Monday, May 03, 2004
A lovely little article. Enjoy.
The Savage Mind
* Desperate to catch-up with Fox News, MSNBC hired the conservative commentator Michael Savage. It thought it was getting a ratings grabber and a New York Times-best-selling author. Instead, it qot a disaster. In a rare interview, Savage tells his side of the story. by Jake Tapper
You can be forgiven if you didn't watch Michael Savage tell a caller that he should get AIDS and die. You can be forgiven because that day a mere 123,000 people, out of passion or inertness, were watching another weekly edition of The Savage Nation on MSNBC. It was Saturday afternoon, July 5, and while most of America was occupying itself in more subdued ways, Savage, rejoicing in his anger as always, hammered away. And why shouldn't he? It was a good couple of weeks for him. Or at least for topics for his compassionately conservative show: The United States Supreme Court had not only condoned affirmative action; it had also overturned laws forbidding sodomy. The Supreme Court, Savage ranted, is "paving the way for all kinds of deviant behavior to become acceptable and even legal. And that means bestiality next." As far as Savage was concerned, America was falling apart.
Savage decided to take phone calls. That's when Bob Foster, a computer technician and confirmed prankster, began talking. The exchange went like this:
BOB FOSTER: ...I need to suggest that Don and Mike [a Washington, D.C.-area radio duo] should take over your show so you can go to a dentist appointment, because your teeth are really bad.
SAVAGE: So you're one of those sodomists. Are you a sodomite?
FOSTER: Yes, I am.
SAVAGE: Oh, you're one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig. You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage? You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis. Okay, do we have another nice caller here who's busy because he didn't have a nice night in the bathhouse, who's angry at me today? Get me another one. Put another sodomite on.
The producers cut to a video clip of two people grilling sausages as "The Marines' Hymn" swelled in the background.
Two days later. Savage would be fired by MSNBC in a brief statement from a flack: "Savage made an extremely inappropriate comment and the decision to cancel the program was notdifficult." But Savage wasn't finished. The next day, on his syndicated radio show--broadcast on almost 300 stations and reaching 5 million people weekly--Savage painted a broader picture. "The American people understand what went on.... I am a victim. They know very, very well that the left are like jackals in this country. They do not believe in freedom of speech; they only believe in freedom of their speech"
At that point, of course, Savage seemed indefensible. And yet a mere four months earlier, Savage was the hope and future of MSNBC, a channel no doubt desperate to counter the whomping Fox News Channel has been delivering to it the past couple of years. To the average viewer, hiring Joe Scarborough to do his best version of a Gen-X Bill O'Reilly was clearly a sign that the network executives were eager to gain legitimacy in conservative precincts and to find an even stronger, louder voice than O'Reilly's.
MSNBC president Erik Sorenson remembers the night late last year when he first heard that voice. As he recalls it, that epiphanic moment occurred when he was driving home from work and, he says, stumbled upon Savage's show on WABC radio in New York City. "I found him engaging and interesting and provocative," Sorenson says. Strangely, Sorenson, a media executive, had never heard of Savage. He did some research. He found out Savage had the fourth largest audience of any talk-radio host in America. Over the next few months, he tracked Savage as the pundit's book, The Savage Nation, climbed the New York Times best-seller list. All of which sounded great. "I thought," said Sorenson, "I need to call this gentleman."
Although Sorenson and other executives at the channel may have been hoping Savage would be the answer, within the halls of parent company NBC not everyone was happy. The reputation Savage had earned from his book and his radio show--which debuted in 1994 on San Francisco's KSFO--- prompted Tom Brokaw to express his concerns to NBC executives when it was announced that Savage had signed with the company in February. Is this the sort of man who embodies the values of NBC? Brokaw asked, according to a source. Savage, after all, had a long history of mouthing off. Like the time he said that Latinos "breed like rabbits," or that "every rotten, radical left-winger in this country" is more a threat than Al Qaeda. Back in 2000, he had derided a high school program to feed the homeless by saying that the female student volunteers could "go in and maybe get raped...because they seem to like the excitement of it. There's always the thrill and possibility they'll be raped in a Dumpster while giving out a turkey sandwich."
