Before all else, Chicago is the city that politicks. Fittingly, therefore, it is also home of the uniquely contentious radio show Inside Politics. Every Thursday at seven on WBEZ, Bruce DuMont opens an audio arena in which politicians and their operatives vividly rehash, refight, and prefight their battles.
Inside Politics has been compared to a prizefight, a poker game, and a jazz set. It’s hard to compare it to anything on the airwaves because, by all accounts, it is one of a kind. The Sportswriters and The McLaughlin Group are freewheeling enough to come close, but both have casts of journalists, and journalists rarely find a place at DuMont’s table.
“I’m a radio junkie,” says Dan Miller, editor of Crain’s Chicago Business. “I listen to radio in every city I go to. I ask people if they have such a show. They all say, ‘It would never work here. Everyone would be overly polite.'”
Excessive politeness is no problem on DuMont’s show. Alderman Luis Gutierrez remembers that after his first show, “I got on the elevator and felt about two inches tall–crushed and belittled.”
“Anybody who is faint of heart ought not to be there,” says Republican state senator Judy Baar Topinka of Riverside, an occasional guest, “because you’ll get chewed up. . . . It’s too bad the public can’t see the gyrations. I have seen fights on that program. I have seen people crawl across the table through the microphones to try and throttle the other person.”
And yet with rare exceptions the show maintains a good-humored, even bantering mood. “I love to do the show,” says Topinka. “You lose track of time, you lose track of the fact that you’re talking to thousands of people.” On the August 27 show, the panelists kept talking right through DuMont’s sign-off. Not until ten minutes after eight did a guest turn to ask him if they were still on the air.
“I enjoy the fellowship of politicians,” says political consultant and sometime guest David Axelrod–“the notion that you can disagree violently and still be friends. It’s like a barroom debate. You can get mad as hell and the animosity doesn’t spill over. . . . Like [permanent panelist Thomas] Roeser. I don’t agree with him on anything. But I really enjoy him and I enjoy sparring with him. Never once can I think of a time I left the studio in a cross mood with him or anyone.”
Just a glance around the studio should be enough to shake off a cross mood. Across from the door, a big MEN’S CLOTHING sign dominates wall-high shelves crammed with records and tapes. The wall on the right is a curtain, on the left a glass picture window communicating with the control room. The round table at the center is almost completely covered by an octopuslike arrangement of five adjustable microphones. Scattered around the room are a piano, a manual typewriter, a stepladder, an “applause” sign, an assortment of chairs, a red-white-and-blue Radio Shack beach ball, and someone’s suit jacket on a disused microphone stand.
The show sounds like its surroundings: jumbled, casual, at ease. For this reason it can bewilder a first-time listener, especially when, as often happens, several guests interrupt and talk over each other for seconds at a time, trying to gain the floor. (My children promptly dubbed it “the yelling program.”) Public affairs political consultant Grace Kaminkowitz was pleased at just being able to hold the floor during her July 16 appearance: “It was the first time I controlled Tom [Roeser]. In the past he interrupted me at will. I remember saying, ‘Tom, be quiet!’–and he stopped!” Even when the guests do take turns, it helps to have a sharp ear for voices to keep track of who is saying what. And those who don’t follow politics closely may miss a few of the allusions tossed off as the discussion careens along.
“You have to listen to the show for several weeks to figure out how to listen,” says political consultant Phil Krone, a frequent panelist. “It’s like jazz. You’re making it up as you go along, you get a cue from the director, and you finish up the last two bars together.”
With that metaphor in mind, let’s listen to the sounds of a recent show–one that provided, as DuMont would say later, “a good example of having a little fun and some substance too.” It’s July 30. The leader has assembled a quintet, and he sets his never-too-serious tone in the course of introducing them:
DuMont doesn’t introduce himself, but if he did he could say that he’s been producing or talking on Chicago’s airwaves almost continuously for 23 of his 43 years. His father was a perennial candidate, a Republican and born-again Christian when neither was very fashionable. Politics was “a constant topic of discussion at our dinner table,” and DuMont remembers sitting on Herbert Hoover’s knee at age six or seven. (His own views? He adheres to no political party–in fact, “people have a difficult time putting a tag on me. I’m a hawk and a right-winger on some issues, but I’m a very strong advocate of civil rights and civil liberties.”)
In the summer of 1964, while a student at Columbia College, DuMont did his first stint at the microphone as a fill-in weekend deejay on Highland Park’s WEEF. During the late 1960s he produced talk shows for WLS TV and WGN radio. In February 1970 he quit broadcasting to live on savings and run for the state senate against an entrenched Daley ally, Senator Robert Cherry.
“I was perhaps the most liberal Republican to run in Illinois. In the middle of the campaign, Kent State happened, and I denounced vice president Spiro Agnew.” He lost. “I think that’s one thing I bring to this. I know what it’s like to run for office, to walk up to total strangers, who mostly could give a damn who you are, and say ‘Hi! I’m Bruce DuMont and I’d like your support!’ It’s like that horrible thing when you walk up to a girl and ask her to dance and she says no. When you’re 25 and you’ve been running your ass off for nine months straight–the state Republicans even changed the race into the winnable column–and then look at the results and see that 32,000 people have rejected you–well, I was real low.”
