RADIO : The Prager Prism : Dennis Prager has eight hours a week to talk on the radio about ‘the great issues of life’; so, what makes him so important?
One Sunday night last February, at the height of the Gulf War, a caller to KABC-AM challenged host Dennis Prager’s vociferous support of America’s military involvement. Frustrated by his inability to counter Prager’s argument that the war was “just and moral,” the caller resorted to an ad hominem attack, expressing an opinion evidently shared by many listeners to the high-rated show. “You’re so arrogant,” he said. “You think whatever you say is so important.”
“You’re right,” Prager replied matter-of-factly, seeming neither perturbed nor offended. “I do think that what I have to say is important and worthwhile. If I didn’t think so, then why in the world would I want to waste my Saturday and Sunday nights here in the studio, or waste your time listening? That would be ludicrous.”
In the wasteland of polemical repetition that marks general-interest talk radio, Dennis Prager is unique. His two shows on KABC (790)--9 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays, and 7 p.m. to midnight on Sundays--are devoted entirely to the issues of morality, ethics and values. Every topic discussed--from war, gang violence and politics, to dating, religion and parenting--is viewed through this prism.
“Eight hours a week, ladies and gentlemen, to talk about the great issues of life,” Prager, 43, often says as a lead-in to a monologue that begins each show. Armed with a muscular intellect, a stentorian voice that booms from his 6-foot, 4-inch frame, the well-honed oratory of someone who gives several speeches a week, and the eloquence of a seasoned essayist, Prager delivers these impromptu commentaries on any subject that catches his fancy or provokes his ire--more often the latter.
On a recent Saturday night, a few days after George Bush was uncharacteristically passionate in asking Congress to delay the $10-billion loan guarantees requested by Israel for housing construction, Prager spoke in polished diction without notes for 15 minutes, sharply rebuking the President’s actions on moral grounds, accusing him of lacking a moral Weltanshauung.
“I’ve always contended,” he said, “that you can tell a great deal about someone by what he or she gets angry at. And when you see that someone gets far angrier at the only democratic ally of the United States in the Middle East--the country that more than any other country in the world votes with the United States in the United Nations--than he does with the totalitarian rulers of China, then you have a right to question: What animates this man’s passions?”
Should a casual listener, aware that Prager is an observant Jew, conclude that his defense of Israel’s loan-guarantee request was based on religion or heritage, Prager will soon debunk his assumption by criticizing the policies of the Jewish state’s ruling Likud party.
And should another dial-scanning listener, unfamiliar with Prager, infer that such Bush-bashing (Prager calls the President “a Republican apparatchik”) comes from a left-wing radical, he’ll soon have reason to think again--the next time Prager attacks the American Civil Liberties Union.
Unlike other talk-show hosts--such as KFI’s Rush Limbaugh, who is unfailingly conservative and Republican, or KABC’s Michael Jackson and KGIL’s Carole Hemingway, who rarely sway from liberal positions--Prager can’t be pigeonholed by political ideology. Self-identified liberal callers frequently complain that he’s too conservative, while conservative callers accuse him of being liberal. He stands firmly pro-choice on abortion, but can empathetically articulate the pro-lifers’ convictions. Though he feels American blacks are “completely entitled” to forced affirmative action programs, he opposes these programs on the grounds “that affirmative action ends up harming blacks rather than helping.” Having publicly protested both the Vietnam War and the incursion into Panama, he repeatedly offered eloquent arguments for “fighting evil” in the Gulf War. He’s a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, because, as he told one caller, “wherever religion has not allowed for (separation), religion has become a regressive force”; but 15 minutes later he confided to another that his “deepest worry about this society is the death of religion.”
Prager is himself comfortable with only one label. “I’m a passionate centrist,” he says. “That means that I care far more about good and evil than about conservative and liberal. My great parting with conservatives is over this question. Conservatives generally ask, ‘What is good for America?’ I first ask, ‘What is good?’ If you’re concerned only with what is good for America, then how are you morally any different from an Iraqi who asks, ‘What is good for Iraq?’ ”
The source of his centrism is, in fact, represented by the 10 Commandments, the appearance of which codified morality and ethicality. Prager adamantly believes that our world is judged by a “God whose primary demand is that we treat each other well.” (Such pronouncements inspired George Burns, a frequent listener, to claim that if he ever films the second sequel to “Oh God,” Prager will get the title role.) The phrase defines what he calls ethical monotheism.