Clearly, Savage speaks his mind. When Sorenson read The Savage Nation, he was not troubled by it, even though Savage referred to MSNBC as More Snotty Nonsense By Creeps. Savage also didn't like the channel's talent. In the book, he calls anchor Ashleigh Banfleld "the mind-slut with a big pair of glasses.... She looks like she went from porno into reporting." On MSNBC's Buchanan and Press, he was asked if he had apologized to Banfield. Savage said he wouldn't. When Banfield learned of the incident, she cried.No matter. By March, Savage and his show would be on MSNBC."Savage is a strange enough character" says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, the trade magazine of the talk-radio world. "He might be doing a satire. I'm not totally sure that he's not." L. Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, earns his bread and butter searching for liberal media bias, and even he thinks of Savage as "a cartoon figure" who should not have been held up by MSNBC as a leading member of the right wing. "Savage is just purely nasty. I don't care if I agree with his positions on, say, the homosexual lifestyle. It was wholly inappropriate for him to say what he said." Bozell says that as soon as Savage signed his contract with MSNBC, conservatives knew it was only a matter of time before he'd step over the line.His onetime friend, the poet Neeli Cherkovski, sees Savage's current incarnation in part as the realization of his lifelong dream to be an entertainer. The two of them, in fact, were going to do an act together. In one routine, they were two nuclear bombs in a stockpile; in another they were two guys opening a Jewish deli in China. Back in the '70s, Cherkovski says, Savage admired controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. "I think a lot of this is [Savage's] longheld beliefs and opportunity and the need to be heard all coalescing," says Cherkovski. Savage, for his part, insists that his public and private beliefs are "in total accord."
Savage, however, has not always been Savage. He began his life as a Weiner--Michael Alan Weiner. A 1959 graduate of Jamaica High School in Queens, he received his college degree from Queens College in 1963 and left New York City in 1968 with his girifriend (now wife), Janet, for a year of study at the University of Hawaii, funded by a National Science Foundation fellowship. The plan was for him to get his master's degree in zoology and then return to teach in the Adirondacks. Savage and his girifriend rented a cottage. It was idyllic--until, as Savage recounted to me, bitterness in his voice, "friends stole from us. We were penniless"
Eager to get work, Savage turned to the university. But the world of academia was no help. Savage wanted to photograph birds, but as he recalls, the chairman of the zoology department "put up every roadblock he could." Savage changed his course of study to pharmacology. When the head of the pharmacology school offered him a job cleaning the basement lab, Savage took it. The job didn't last long. "The chairman told me, 'Not only do you have to clean rat shit; you have to kill animals to sacrifice them for experiments.' I said, I won't do it.'" The chairman fired him, but Savage stumbled upon another job, with the botany department, hunting for plants with medicinal properties in Tonga. He used that experience as the basis for his master's thesis in 1970. "The thesis was so good, the Harvard University Botanical Museum published it," Savage says. "It was a real feather in my cap. It showed that my thesis was special, perfect and so original it's a classic to this day." In 1972 he earned a second master's, in anthropology.
But by then Savage found Hawaii wanting. He couldn't get a Ph.D. in the field he was most interested in, ethnobotany. He was also having trouble at home. His son, Russell, born in 1970, was having a tough time at school, getting teased by Hawaiian boys. "They are the most racist little boys in the world, the Hawaiians," Savage says. "And I was not going to subject my son to the equivalent of being a Negro in the South."
Savage moved the family to Fairfax, California, and created his own ethnomedicine Ph.D. program at Berkeley. Having befriended Beat poet Alien Ginsberg--"he was almost like a rabbi to me"--while in Fiji, Savage hung out with members of the Beat crowd, including Neeli Cherkovski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the cofounder of City Lights Bookstore.
"It was assumed that he was somewhere on the non-Communist left," Ferlinghetti says. Still, Cherkovski says, although Savage didn't seem to have any problem with Cherkovski's homosexuality at the time, "he always had an inclination to speak against organized gay political rights. I saw what I consider to be conservative, or right-wing, tendencies in him from the beginning, things like the man is head of the family, in charge of his wife and kids. Old-fashioned, old-world beliefs."