Back in radio, DuMont produced the ultraconservative Howard Miller’s popular afternoon-drive show on WGN. Miller went out of his way to be kind to this “Chuck Percy Republican,” DuMont recalls. “Miller would mention my name on the air all the time. He made me a minicelebrity. We got to be really good friends, and we used to have political arguments on the air–I was his ‘comsymp producer.'” In 1974, hungry for his own airtime, DuMont rolled the dice and moved to the obscure WLTD in Evanston. “We were not paid by the station, but they did not charge us for the time.” His income was whatever he could get for eight minutes of commercial time per hour on his show.
When WLTD changed owners, DuMont moved over to WEAW, also in Evanston, and syndicated his show, Montage, to stations in Chicago, Lansing, and Saint Charles. “It was on four times a day!” When that hustle grew too exhausting, he went to work for WNIS, NBC’s experiment in all-news FM radio. Next he was director of public relations and advertising for Henry Regnery Company, now called Contemporary Books, then a producer for several programs on Channel Two. In 1982, he fulfilled a longtime ambition to do on-air television work: John Callaway, who admired his work on Channel Two, asked if he was on a contract, and when DuMont said no, Callaway said “Let’s have lunch.” As a Channel 11 staffer, DuMont was chief negotiator for the 1983 mayoral debates, without which Harold Washington would probably not be mayor. “I’ve turned down lucrative offers to write the inside story of what happened in those negotiations,” he says, “but they’ll never be in print or on the air. When I go into a negotiating session I’m not a journalist.” He remains a political correspondent on Channel 11 and is founder and president of the new Museum of Broadcast Communications.
In 1976, he began emceeing WBEZ’s Chicago Show. After four years, he proposed turning the all-purpose talk show into strictly politics. The station honchos agreed, and Inside Politics debuted June 26, 1980.
“The average talk show is as good as the guy running it,” says frequent guest Sheldon Gardner, a lawyer active in reform politics. “Bruce is the spice that makes the meat and potatoes into a stew.” Adds Alan Gitelson, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University, “A show like that can get into very long monologues and very polarized opinions, with people talking past each other. In a very artful way Bruce is able to keep the conversation together.”
“The show is Bruce DuMont,” says WBEZ program director Ken Davis. If he were to go elsewhere, “we wouldn’t even try to replace him.”
“For those who have never seen him,” says Judy Baar Topinka, “he is such a nice clean-cut-looking fellow with a cherubic face. It belies the fact that he’s as tough a reporter as he is. People coming in for the first time might think he’s a Boy Scout. And he isn’t.”
None of DuMont’s guests tonight–Tom Roeser, Jacky Grimshaw, Tom Coffey, Steve Baer, Richard Dennis–is exactly a household name, and that’s just fine for a show intended to deal more with political procedures than political issues. Dennis and Grimshaw are closer to the engine room than to the captain’s cabin; they can know things, and say things, that Governor Babbitt and Mayor Washington might not. “Elected officials are not usually the best guests,” says DuMont, although there are plenty of exceptions, the mayor himself being one of them. “He’s good because he can laugh at himself,” says Roeser. “It’s a tough show to do if you’re at all pompous.”
Tonight’s group breaks down fairly typically: four whites, one black; four men, one woman; three liberals, two conservatives; three old-timers, two newcomers. (The show usually loses its casual atmosphere if there’s any larger proportion of first-timers.)
Introductions over, DuMont gets down to business: “Let’s begin by going right around the horn. Tom Coffey, perhaps you can lead us off. Looking at the way that we elect presidents in the United States, and the whole backbreaking process, and all the rules and the regulations and campaigning in Iowa, two years, three years before the voters go to the polls . . . is this the best way to elect a president?”
Coffey: “Probably the most fun way. It’s great entertainment for a couple of years. But on a serious note, it’s probably the closest form of participatory democracy that we have in the United States . . .”
What is this generalized presidential blather doing here–stuff we could hear from Bangor to Bakersfield? Inside Politics is often thought of as the quintessential local politics program. Some of its most memorable, and influential, moments have come in the Thursday night reenactments of Council Wars. Dan Miller of Crain’s remembers one such pivotal moment in Washington’s first term, when DuMont was pushing Vrdolyaker Richard Mell: Why were the 29 obstructing mayoral appointments? What was their plan? Didn’t they really want to destroy the city in order to save it? Mell said yes, and “the 29’s strategy began to become obvious.”
Miller says flatly that Inside Politics is “better by a factor of 100 as a local show. I really do not care to hear Jesus Garcia or Richard Mell on the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers. Who gives a —-?”
