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Iowa radio host is last word on politics
Jan Mickelson wouldn't budge. His friendly chat with Mitt Romney had veered into a discussion of abortion and Mormonism, and the Republican presidential hopeful -- eyes wide, arms waving -- was clearly annoyed.
"Let me once again say I understand my faith better than you do," Romney snapped.
"Well, I'm not sure," Mickelson replied, and the two went back at it, Romney angry and sarcastic, Mickelson polite but persistent.
Every weekday morning, from 9 to 11:30, Mickelson presides over the No. 1 talk-radio show in Iowa, giving him more sway over national politics than perhaps all but the biggest names in the broadcast business.
Most Iowans live in cities. However, there is plenty of space in between -- long stretches of interstate, endless acres of corn and soybeans -- where the radio offers a welcome companion. From his perch here in the studios of WHO-AM (1040), Mickelson reaches about 350,000 Iowans a week, twice the audience of his closest competition. That may be a pittance by big-city standards. But for a Republican campaigning in Iowa, which traditionally holds the first vote of the presidential race, the program is a must-stop -- and a pathway strewed with hidden perils.
"I wouldn't suggest that Jan is a kingmaker," said Steve Grubbs, a pollster and former chairman of the state GOP, who found nearly two-thirds of Iowa Republicans listen to talk radio. "But I would suggest he has the avenue you need to become king."
There is no mistaking the program's rightward tilt: Christianity, small government, free markets and sealed borders are good. Islam, teachers unions, the welfare state and the gay-rights movement are bad. But the host, a registered independent and self-described "Christian libertarian," is just as apt to fault President Bush ("very disappointing") and criticize former Massachusetts Gov. Romney for changing sides on abortion ("He's taken a pro-life position, but he's not a pro-lifer") as he is to lampoon liberals ("I emote, therefore I am").
Which makes "Mickelson in the Morning" -- his name is pronounced Michaelson -- a somewhat unlikely Republican redoubt. Any GOP candidate who shows up in Des Moines expecting a coddling from a fellow conservative is likely to be disappointed.
Mickelson prides himself on shunning the party talking points that many radio hosts treat as holy writ. He is set in certain beliefs -- a main one being a strict reading of the Constitution and its limits -- and the more Mickelson likes, or wants to like, a candidate, the tougher the grilling is likely to be. His studio dust-up with Romney involved the Mormon Church's opposition to abortion and Romney's past support for abortion rights. A video of their Aug. 2 confrontation has been downloaded nearly 200,000 times.
"Because I'm ideological, my instinct is to wrap myself around the purest candidates," Mickelson said in one of several off-air conversations. "And that's always a frustration, because none of them are."
Of the current crop, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani impresses Mickelson with his clear-eyed approach to fighting terrorism. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with his doggedness and good humor, is another favorite. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas probably comes closest to Mickelson's antiabortion, limited-government philosophy, but "he's not going to be a player this election cycle," Mickelson says.
No worries. Mickelson, 58, is used to being a man without a candidate. "I'm disenfranchised most of the time," he said, which, happily, leaves plenty of room for discussion. For above all, Mickelson loves to argue -- almost always politely, which is the Iowa way.
It is a passion that took him from a job sorting pig carcasses to a salary in the low six figures and a position as one of the most important political gatekeepers in Iowa.
Mickelson's father was a meat-cutter who moved his wife and three children -- Jan, a younger brother and a younger sister -- countless times, as jobs required. Harlan, in southwestern Iowa near the Nebraska border, is where the family stayed longest, living in an unheated farmhouse on the edge of town.
After graduating from high school in 1967, Mickelson followed his father into the local pork plant, where he handled 5,000 hogs a day, sorting them by weight and grade. He worked alone, in a freezer, and to kill time he alternately sang and argued with himself, up one side an issue and down the other. The arguing proved good training for talk radio.
Mickelson grew up listening to WHO, an Iowa institution, where a young Ronald Reagan got his start in broadcasting.
Mickelson was a Paul Harvey fan; together, they shared lunch hours at the plant, Harvey's conservative commentary pouring from the dashboard of Mickelson's hand-me-down Dodge. Today, Mickelson honors Harvey by drinking a morning cup of Kava instant coffee, one of his hero's sponsors. "Terrible stuff," Mickelson says. "But Paul Harvey could sell me dirt."
It was a few years later, while living in Minnesota, that Mickelson first thought of a radio career. By then he was married; Mickelson met his wife in speech class at a small Baptist college in Wisconsin. (The couple celebrated their 37th anniversary in June.) One day, while Mickelson was working at a gas station in St. Paul, a customer mentioned he was going to broadcasting school in Minneapolis. "The light bulb went on," Mickelson said.
He earned his degree and began a succession of radio jobs -- broken up by a few years of teaching private school -- moving from small markets in Wisconsin to Columbia, S.C., then Cincinnati.
He experienced plenty of on-air embarrassments: the time he locked himself out of the studio and listened helplessly as John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" faded to dead air. The song haunts him to this day.
Or the time, as a novice talk jockey in La Crosse, Wis., he glanced at the calendar and mused about a strange holiday, Chi-CHAWK-kuh, wondering whether it was an Alaskan occasion of some sort. "The phone rang," Mickelson recalled, and a none-too-friendly voice informed him: "That's Chanukah, you putz."