“Ethical monotheism means that we are morally accountable to something higher,” Prager says, explaining that only in such a universe are racism and bigotry--even cannibalism, rape and murder--inherently prohibited. He asserts that in the world of the atheist, where there’s no God to measure morality and ethicality, these despicable acts and attitude are left to individuals to judge, resulting in moral relativism that can beget evils like Nazism, “which was Social Darwinism writ large.”
Apropos of his ethos, Prager named his recently founded Micah Center for Ethical Monotheism after the Hebrew prophet who stated that God requires humans to “do justly and to love mercy.” The purpose of the activist educational center, he says, is to have “a place of activity” devoted to his life’s mission of spreading ethical monotheism through every available means. One of its first programs will be “Dinners in Black and White” to combat racism on a grass-roots level by allowing otherwise unacquainted blacks and whites to eat in each other’s homes. Other aims are to develop ethics curricula for parochial and private schools; to defend Western culture against the “lies” propagated by the multiculturalists; to battle religious extremism--as evinced by Khomeini-like Islamic fundamentalism; and to counter “secular extremism, which more often than not these days,” he says, “comes from the left.”
The latter topic, often inspired by news items pertaining to so-called “political correctness,” pops up frequently on Prager’s show. Prager contends that the ongoing disintegration of “society’s moral fabric” has been aided by the ironic perversion of traditional liberalism, which was the philosophy of self-help, into the politics of blame. A lifelong registered Democrat, he laments that the party has been abandoned “to the likes of Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy.” It is no surprise that the majority of antagonistic calls are from liberals, and that Prager’s rebuttals neatly dovetail politics with morality.
Prager’s repeated on-air snipes at Stanford University, which acquiesced to activist demands that it abolish its Western Civilization requirement in favor of more obscure Third World poets and writers, were predictable. The university’s action dripped with irony, he pointed out in several diatribes; it was, after all, Western civilization that first abolished slavery, gave the world democracy and human rights, and elevated the status of women.
One listener who tired of these attacks on the left was Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby). “I used to listen to his show,” she says, “but I don’t anymore. I got very tired of his knocking Stanford and the ACLU. I resent his using the airwaves to get back at people he doesn’t like. He’s very disparaging.”
Dear Abby seems to be in a minority. Whether he inspires devotion (“Thoughtmasters,” a 90-member ad hoc listening group, meets once a month in Orange County to discuss Prager’s shows) or repulsion, Prager earns his audience’s respect and loyalty. According to Arbitron, his shows regularly outpoint the nearest competition by about 2 to 1. With a 10 to 15 share range, he more than doubles the overall average for KABC, the city’s most popular AM station. Many callers say they follow his frequent advice to turn off the television and listen at home, not just in the car.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss admits that he enjoys Prager, despite disagreeing about half the time. “I think Dennis Prager is one of the few radio personalities whose intellect is clear,” Dreyfuss says. However: “It’s his manner, his style, that I don’t like. He has this pomposity of delivery that, after a while, makes you want to reach through the radio and slap him across the face. He takes these moral positions and does not bother to explain them thoroughly. In his arguments, I want to hear the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. Because when he does put forth an explanation of something, whether I agree or not, it’s good.”
Director Jerry Zucker (“Ghost”), who often tapes the shows, says that Prager “is a very clear thinker. Not that you agree with all his conclusions, but he thinks in a very linear, logical way. Sometimes he’ll surprise you. You wouldn’t think of Dennis as being in favor of so-and-so, but then you’ll realize the lines of thought are completely consistent with his beliefs.”
His conceptions of good and evil having been “very much” influenced by Prager’s arguments for ethical monotheism, Zucker says he “lightened” Bruce Joel Rubin’s “Ghost” script to more clearly equate evil acts with eventual retribution.
Like most general-interest talk- show hosts, Prager receives many fewer calls from women than men--unless the dominant topic happens to be of a more personal nature; “micro,” he calls it, as opposed to the broader “macro” issues. Some nights only one or two women will phone in, even though KABC says Prager has an almost equal number of female listeners. Mary Ellen Strote, the former executive editor of Moxie magazine, has listened to Prager since he first joined the station. She hypothesizes that women may not like him because they find his classification system condescending. “I infer that ‘micro’ means of less importance,” she says. “But to me and many women those topics are more properly called essential or fundamental.