By 1978, Savage had earned his degree, and his dreams of a professorship seemed within his grasp. "But there were no jobs for me," Savage says. "I was told, 'Fuck you--white men need not apply.'" He pursued jobs in botany, nutrition, anthropology, but nothing panned out--directly because of affirmative action, he claims. "It was a real awakening to the social engineering in this country. It's disgusting. It's un-American."
Savage admits that some job interviews got contentious because he would demand to see the resumes of other people to learn why he was not getting hired. "Fucking academicians," Savage says, "are like magicians behind their black cloaks. 'We are keepers of tradition; we need not explain ourselves to you peons.'"
Though his search for a home in the academic world was failing, Savage was making some money. Writing under his given name, Michael A. Weiner, Savage had already begun a career as an author. In 1972, Macmillan published Earth Medicine--Earth Foods: Plant Remedies, Drugs, and Natural Foods of the North American Indians. Then, in 1975, Macmillan published his Al Gore-ish sounding Plant a Tree: A Working Guide to Regreening America, in which he proclaimed the need for each state to have a "tree czar." In it, too, he singled out for special mention a California judge who gave people convicted of minor misdemeanors the choice of prison, a fine or the task of planting some trees. A 1980 book, Weiner's Herbal, advocated the therapeutic uses of marijuana, as well as treating gonorrhea with Indian corn and using an ointment containing witch-hazel bark for hemorrhoids. Throughout the '70s and '80s, Savage would remain one of the leading authors in homeopathy and herbology.
Savage was doing other writing too. As Cherkovski recalls, during the early 1980s "Savage wrote some inflammatory pieces about bathhouses--a Xerox, this kind of crudely done thing--which he passed out halfheartedly throughout San Francisco's North Beach, kind of bemoaning gay sex." In Savage's 1986 book, Maximum Immunity, he spoke of the need for the gay community to "accept the blame" for the AIDS crisis and came out in favor of mandatory AIDS testing. No publisher, Savage claims, would touch the next book he wanted to write, Immigrants and Epidemics, in which he would attempt to link the rise of immigration to specific epidemics. Savage saw political correctness trumping science. "It really burned me up. I saw emerging illnesses from the unchecked flood of immigrants. Combine that with AIDS, which was just emerging in America, and it was a public-health disaster waiting to happen."
Savage found work heading up the herbal division for the nutritional-supplement manufacturer Twinlab. Under the auspices of a vitamin company, he began conducting a weekly call-in radio show on a New York City station, WOR-AM. "It dawned on me that I was good at radio," he says. "And whenever I had done book tours, the hosts would tell me I had a great voice." He hadn't thought about a second career until his book on immigrants was rejected. So, taking on the nom d'air "Michael Savage," he recorded a makeshift radio program and sent out tapes to around 400 radio stations, hoping someone might find his rants interesting. KGO, in San Francisco, bit and on the evening of March 21, 1994, brought Savage in to do late-night fill-in work. He quickly hopped to number one in afternoon drive time at competing KSFO-AM, then got national syndication. But it wasn't as easy as it looked. After his first show, on which he argued against affirmative action, Savage was deluged with calls from angry San Franciscans. "I drove home saying to myself, I will never, ever do radio again.' I had been Mr. Friendly, Dr. Friendly, Dr. Vitamin. Who could dislike him? But the minute I expressed my political views, I was hated. I had no idea there was so much hate in the world."
At the moment, I think Michael Savage may hate me. It's not a particularly pleasant feeling.
In one of our conversations before his meltdown, I raised the topic of a letter Savage wrote to Allen Ginsberg back in March 1970, unearthed by a contributor to Radar magazine. The letter goes like this: "After speaking to you on phone about how nice black-white thing is in mountain villages in Fiji," Savage wrote, "I walked downstairs to school courtyard where little known black brother looks at me, takes my hand gently, we do some old world lower-east side finger tricks and he peacefully kisses the back of my hand--I do the same for his hand.
"I told him about our brief talk and he says 1 must have felt the vibes.' "
When I read the letter to Savage, he says, "I'm not going to deal with the salacious issues that these faggots come up with," he told me. "If I know a gay, suddenly everyone's gay? It's disgusting! Should I drop my pants so you can take a look at my dick to see if I'm a Jew?"