But in the summer of 1987–with Washington reelected, the City Council opposition dispersed, the presidential primaries just a few months off–the political cycle offers less conflict locally, and more conflict nationally, than it did a year or two ago. Besides, DuMont prefers programs that deal with the national scene. Back in 1967, he produced a twice-weekly segment for Channel Seven in which Jim Conway, host of a local morning show, interviewed national news makers in Washington, D.C.–taking advantage of a virtually unused closed-circuit line ABC had, long before satellites. “They would pick up excerpts from the interviews and use them on the national news,” recalls DuMont. “I’ve long believed local TV is too parochial.”
On Inside Politics, DuMont says, “we’ve been able to establish several people–[former alderman] Cliff Kelley especially–who are comfortable talking about city, state, national, and international politics.”
Sheldon Gardner is not so sure. “We’re good on Chicago, good on Illinois, good viewing the country from a Chicago perspective–but not nearly as good overall.” In practice, Chicagoans’ multiple national connections give Inside Politics plenty of chances to view national actors through a local lens. Later on the July 30 show, Tom Coffey recalls that Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork had been a partner of his at Kirkland & Ellis. “Was he fun around the office?” asks DuMont. “What sort of guy was he?”
Coffey: “He’s a very studious fellow. . . . He is one of the most brilliant people that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”
Roeser: “Would you vote for him if you were a senator?”
Coffey: “Absolutely not.”
Perhaps with this need for local perspective in mind, Roeser soon brings the general conversation away from abstract opinion trading to something more personal, by putting a question to Richard Dennis:
“You are a fat cat. You can only give $1,000 [to a presidential candidate]. In the old days, in the presidential thing, you could give something like 300, 400, 500 thousand dollars, and you could probably get Babbitt at least in the double digits. You can only give a thousand now . . .”
DuMont: “He’s in double digits in Iowa.”
Roeser: “OK. Does that frustrate you at all, Richard?”
Dennis: “It does frustrate me, and I’m going to make an uncharacteristically Republican or libertarian argument that it seems that the political system would have more diversity if people could do exactly what they wanted with their money.”
Roeser [coming in over the last few words]: “Hey! I like you! In other words, because you’re against the kind of reform we have now, which limits all of us to a thousand, you want unlimited plus disclosure, and I think that’s a news item because in fact I agree with that, Baer does, and Gene McCarthy does . . .”
DuMont [looking for a spat?]: “You think it’s a good idea, Jacky?”
Grimshaw: “I just wish I had it to give.” [Laughter.]
“Here’s an interesting thing about Casey, who just died, the head of the CIA,” Roeser says. “Do you know why he went to the CIA? Because [in the 1980 Reagan campaign] John Sears spent 74 percent of the available dollars before the New Hampshire primary. They called in an old-guard auditor named Casey who took the balance between 74 percent and the rest, and carried Reagan through. And Reagan said, ‘I owe you everything, Bill,’ which in fact he did. . . . Casey was the auditor and manager of that campaign, that was superb in terms of handling a very limited budget for the rest of the campaign.”
DuMont: “And look where he is today.”
Roeser: “Look where he is today. Dead. [Pause, under other talk.] Thank God.”
DuMont: “OK, let’s take a telephone call.”
The caller has an off-the-wall question, trying to tie Adolfo Calero’s contra cruise to a big cocaine bust that occurred earlier in the day. Baer responds with a set speech describing Mr. C. as a “small-d democrat.” DuMont doesn’t argue the point, but cuts in with a different line of questioning: “How much money did you raise the other night?”
Baer: “About $10,000.”
DuMont: “OK, and all of that–he took that, what, in small bills back to–”
Baer: “No, no [laughter], that’s a misreporting. . . . The funds were raised to supply financial aid to conservative Republican candidates who support contra aid.”
Roeser: “In Illinois, presumably.”
Baer: “That’s right.”
DuMont: “Well, how many Republican conservatives don’t support contra aid?”
Roeser: “Not a one.”
DuMont: “So, what’s the money going to be used for? Pile on?”
Baer: “To knock off Democrats. We want to elect Republicans. There’s marginal districts–”
Roeser: “Not incumbents. People running against, say, Cardiss Collins.”
DuMont: “But that’s a waste of money, isn’t it?”
Dennis [deadpan]: “You’ve got a big chance there.”
Grimshaw: “No! No! Let him spend his money! Let him spend his money!” [General laughter.]
DuMont [over the hubbub]: “No, seriously. If you raise $10,000, where is $10,000 going to make even the slightest dent in defeating someone who opposes contra aid?”
Baer: “Bob Gaffner, in the [downstate] 21st Congressional District, almost beat Melvin Price in the last election.”
DuMont: “So look out, Melvin Price.”
Baer: “One percentage point difference.”
Roeser: “Cut down in the prime of life, Melvin Price. Eighty-seven years old.” [Laughter.]
Baer [earnest and persistent]: “Bob Gaffner is a supporter of contra aid. We would have liked to see Bob Gaffner be in Congress.”
Roeser: “Now what about [suburban congressman] Harris Fawell, who is not a supporter of contra aid, a Republican, and a fairly moderate Republican. Are you going to run anybody against him in the primary?”