“On the other hand,” Strote continues, “I keep listening because there’s something in his voice that’s comforting, like a stern parent saying over and over, ‘Be good, be good, be good.’ ”
Asked if he knows where his passion for values, ethics and morality springs from and when it began, Prager offers a brief autobiography, aware that the major events and turning points have brought him to the fulfillment of a childhood vision, as though guided by destiny. “When people got hurt, I cried--and still do; it’s as simple as that,” he says. “I’m telling you, I am doing today exactly what I wanted to be doing when I was 5: fighting bad people.”
Raised in Brooklyn by Orthodox parents, Prager attended Hebrew day schools until high school graduation, then entered Brooklyn College, where as a sophomore he was awarded a junior-year-abroad scholarship after dazzling the interviewers with his skills in English, Hebrew, Russian and French. At the end of that sojourn at the University of Leeds in England, Prager took time to travel. While visiting a friend on a kibbutz in Israel, he was introduced to a wealthy man who sponsored brief trips by young non-Israeli Jews to the Soviet Union for the purpose of smuggling in Jewish religious articles, like prayer shawls, and smuggling out information about Soviet Jews. The year was 1969, two years after the U.S.S.R. had broken off relations with Israel, and conditions for Jews there were particularly oppressive.
For 30 days, Prager says, he lived the life of a spy, meeting clandestinely with Jewish dissidents in parks at midnight and climbing over walls to avoid the authorities. He has, until now, kept the details of his trip a secret in order to protect the ongoing information network. Only the recent ostensible breakup of the Soviet Union, obviating the need for further covert escapades, has freed him to speak publicly. Telling the story, his face reflects what was obviously a profoundly moving--and life-changing--experience.
“That trip was really what shaped my life,” he says.
He returned home in the forefront of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, delivering four lectures a week to Jewish organizations on the deplorable conditions there. He also co-authored, with Joseph Telushkin, “The Eight Questions People Ask About Judaism” and sold the self-published copies at his lectures. The book was so successful that he traveled to 45 countries on the proceeds. (Simon & Schuster later published a revised edition, “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.” Prager then authored “Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism.”)
One day Prager decided that he was capable of lecturing about more than Soviet Jewry. He approached one of the organizations to which he’d given speeches and offered to talk on why so many members of his generation were alienated from Judaism and the Jewish people. For the grand compensation of $25, his speaking career was launched.
Today, at $2,500 per, Prager averages several speeches a week on topics that mirror the breadth and focus of his radio show. It tells much about his growing reputation that the vast majority of these talks are delivered well outside of KABC’s radio signal, to people all over the country, as well as Britain, Australia, Canada, Israel, Korea and Central America.
Some of that reputation can be traced to Ultimate Issues, a quarterly journal of opinion that grew directly out of his lecturing; it is, he says, his favorite paid activity. Written and edited entirely by Prager, it has at least 8,000 subscribers, many of them renowned scholars and writers such as Julius Lester and Harold Kushner.
Prager’s start as a broadcaster nine years ago seems as serendipitous as that of his lecturing career. L.A. School Board member Roberta Weintraub was impressed by one of his speeches. She recommended Prager to George Green, then KABC’s vice president and general manager (today he’s president), who needed a new moderator for Sunday’s 10 p.m.-midnight show, “Religion on the Line,” in which a priest, minister and rabbi field theological questions from callers. Green offered Prager a tryout, with program director Wally Sherwin pushing the console buttons. An hour into the show, Sherwin handed Prager a note to read on the air: “Announce that you’ll be back next week.”
He has been back every week since, using his position as “Religion on the Line” moderator to extol the virtues of all ethical monotheistic religions, not just his own. Catholic, Protestant and even the occasional Muslim clergy guest panelists are among his most ardent admirers; L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony credits Prager with building important ecumenical bridges between all the faiths. Prager says he derives the most pleasure when callers tell him he was a powerful factor in their new or rediscovered religious devotion.
In 1985, Green gave Prager his own weeknight talk show. It lasted two years, and a year later was replaced by the weekend slots.
