk is cheap, an insight one of our Midwest friends brought to the networks years ago.  Occasionally one will find a good movie, or something of worth on C-Span, but day in and day out, there is nothing else to watch.  In their infinite wisdom, cable and network executives have simply left the field wide open for Imus.  It is almost inconceivable that broadcast moguls would fail to properly mine the morning slot, yet big companies in many industries have left gaping holes in their product offerings which brighter people will exploit.  In fact, there is almost no large market in America that does not present similar opportunities. 

Querulousness. He spends a great deal of time complaining about anything that crosses his field of vision.  This carping act of his amounts to a satire of all discourse in our time, which has become so polarized and confrontational.  The Economist recently discussed    the epidemic “Rebirth of Outrage,” that central energizing factor behind talk radio that has put none other than the wart-filled Bill O’Reilly at the top of the charts.  It blames all this mean-spirited diatribe on everything from the culture wars to the feelings of uselessness people feel in the present fractionalized political system. 

We simply think America—and all the developed countries—are growing old, reaching the stage where one complains about things instead of doing something about them.  It gets easy to be cantankerous and churlish.  The flock of chiders, complainers, carpers, cavilers, and castigators makes it harder and harder to get an optimistic note in edgewise. 

But there may be another reason for the kavetching.  Don Imus suffered from years of addiction.  It takes decades, afterwards, to get that bile out of the system, to free oneself from the poisons with which one is saturated.  It takes years and lots of illumination to get beyond addictive, obsessive, self pitying behavior.  We still are a consumer society with a host of addictions inhabited by battalions of sufferers who are trying to get past them.  Our waistlines testify that we are not finding it easy going.  Our obsessions are consuming us. 

Blue-Collar Oracles.  We once knew a very fine, meticulous painter in Belvedere, California who only trusted one art critic: his garbage man.  The neighbors did not know what they thought and were too politic to talk straight even if they did.  No euphemisms for the garbage man.  Our friend’s painting, once examined, was quickly deemed to be “garbage” or “gold,” nothing in between.  An opinion you could trust. 

Our handyman gave us just as good an insight only two days ago.  “TV,” he said, “That’s a drug, designed to pacify the masses.  Otherwise they would be kicking the political bosses out of office, and executives out of their suites.”  The very quaint Karl Marx told us that “religion is the opiate of the people.”  No longer.  TV or the media—they have become our most powerful drugs used to turn our populace into zombies.  And, to the degree that we are enchained by such addictions, we lack freedom and creativity. 

Media Drugfest.  And that’s Imus in the Morning.  It’s a drug made up of a 100 media people—the regulars who chatter on about themselves, particularly the lesser lights from NBC and MSNBC.  Imus, still an addict, now hooked on media, follows every curve in their spines.  Even when he’s not in the studio, we learn, he’s listening to this or that on the tube, or reading some current bestseller stitched together by Russert or Jonathan somebody, Carter somebody else.  We  wonder whether we are having a hard time getting on with the business of the 21st century because we are spending time (TV watching is still huge) listening to the ventriloquists who propped up the 20th.  To us he presents a whole retinue of very well known, very anonymous people. 

Drawn and Quartered.  We can look at Imus in the Morning, with all the bluster and all the snarls, and think that’s he just about as beat up as that cowboy who picked us up in a Nash Rambler outside Loveland, Colorado.  On their way to the next job, this old warrior and his kindly wife were just a bit vanquished.  Tired, wounded, out of rope. 

We’re remembering now that Imus pretty much died once.  A horse threw him at his ranch in New Mexico.  But his wife had a canister of oxygen around the house that brought him back to life.  Take the sound away, and his visage twists in pain. 

If he could get past the addictions, and do what he’s meant to do, we suspect he might come back as half a poet, a songster without chords.  Sometimes insights born in despair do spill out of his mouth.  Just the other morning he chimed, “The Wheels are Really coming off the World.  It’s $50 to fill up a gas tank.  The levees in New Orleans aren’t really getting fixed.  Nobody’s caught Bin Laden.”  That made the interview he was conducting with some media motor mouth rather moot.

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