Baer: “I don’t think you’d see anything happen in 1988.”
The next caller, a regular named Henry Johnson, congratulates DuMont: “I’m glad you have Ms. Grimshaw there to add some color. You were very pale last week.” [Laughter.] It turns out that Johnson plans to run against Cardiss Collins.
Roeser: “Hey–how about you and contra aid, Henry?”
DuMont: “Yeah, would you take ten g’s to run against Cardiss Collins?”
Johnson: “You gonna give it to me tonight?” [Laughter.]
The next caller bounces in off the right field wall. “Has any political thinker or writer addressed the issue of potential U.S. civil war if the Communists start creeping up towards the United States?”
Dennis: “I think he saw Red Dawn one too many times.”
Roeser: “I saw it backwards.”
Caller [unfazed]: “The Pledge of Resistance is an example of the kind of political forces that I’m talking about that might cause civil war. I mean, these people are militantly for the Communists in Nicaragua.”
DuMont: “Who? Who is?”
Caller: “The Pledge of Resistance.”
DuMont [tentatively]: “Yeah.”
Caller: “Do you–?”
Panelist: “Is that like the pledge–?”
Baer [taking hold]: “The real threat in Central America, I believe, is the dominoes falling–Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and then Mexico . . .”
These exchanges on Central America are a good example of why some people cannot stand Inside Politics. It’s not that the show is slanted in one direction or another (as DuMont says, any particular show may be, but over time they’re balanced), but that DuMont and Roeser constantly bring it back to the procedures of politics, rather than the issues. Is Adolfo Calero the reincarnation of George Washington, or of Jack the Ripper? Sorry, not our department. Where will the ten grand he raised do the most good? Now there’s a question worth talking about.
Similarly, is the Pledge of Resistance a Communist front? In actuality, it’s a coalition of religious and secular groups pledged to nonviolent civil disobedience to change U.S. policy on Nicaragua. If any of the panelists knew this, they didn’t think it worth mentioning on the air: such groups lie just outside the pale of political respectability, which can be roughly defined as the range of positions held by sitting members of Congress.
For anyone with strong personal feelings about Central America, listening to such discussions must be a painful experience. Alderman Gutierrez, on the July 9 broadcast, during the first wacky flowering of Olliemania, proclaimed flatly that the message of the Iran-contra hearings was that “the United States should literally, and excuse the expression but, get the hell out of Central America.” He berated his fellow panelists for being able to “talk so leisurely” on the subject. No one responded.
“That day,” he told me later, “it was very hard for me to be foolish about issues of life and death. It seemed to me at times it got very light on something we shouldn’t take lightly. . . . I think I was really outnumbered that day. There was no one there who is involved with Central American refugees.” But of course there wouldn’t be. Such a person is almost by definition neither a professional politician nor likely to be in a mood to crack a joke even on a side issue.
On the July 30 show, Steve Baer is already sticking out as an ideologue (on the right wing), and as the evening progresses the other panelists–even his supposed ally Roeser–begin to play off his predictable recitations.
“We catch a certain amount of flak because we’re not issue-oriented enough,” says Sheldon Gardner, but it doesn’t bother him any. “When you start dealing esoterically with issues–‘What is his position?’–you don’t deal with politics as the real issue. You’re more like a debating society. Everybody knows Bork is antiabortion, for instance. The real questions are how the Supreme Court changes the new appointee, Senate-presidential relations, and Bork’s effect on the next election. . . . We’re beyond the area of people giving out their philosophical commitments. Listeners don’t have to yell hurray or boo based on arguments they’ve already heard.”
But as the panelists rise above philosophical commitments and into the sophisticated stratosphere of political maneuvering, the show’s implicit philosophy becomes that prevailing in society at large: in progressive times, leaning to the left; in conservative times, leaning to the right. Only rarely does anyone challenge this unstated premise of the program. When–as during a 1984 election postmortem show–that caller is a woman and the responding panelists are men, the dialogue takes on eerie overtones of a domestic argument, one side accusing, the other defensive and distracting.
Caller: “I listen to your program a lot. And sometimes I really don’t appreciate your humor. You laugh about the wrong things. You know, you laugh about the country and other people, what they did and what they didn’t do. I think you ought to measure your humor, and particularly Mr. Roeser. He wasn’t funny tonight at all. Some of us are really hurting because of what happened. Now, I just want to make one other comment. I also don’t appreciate [voice rising unsteadily] this business of ‘Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem’ as though they’re nobodies, they’re nothing. What about Phyllis Schlafly?”
Several panelists: “They are somebody.” “Nobody mentioned Steinem.” “I did.” “Oh–”
Roeser [in a sudden silence, carefully]: “I think Bella Abzug is somebody.”
Caller: “Darn right she’s somebody. My question is this: What is it that you only target special interests when you talk about labor, the blacks, the minorities, the poor. What the heck–there are special interests in big business, the people who’re on the far right, who’re for prayer in the schools, the antiabortionists who made Ferraro’s life miserable. Aren’t these special interests? Isn’t that what the Republican party has catered to? Isn’t that what they have done all during this election?”
