Ruling Sets Off Whole Lot of Chatter on the Airwaves
The airwaves over northern Illinois were awash with a midnight cacophony of baseball, mariachi music and static when the opening strains of a soul dusty pierced the din, played by a talk show host out of Cleveland.
It was “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
The sly use of Billy Paul’s 1972 ode to an illicit love affair was about as oblique as American talk radio got on Thursday, a day consumed by liberal euphoria and conservative outrage over the Paula Corbin Jones decision, a windstorm of chatter that swept on for hours in sputtering bellows and smart-aleck quips, signifying little more than dismayed confusion.
Illumination was hard to find in the air across America the day after Jones’ sexual harassment suit against President Clinton was dismissed by a federal judge in Arkansas. But there were brief, delicate moments of revelation that burbled out from the geysers of invective, odd exchanges that showed even doctrinaire talk-meisters at times staking out uncomfortable territory over a case that both repelled and fascinated perplexed listeners.
There was the spectacle of the titanic voice of the Clinton opposition, Rush Limbaugh, sighing to his ardent ditto-heads that “there’s not gonna be any impeachment, I don’t care what Kenneth Starr’s got.” And there was the Chicago feminist radio duo of Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey agreeing with a peeved female caller that Clinton had won himself a “molestation mulligan.”
“I approve of the job Clinton’s doing for the most part,” said rattled late-night host Joe Arnold over the 50,000-watt transmitter of WHAS, the “Bluegrass Voice” of Louisville, Ky. But how, Arnold lamented, “do you respect the guy? I know he won, but is the president someone to look up to? Most people say no. And that’s just sad.”
That was the message a subdued Limbaugh tried to convey for three hours Thursday to his 20 million listeners. For 50 minutes, Clinton’s taunter talked solo, repeatedly promising his audience he would take their calls. But there was too much to say, too many shards of abandoned hopes to sort through before he accepted his daily dittos.
There was his despair with polls that show the American public wants Clinton to remain in office. His defiant insistence that Americans have no respect “for this man.” His fleeting desire that “the facts will get out.” And his glum expectation that Clinton will finish out his term--a prospect, he told listeners, they now have to accept.
“If you’re not gonna be happy until Clinton’s gone,” Limbaugh said, “you’re not gonna be happy until January 2001"--when Clinton’s successor is sworn in.
His mood fluctuated in single sentences. His promise of history’s vengeance against Clinton gave way to moody realism. When Samuel, a federal judge’s law clerk in Washington, called to predict that the Jones case would be resurrected by an appeals court, Limbaugh would have none of it.
“We’ve been waiting for six years, and in those six years, people keep saying wait until this happens, wait until that happens,” Limbaugh said sourly. “And none of it ever happens.”
For nihilist humorists like New York’s Don Imus and Howard Stern, the easiest course was to scorch the earth on all sides, napalming Clinton, Jones, their lawyers and television surrogates with equal abandon.
“The fat weasel has done it again,” Imus muttered before he dialed presidential advisor and defender Paul Begala, congratulated him, then promptly hung up.
Starr fared no better, chalked off as a “mealy-mouthed Mr. Magoo.” The Jones case had given Imus easy marks for months, but he sounded weary of it all. “This charade is now over, and now we can go back to the business of running the country.”
A few hours later, Stern, more fascinated with the plight of a teenage caller with a stuttering problem than with the wreckage of the Jones case, offered only that “I thought the miracle of the week was Paula Jones’ dismissal. But this is even more incredible.”
If Stern was bored, other ranters were willing to take up the slack. Mike Molloy on Chicago’s WLS predicted that the demise of Jones’ case means “that the TV news outfits are gonna drop Susan Carpenter-McMillan [Jones’ spokeswoman] like she has flesh-eating bacteria.”
And after playing “Me and Mrs. Jones,” left-leaning Rick Gilmore told WTAM’s Cleveland audience that “some lady called up twice and wanted to talk about the president’s penis. Certain words I won’t use on the radio, and that’s one,” he said, having said it.
Brenda Montgomery interrupted her mild defense of Clinton’s relations with women, speaking on Chicago’s black-oriented WVON, to run a commercial from a roach repellent firm. Even the taped narrator provided inadvertent comment on the news from Little Rock, Ark., telling male listeners: “We also sell King Solomon’s Gold, a sexual stimulant for men. You’ll be singing ‘Happy days are here again.’ ”
Sardonic gibes were about all ex-Marine Oliver L. North--of Iran-Contra fame--could muster to stave off his mounting disgust with the previous day’s ruling. “Live from our nation’s capital,” North said on his “Common Sense Radio” show, “this is your place for the truth, the whole truth, where you are never harassed. . . . If you are Bubba and you like the girls at the workplace, you have pretty much free rein.”
North was joined on the air by Fred from Tampa, Fla. Fred, a retired gynecologist, explained that over his career, he always made sure to “have a nurse in the examining room at all times.” If Clinton wasn’t the president, Fred chimed in, “he’d be a date rape candidate.”
Fred stayed on with North for quite a while, anxious to mete out verbal justice.
But for many listeners elsewhere in the country, the Jones verdict was a different sort of watershed. Jones’ four-year day in court was done and it was time, they said, to get on to other subjects. “I am so sick of this issue,” said one caller to the Ronn Owens Show on KABC in Los Angeles.
“The political climate has become so sleazy,” Owens agreed. “I don’t get it. Why would somebody go into politics?”
A female caller followed with her own curt post-mortem.
“I am so happy this is over, so people can go back to work, especially the president,” she said. “This has been dragging on for too long.”
But not too long to turn the knife one last time.
“I’d like,” the caller said, “to see Paula get a legitimate job.”
Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago and staff writer Daniel Yi in Los Angeles contributed to this story.