That won't be necessary, I said, surprised at his tenor and his temper. He had been easygoing with me in general; this eruption came as a surprise. Indeed, I'd only brought up the letter because Savage had told me he was eager to discuss his time in Fiji.
"It's a very sore subject with me," he said, his voice sounding more conciliatory. "I'm sick of it already." He was, he said, "a pioneer in the field of vitamins and healthy eating, but all that reporters ask about is sex, sex, sex, sex. I don't understand the mind of American journalism."
Critics might argue that Savage brings up sex a great deal. He has ranted that the United States is ruled by "degenerates on the left who want to sell Americans on the idea that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, even sex with animals is normal." In his book, he muses about people who say his anger turns off female listeners. "It's probably true," he writes. "Women are afraid of angry men. Particularly in this homosexualized, feminized America."
In 1983 a small publishing house in San Diego brought out a collection of seven apparently autobiographical short stories Weiner had written from 1967 through 1982. The tales, about a character named Samuel Trueblood, owe something to the Beat influence of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. In one story, Savage writes sympathetically about Trueblood taking his fiancee for an abortion. In another, he writes of a tryst with an ex-lover: "Instant arousal!! Stiff and ready and wet and soft we moved around the room.... Four hours of intense, sweat producing, sheet soiling dirty, filthy love and sex." A woman has skin "softer than that Northern Indian prostitute in Fiji whose covering was as soft as that of my own penis; a phallus come to life in female form."
Trueblood, a character of humble Jewish origins who, like his creator, had dreams of "becoming a serious writer who would write popular books about the right foods to eat, how to avoid being swindled, [and] corruption in government"--has latent homosexual feelings. These are revealed in passages such as this one, penned in Honolulu in 1973: "Ever since his early teens he had been plagued with questions about his sexuality. 'Am I gay, or am I straight?' he would wonder endlessly." A first-person Trueblood story written seven years later in California states that Trueblood knows his skirt-chasing "may be a homosexuality unlived, of that I am aware. So what? I choose to override my desires for men when they swell in me, waiting out the passions like a storm, below decks. It is simply a matter of seeing what it's like to fight a 'weakness.'"
Asked about those passages, Savage says, "Everyone has some latent homosexual feelings. It doesn't mean you have to act them out."
To be sure, he has left Trueblood and his past behind. "People change," he says. "That doesn't make them hypocrites; it means they evolve. I was a boy then; I'm a man now.... I had no idea what I was involved in when I was younger. And the movement changed; it went from being a democratic left to a fascistic left."
After his firing, Savage went into seclusion and refused to speak with me. Then, the day this piece was going to press, he called--because, he said, he "wanted to be fair." When I asked him about his dismissal, he said this: "The man made a personal attack on me. Not at my ideas, but he attacked my vanity. He attacked my looks. And it got very down and very dirty very fast. I was surprised that my comments went out on the air. I assumed it was a conversation just between me and a very frank caller. In radio, you have a seventeen second delay. I said, 'Cut,' and he kept up the tirade in my ear."
He believes, too, that MSNBC made a mistake in firing him. "There was a lot of regret by MSNBC executives. They loved the show, they loved me. They knew I was the most talented person on the channel. That's why I was the best-paid person on the channel."
Days before he was fired, he told me that "Fox would hire me in a minute. And believe it or not, CNN would, too." (Not true, says a Fox News Channel spokesperson. "Not a chance would we ever be interested." According to CNN, "[We] had not pursued nor are we pursuing Mr. Savage. And we have no interest in him")
Maybe Savage doesn't need TV. His radio show continues essentially as strong as ever, and he has another book due out in December, The Enemy Within.
And yet Savage may be setting his sights even farther afield. I asked him, before his firing, now that he had conquered radio and publishing, plus scored his own TV show, what next?
"What I would really like to do, what I am going to do in the next year or so, is I want to do music," Savage said. With a heavy-metal band providing backup--he favors the Metallica of 1987--he wants to tie his rhetoric to music. "Not rap," he says, "but like it. I may invent a new genre.
"I could reach a lot more people," he added. "Especially the young."