DuMont [the voice of reason]: “Well, Walter Mondale was talking about the far right during the campaign, and Jerry Falwell–”
Caller: “Yeah, but you guys aren’t talking about it.”
DuMont: “We’ve talked about it on this program.”
Caller: “Well, I’ll tell you, you never–and I heard you, Mr. DuMont, a couple of times–”
DuMont [pacifying]: “I hope so.”
Caller: “Every time you talk about special interests, all you target is labor, the poor, and Walter Mondale was giving something to everybody. That’s ridiculous.”
Mell [the first to counterattack]: “Then he should have won. Why didn’t he win, then?”
One last example: On the July 23, 1987 program, Chris Long–a political consultant and a coordinator of the Dukakis presidential campaign in Illinois–found herself in much the same position as Gutierrez, on a different subject. She found herself arguing–more or less against the combined weight of Roeser, Topinka, Mell, Aurelia Pucinski, and (by phone) William Lipinski–that (white) ethnics do not necessarily all buy the neoconservative agenda of high military spending, vigorous anticommunism, antiabortion, school prayer.
“My parents both spoke Polish and were immigrants, as were their friends,” Long said later, “and I did not grow up with those stereotypes I was hearing.” Did those issues really get thrashed out? “This isn’t that show,” she replied. “I wish there was such a program. This is a show on a different level.”
The next caller wants to know “why the Democrats all seem to be fairly, in my opinion, good on nuclear arms issues, in other words in support of a nuclear test ban and in opposition to the waste on Star Wars, and all the Republicans seem to be fairly bad on the issue in varying degrees from Kemp saying let’s just put anything up there as long as we can call it Star Wars, I don’t care if it’s refrigerators or anything, let’s just launch it into orbit and get it up there–”
DuMont: “All right, let’s let Tom Roeser respond to that.”
Roeser: “That’s the kind of public-radio question that I like [laughter]. Very objective. You tune in to public radio and you get that, why are all the Republicans bad–”
Dennis: “All your listeners are soft-headed liberals, eh?”
Now there’s a good question; no one knows for sure how many people listen to Inside Politics or who they are. WBEZ program director Ken Davis estimates the audience at between 15,000 and 20,000, but these figures are roughed out from week-long averages for that time slot. (The show does shine from a financial standpoint; Davis says its listeners contributed $5,000 in one hour during a recent station fund-raising week.) Davis speculates that the audience “has probably doubled in the last two or three years. It’s not the most widely listened-to program on the station, but the people who do listen are movers and shakers,” even though movers and shakers are often busy in the evening hours.
Other evidence is even more anecdotal, but enough to establish the show’s cult status. DuMont says that of those who recognize him on the street, more identify him with Inside Politics than with his work on Channel 11. “For every person who says Chicago Tonight, three will say they love the radio show. That is their point of reference.”
“I keep hearing from people I’m surprised to hear from,” says Chris Long. “People will single out things I’ve said, a week or two after the fact. I was at a meeting the other night, and a woman said, ‘You know, what you were trying to say about ethnics [July 23]–they didn’t hear what you were saying.’ She’s not an ethnic nor my close friend. But she had heard the show. I know damn well the half-life of media things is extremely short. We are talking faithful audience here.”
Roeser is drawing breath to dispatch his “public radio” questioner:
“I would say that the reason the Soviets are coming to the table is because of a very strong, adamant position on the part of the Reagan administration, and they’re coming to the table because you wimps who are liberals [hisses in the background] and who are limp wrists and who really in fact want to negotiate everything away before there’s even a bargain can’t possibly get these guys to the table because they’re hard-nosed bargainers . . .”
This is Roeser at Force Ten. There’s no stopping him; you may as well drop gracefully into the storm cellar. Paradoxically, although the show is DuMont’s creation and his creature, in the immediate weekly theater of it Roeser shows up in the foreground. DuMont steers the conversation with a deft jab or an artfully placed question, but it’s usually Roeser who then stakes out a position for others to shoot at. As a result, both faithful and former listeners often give him as their reason.
“Roeser is a deceptive guy,” says his sometime antagonist David Axelrod. “He’s very bright and often will take positions that surprise you.” He managed to surprise fellow Republican Steve Baer July 30:
Baer: “These guys, Paul Simon and Joe Biden, have no respect for themselves, because they want a Supreme Court that’s constantly overruling the democratically established will of the people through representative government, through the Congress. They want the Supreme Court checking them all the time, and grabbing out of thin air–creating out of thin air rights that weren’t there in the Constitution, and–”
Grimshaw: “Boy, I’d like to have your rose-colored glasses, Steve. I mean, I’ve been listening to you pontificate all night about what people think and feel–you say what Simon wants, what Biden wants. Getting back to the issue that Richard brought up, why shouldn’t Biden and Simon want a Supreme Court justice that’s more reflective of where they come from–”
Roeser: “They should.”
Grimshaw: “–versus where you come from?”