One of the more curious aspects of Prager’s show is what’s not on it: an unending stream of commercials. It has the fewest of any regular KABC show. Despite the size of his audience, and demographics that are an advertiser’s dream, during some hours Prager is interrupted only once or twice. Green acknowledges that his sales staff has problems selling Prager to sponsors, who may feel that their products are trivialized when mentioned in the midst of heated philosophical debate: “Here’s this guy talking about good and evil and how to survive in the world, and then he says, ‘We’ll be back in a moment. And now, I want to tell you about this wonderful food product.’ ”
Asked how long Prager’s contract runs with KABC, Green shouted into his speakerphone, “Forever.”
It’s Sunday night, 15 minutes before his 7:06 air time. Dennis Prager walks into the station holding a gag mirror that laughs when it’s picked up. Laughing himself, he says he plans to use it on some callers (though he never does). He’s in a good mood tonight, not least because his 8-year-old son David, the child of his first marriage, is in tow.
Prager takes his place at the microphone, replacing restaurant critic Elmer Dills. David, who’s been watching his father work since he was 4, comes in to share a Hostess cupcake he bought in the vending machine outside. He jumps on his father’s lap, and for the minute before the show begins, Prager rocks him gently. As the opening notes of Prager’s theme music can be heard through the monitor, David jumps off. They will continue to wave at each other and exchange signs of affection all through the show, whether David is in the studio or separated by the glass of the screener’s booth.
Instead of a long, single-subject commentary, Prager touches briefly on several subjects: a recap of his previous night’s words about Bush and Israel; Bush’s mishandling of the Kurds and Saddam Hussein after the cease-fire; what to do when one doesn’t like the way one’s spouse dresses; the defeat at the polls of Socialist Democrats in Sweden; and the way people choose mates through singles’ ads. What he finds interesting, he says, is that these ads stress activities and personality, not values.
“I love Chinese food, movies and having fun,” he says, making up a typical singles ad. “Into tennis, surfing and sailing. Do you like walking on a beach? I love walking on a beach'--as if that is what encompasses a human being. That is part of the reason people so often get hurt in life, because it is very possible to love surfing, to love Chinese food and be a despicable human being. It never seems to occur to people that you can be a mass murderer and a charmer.”
Then Prager takes calls. Tara, 32, relates her experiences with her husband’s poor taste in clothes. Michael, 53, a doctor calling on a car phone, offers some thoughts on the Kurds. Larry, 32, reports on the California Republican Convention he’s just attended. Bob, 28, asks about a legal-ethical system based on the Bible. And on and on. All night long, as on every one of his shows, the lines are jammed with those anxious to talk to him.
Call after call after call, no matter what the subject, Prager’s response becomes a thread in a fabric that ultimately reveals his vision of a properly moral universe. With his gray hair combed boyishly onto his forehead, his face reflecting the intensity with which he listens to every word, he is the portrait of sincerity; the man obviously loves his job.
“My fondest wish in the world,” he says, “is the wish of the Jewish prophets: All mankind will be one group to do what God most wants--be decent to each other.”
When another caller, Daniel, 31, closes out the third hour of the night, before “Religion on the Line” commences, by talking about the historical evils committed in the name of God and the Bible, Prager uses the opportunity to summarize his most fundamental beliefs.
“One of the reasons that I have a different view of the world than a lot of people,” he says, “is that I assume rottenness is normal. I am so amazed that societies have been created that are democratic, that have abolished a lot of poverty. Take poverty, for a moment. It was pointed out to me by a Catholic theologian that poverty is universal and natural; affluence is created by people. The same thing with morality. Miserable conduct--mass murder, rape, torture, everything--strikes me as very much part of the human species. Democracy was created; abolishing slavery was created. Slavery is natural--'I’m stronger than you, you work for me.’ It makes perfect sense.
“Most people assume goodness is normal, and then they look in bewilderment at all the terrible things that were done. So my question is not ‘How much bad did these groups do?,’ which is a very important question, but, ‘How come any good developed out of this particular civilization known as the West?’ ”
“One of the reasons that I have a different view of the world than a lot of people is that I assume rottenness is normal.”
ON GOOD AND EVIL
“I care far more about good and evil than about conservative and liberal. My great parting with conservatives is over this question.”
“I do think that what I have to say is important. If I didn’t think so, then why would I want to waste my Saturday and Sunday nights here in the studio?”