"I didn't understand either of those words," he said, deadpan. "I do now."
In 1988, a death in his wife's family prompted Mickelson's return home. He called WHO -- "the only call letters I remembered from Iowa" -- and, to his surprise, was offered a morning talk show. He has been there ever since. His wife, Susanne, works as a paralegal in Des Moines. Their only child, Scott, is a financial broker in Southern California.
Mickelson is a large man with a smooth voice and the certitude of one used to having the last word, which, on air, he always does. At just over 6 feet tall, with a slight paunch, his square jaw and blocky glasses lend a passing resemblance to George Reeves, the TV actor who played Superman in the 1950s. It is a change for Mickelson, who recently shaved his beard of 20-plus years and shed 35 pounds. As a result, he is not nearly as recognizable, which may be a welcome thing -- for all his exposure, Mickelson doesn't seem like much of a people person.
Broadcasting last month from the state fair, he drew a steady stream of fans who gawked through the studio glass and waited for a word after. One was Chuck Dennis, 65, a retired trucker from Toledo, Iowa. "He tells it the way it is," Dennis said. But rather than linger, Mickelson chatted a bit then exited as quickly as good manners allowed.
What animates him are ideas, which Mickelson absorbs through books and taped lectures -- speeches, sermons, academic presentations -- which he collects as a hobby. At home in Ankeny, a bedroom community outside Des Moines, he may be happiest pedaling his bicycle, as much as 150 miles a week in the summer, listening to other people talk on his MP3 player.
The Mickelson program is not all politics all the time. He might discuss dieting, or coaching kids' soccer, along with the latest Washington scandal. Much of the appeal is the host's regular-guy persona -- though, it should be said, most regular guys don't quote esoteric scholars or presume to tell a White House candidate he is ill- informed about his own religion.
"Jan's not closed-up," said Mark Steinfruck, 65, a listener from Des Moines, who counts on two hands the number of Mickelson shows he has missed in 19 years. "I know he lives in Ankeny. I know he's married. I know his kid's grown. I know a cardinal was crashing in his laundry room window a couple years ago. I know he had a strange electrical problem that made all his clocks keep the wrong time."
Mickelson has his critics. Most Democrats have little use for the show. "It's not our audience," said Jeff Link, a party strategist. Gay- and immigration-rights advocates have accused Mickelson of insensitivity on more than one occasion. A few years ago there was talk of a boycott -- which fizzled -- when he called the gay support group at a local high school a "sodomy club."
"That's a prime example of how mean-spirited he can be," said Rudy Simms, director of the Des Moines Human Rights Commission, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the city. "He's very skilled at belittling people."
Mickelson shrugged off the criticism, saying anyone is welcome to come on his show and, marshaling the facts, explain why he is wrong. "If I brush up against someone's sensitivities, or how they feel, I don't worry about it," he said.
Take gay rights, for instance. In his view homosexuality is a sin, but no one else's business unless government gets involved by, say, recognizing same-sex marriage. Asked how he would react if a gay couple moved in next door, he replied, "I'd take them a casserole. . . . I'm not on a mission to fix people."
There was a hint of a mischief in Mickelson's voice as he addressed Romney: "Is Roe vs. Wade the law of the land?"
"It is now . . . " the presidential hopeful started to say, but was interrupted.
"You just flunked the Cleon Skousen test," Mickelson said.
Unwittingly, Romney had blundered into a trap.
The late W. Cleon Skousen was a constitutional scholar with a bent for conspiracy theories. He took a strict-constructionist view of the Constitution, insisting judges should stick to its literal language, without interpretation. Roe vs. Wade is cited as a prime example of judicial overreaching. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court ruled there was a constitutional "zone of privacy," extending that rationale to the decision that legalized abortion.
Skousen rejected that interpretation, and Mickelson shares his view, blaming all manner of social ills on judges who make law from the bench. Mickelson's solution: Ignore those rulings, or impeach the judges responsible.
"I want a president who will tell the Supreme Court, when it leaves its constitutional boundaries, to go take a flying leap," he told Romney, who smiled indulgently.
So far no major White House candidate has endorsed the notion -- too abstract, too hypothetical, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson demurred when Mickelson pressed him -- which is hardly surprising. "The one place I can be pure is the safety of my studio," Mickelson said. "Candidates don't have that luxury."
At bottom, talk radio is a ratings-driven medium that is more about entertainment than information. Still, there is little doubting Mickelson's conviction or the seriousness he brings to issues. He spends hours preparing for each show -- not counting the reading he does for pleasure -- perusing a dozen or so newspapers, surfing the Web and monitoring a trove of state and national newscasts he records around the clock.
If the price of a guest appearance is indulging certain intellectual eccentricities -- the Cleon Skousen test? -- it is one that Republican candidates gladly pay, especially given the number of Iowans who make Mickelson a part of their morning routine. Even Romney will probably return, said spokesman Kevin Madden, despite his last unhappy visit.
The host is unrepentant. "I'm not trying to trip people up," Mickelson said. "I'm trying to get them to reveal what they really are . . . and if they give me mush, then that is an invitation to ask them a tougher question.
"And if they give me more mush," he said with a smile, "then I have to hit them over the head with a shovel."