Roeser: “That’s what the debate ought to be about.”
[Several seconds of confusion.]
Baer: “Roeser, you’re wrong. It’s not a debate over substantive ideology. We don’t want a–you don’t want a Supreme Court that would enact, by fiat, conservative legislation, we don’t want a Supreme Court that would–”
Roeser [vexed beyond endurance]: “Yes I would. Yes I do. And that’s why I would vote–[confusion]. Now, wait a minute. Don’t tell me what I believe, Bork [laughter]–kid. You’re 27 years old. I’m 59. . . . Bork is a guy who would hold the pendulum even. I am an activist on the right.”
Roeser’s age is no surprise if you meet him in person, but his radio voice sounds younger for some reason (perhaps the acid is a preservative). In the 1950s he covered politics for a medium-sized daily in central Minnesota–“Garrison Keillor country exactly”–and in those days Minnesota politics meant Hubert Humphrey. (His picture of Hubert on the trail: “He’d have a loose-leaf notebook in his lap, memorizing the names of the mayor and the Catholic priest and the Lutheran pastor in each little town. He’d meet them and rattle off [at top speed], ‘I hear you have a 98-year-old mother who fell down and broke her hip on the back steps and we have a bill in Congress that would prevent . . .'”) Roeser spent 11 years as speech writer, publicist, and staffer in various echelons of the Minnesota Republican party, in the days when “they ran only to lose.” In 1969 he became assistant to Nixon’s commerce secretary, Maurice Stans, in charge of the fledgling minority business enterprise program–and was soon fired for taking it seriously. After a brief stint as director of congressional relations for the Peace Corps, he returned to lobbying work for Quaker Oats and sporadic involvement in city politics, most notably as chairman of Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts). His conservatism–which embraces anticommunism, antilibertarianism, opposition to abortion, and at least qualified support of economic regulation and government subsidies–appears quirky only in the breathless world of the electronic media. As a traditionalist in the Edmund Burke mold, he “deplores” Reagan’s weakening of federal regulatory agencies: “Man’s original nature is base and needs restraint.”
In the days of Council Wars, Roeser tended to back the mayor–again, not what you might expect. “I definitely thought that the majority, by failing to act on the mayor’s appointments, were just in disregard of common decency.” On the July 9 show he trashed Commonwealth Edison’s rate-freeze/rate-hike plan and Governor Thompson for supporting it. These positions notwithstanding, his usual role on Inside Politics–which is, after all, a show born in the 80s–is to expound the rightward-leaning zeitgeist; but at least as important as his political views is his ability to laugh at them and at himself.
After Roeser winds down on wimpy liberal negotiators, Richard Dennis offers a contrasting view of why the Soviets are willing to come to the table: “It seems to me that when Gorbachev looks at the Russian economy what he sees is a tremendously dead system. And it seems to me that he must realize the tremendous, sort of symmetrical, benefits that could occur if you can come off this arms race and this cold war. So any proposal that he agrees to tends to help him even as it helps us . . .” Eventually, Roeser winds up their exchange with a sigh: “Why do I ever argue with somebody who’s that rich and that successful?”
During the show’s second half hour, the panel has two discussions going at once–on the surface, about Richard Dennis’s presidential candidate, Bruce Babbitt, and underneath, a tug-of-war between the issues and the procedures. DuMont leads off by listing the seven Democrats’ cash on hand. Babbitt, “$20,000 and looking for loans,” is dead last. Dennis explains his candidate’s gamble of spending heavily and early on Iowa media, predicts Babbitt will win the caucuses, and then tries to switch gears:
“When I look for a candidate–I mean, everyone complains about how general and sort of flabby the statements the candidates make are. Bruce Babbitt, whether you agree with him or not, comes out with specific positions on specific issues. He addressed the National Press Club in Washington today, made a major economic speech where he came out in favor of a national consumption tax, which a lot of his advisers properly pointed out to him had not been a big political winner in the past [even though it might go a long way toward solving the federal deficit and could be made a progressive tax]. No one would claim that’s a popular position now, and I’ve seen some polling showing there’s virtually no support for it. But. The question is, do we want candidates who give us what we want or do we want some leadership?”
This is the classic liberal, reform, policy-oriented way of looking at politics, which will crop up even on a show relentlessly dedicated to peering at the machinery. And Steve Baer, at the far end of the spectrum, thinks in the same categories: he’s more interested in the message than the medium. His reverse Marxism leads him to try to explain the commodities markets to the world’s most successful trader:
“For a guy like yourself who’s tapped in to the power of the free market system and understands what free enterprise can do, how can you tolerate Babbitt’s position on regulating manufacturing concerns, private industry, and saying if you ever have to do layoffs, if you ever have to cut salaries of workers, then you also have to pare management salaries too? He made that one of his seven points he articulated in the Buckley debate.”
Dennis: “Well, to put it more positively, also he said, if the upper echelon gets a bonus, then all the other workers should at least have incentives, if they produce more, to get more.”
Baer [horrified]: “But, I mean, that’s government saying, telling–”
Dennis: “I’m not antigovernment. I’m not with my fellow Republicans here in their maniacal charge against government that’s been led by the president the last seven years.”
Baer: “But commodity traders make their money because government pretty much stays out of their–”
DuMont: “I want to get Jacky and Tom into this discussion–”
Dennis [underneath, responding to Baer]: “Well, I don’t know about that.”
DuMont: “I want to ask Jacky a question . . .”
A different moderator might become fascinated with the workings of the Chicago Board of Trade and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission; another might want to let the ideologue and the trader butt heads a bit longer; another might nudge the conversation back toward Babbitt’s intriguing labor policy, or explore the alleged contradiction between Dennis’s capitalist millions and his fondness for government. DuMont–“the lubricant that keeps this thing running despite the friction,” according to David Axelrod–is none of these. He points the conversation in a different direction altogether:
” . . . something that Richard said about if you want a candidate, you may disagree with him, but he’s going to show leadership. What about the all-important issue–and whether you like it or not, how someone plays on television is important. And the general assessment is that Babbitt did not do well in the Buckley debate [a public TV debate involving several Democratic candidates, moderated by William Buckley]. In other words, if you listed the top five, he didn’t make the top five, and although he may be a man who has great ideas and is very articulate, and philosophically and morally would be a great president, the likelihood of him getting there, given the rules of electronic politics, is perhaps slim and none. First of all–do you buy that?”
(“That guy makes my skin crawl,” says a friend who doesn’t listen much anymore. “Doesn’t he care about who will make a good public servant?”)
Grimshaw: “Well, the only thing I would say is that Babbitt needs to get himself a good media adviser. I’ve seen some extremely effective television commercials that sell a message without the candidate showing up in the ad itself. . . . What makes Iowa and the caucus system interesting is that you are able to deal with people face to face. And I think that kind of touching of people makes a lot more sense than just going with the slick media commercials. You know, the public image is one thing. But I think what you have to say is really what gets across and what’s going to make a difference. I mean, I won’t vote for you because you look slick. And to say nothing–”
Dennis: “Let’s not give in automatically to the idea that because slick wins some of the time that it ought to win all of the time. I mean, one of the reasons I’m impressed with Bruce Babbitt is that he’s got more inside his head than he’s got hair on top of it that he blow-dries to make himself cosmetically attractive. And, I mean, we shouldn’t give up on the idea that that’s important.”
DuMont: “But you felt the same way about Adlai Stevenson!”
Dennis: “And he didn’t have hair.” [Laughter.]
Coffey: “I am a firm believer in the fact that the media is going to elect our next president, and it’s critical in the electoral process. I’m not convinced, however, that one debate on public television is going to make or break a candidate a year and a half before the election. I happened to be in Washington, D.C., today on business, and had the privilege of attending the National Press Club luncheon where Bruce Babbitt spoke.”
DuMont: “Tell us about it. Give us your objective opinion.”
Coffey: “It was the first time I saw Bruce Babbitt in person. For the last year, myself and a couple of other people have been trying to meet as many of the candidates as we can. We’ve had three of them in our offices in the last year. And so I have something to measure against the other candidates. Bruce Babbitt, before a very tough audience, the national press corps, gave a stellar performance. He was a different person than he was at that debate in Houston. And one of the key differences was that he showed a great wit, which was very surprising compared to his performance in Houston. So we’re a long way from the final counting. And if he’s as good as his performance showed today, he’s going to be pretty tough on television.”
This is the same Babbitt speech in which Dennis earlier described Babbitt as coming out for a national consumption tax. But now we’re not talking issues, we’re talking politics; not substance, but performance.
Face it: Inside Politics is a show that resolutely panders to the taste for political technique. DuMont refers those listeners who have lost their love for politics-as-sport to Milt Rosenberg’s Extension 720, where issues are more likely to be dissected at length. But there are two other points worth making to those who quadrennially recoil against “horse-race journalism.” One is that the worst aspect of horse-race journalism is that it pretends to be the be-all and end-all of political journalism, which Inside Politics does not. Second and more important, the ability of politicos to talk leisurely about life-and-death issues is precisely what keeps the U.S. from deteriorating into an armed camp. When the “fellowship of politicians” dissolves, and Roeser and Dennis can no longer sit at the table to trade cordial insults, then we’ll know democracy is in trouble.
Roeser: “How would you compare him, Richard, to another guy who isn’t blow-dried, but who in other words has about an equal amount of charisma, Paul Simon, in terms of–”
Dennis: “You’ve detected that I’m attracted to the guys without charisma.” [Scattered laughter; then, as if surprised:] “I suppose that’s why I’m on the show with you.” [Explosive laughter, applause.]
DuMont: “Let the record show that’s the best line delivered by someone who’s never been on the show before . . .”
Inside Politics is not just a radio show, it’s a club. DuMont’s handful of “regulars” and pool of 30 or so occasional guests are part of, and stand in for, the larger common culture of politicos. In the long run even Jacky Grimshaw and Steve Baer are colleagues with similar problems and headaches, if not the same convictions. They may argue and poke fun, but only rarely does the listener hear a note of genuine, bitter, let’s-settle-this-outside antagonism. Partly for this reason, journalists make few appearances on the show. “I think it makes for a freer exchange,” says Alderman Bernard Stone. “You’re sort of cautious with media people there. This way it’s more like a bunch of guys sitting at a bar or a poker table having a discussion. Bruce is one of the guys, not like a media guy.”
Being one of the guys poses certain risks, however. You can get taken in, and suddenly find your role changed from insider to sucker. That’s how DuMont felt when he learned that one of his regular panelists, then-alderman Clifford Kelley, had been indicted for taking money from Michael Raymond to help steer city business toward Raymond’s supposed employer, Systematic Recovery Systems (SRS).
“I was at the press conference about the indictments,” recalls DuMont. “They said he had received a cash payment of $2,500 after appearing on a radio show.” On that show, Kelley had made disparaging comments about SRS’s business rival, Datacom. “I asked Tony Valukas if it was Inside Politics. He said yes. I felt really violated.
“At that point, Cliff did not return my calls. His secretary–who I’d spoken to three times a week for five years–was not forthcoming with messages. I was simmering. I felt I had been betrayed. Subsequently Cliff explained to my satisfaction that it [the payment] was after, not on account of, what he said on the program.”
That point may be moot. Kelley’s own defense–which may keep him out of the Inside Politics doghouse if not out of federal prison–is that what he said against Datacom was not “disinformation.” “The key point is that I thought it was true, and I’m not the only one who thought it was true.”
DuMont can kid about it now: “The feds are really hurting my bookings.” Referring to an Inside Politics poster that included both Kelley and former alderman Marian Humes (also indicted), he says, “We didn’t know it was going to be a ‘wanted’ poster.”
But for a reporter of DuMont’s experience and astuteness, should the “betrayal,” if that’s what it was, have been such an absolute surprise? Would this dialogue from the show of January 9, 1986, have flashed more warning lights if both parties to it had not been members of the club?
DuMont: “You say that there’s nothing that you have done in examining your activities involving this issue–”
DuMont: “–there’s nothing that you have done that would warrant an indictment, that you would be surprised by that?”
Kelley: “That’s correct.”
DuMont: “Is that–am I correct to assume, then, that at no point no one ever offered you any dollars nor did you ever accept–”
Kelley: “You aren’t correct to assume anything other than what I just said. . . .”
In the event, Kelley had taken $19,000, was indicted, pleaded guilty, and received a relatively lenient one-year sentence after agreeing to cooperate with the continuing Operation Incubator probe. His reconciliation with DuMont paved the way for him to be invited back on the show June 11–the evening of his sentencing–as the only guest, with DuMont and Roeser. He didn’t make it. DuMont thinks he “took a dive”; Kelley says a situation came up involving his elderly parents at home that kept him from being there.
The result was an unusual, subdued two-man show, with calls coming in both attacking and defending the absent former alderman. DuMont and Roeser steadfastly defended their friend against phone-in moralists who argued that he should not have been invited back after sentencing. Without condoning what he did, they spoke sometimes almost as if he had already served his time, and as if any condemnation of his actions would be nothing more than self-congratulatory self-righteousness. Once you’re in the club, it will take more than a few g’s under the table to knock you out.
Loyola’s Alan Gitelson saw it as one of the program’s finer hours. “Most journalists would be inclined to rid themselves of this burden, but Bruce laid it out very carefully. He wasn’t going to tear a person apart he’d known for years.”
“If you just take a single program, and tune in fresh,” says Gitelson, “I can appreciate the feeling that there is too much process and not enough substance. But if you follow it as a regular listener, you’ll learn as much if not more about Chicago politics than you can from any other media source–plus some about state politics, and a little on national. . . . Maybe its weakness is that it’s only an hour long. There’s always a comma at the end of the program. It’s always ‘to be continued.'”
Occasional listener, political writer, and Reader staffer Gary Rivlin doesn’t value that comma very highly. “There’s no analysis, not much inside dope,” he complains. “It’s just a livelier, noisier way of presenting the same old news. I want more from the single most respected political show there is. . . . They tell you whose star is rising and whose is falling and who’s on whose side. I’m sick of that. What do I care whether Lipinski is a smart or a dumb politician? It’s not much deeper than Michael Sneed.”
“I think you can learn a lot about professional politicians from the show,” responds Gitelson. “We’d damn well better learn about them, and there are not that many opportunities to do so.” Adds Phil Krone, “This is not a problem-solving program. That’s not its function. [Critics] are asking the program to be something it’s not primarily designed to be.”
If you know a particular issue well and care about it strongly, you may not enjoy hearing DuMont and his regulars mangle it or turn it into one-liners. But most of us don’t know that much about most issues, and all of us can be affected by the political perceptions of them, true or false. Most of the time Inside Politics squeezes by on its sheer zest and on our fascination with shop talk. Besides, there’s always next week.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.