I first listened to David Brudnoy, the legendary talk radio host and acclaimed Boston University journalism professor, in December of 1993. His guest that night was a thirteen-year-old Framingham, Massachusetts boy who had been the focal point of local controversy: the child had attended a Boston Kwanzaa celebration hosted by a self-styled “community activist” who told the boy (whose late father was African-American) that he could stay, but that his mother (who was white) had to leave, as the Kwanzaa event was supposedly for blacks only.
Brudnoy went on a magnificent tear during that particular broadcast, condemning the addle-brained thought process that led the “community activist” to kick out the child’s mother. It was wonderful listening to Brudnoy denounce the intellectual bankruptcy of the activist’s behavior. I could tell right away that this guy was a genius, and made a point of listening to him nightly.
Brudnoy, a graduate of Yale, Harvard and Brandeis, seemed to know everything; he was more erudite, more intellectually disciplined, more attuned to the world than even some of my best teachers. He filled his listeners’ minds to capacity with ideas, and proved capable of fending off any caller’s challenge to the tenets of his libertarian-conservative philosophy. It was through Brudnoy that I began to develop my own positions: skepticism of the efficacy of government, opposition to quota and preference based affirmative-action programs (or, as Brudnoy called it, “active retribution”), wariness of the excessive mixture of religion and politics. Brudnoy was every bit as charismatic as he was intelligent, and I frequently dreaded having to turn his show off in order to get enough sleep for the next day of school.
Brudnoy was hospitalized in October 1994, nearly dying of viral pneumonia; the next month, Brudnoy acknowledged that he had AIDS. I cried as I read his November 17 interview with the Boston Globe, as he described the frustrations and anxieties of his life since being diagnosed with HIV in 1988. I was also stunned by his claim that his more sophisticated listeners had figured out he was gay; I knew Brudnoy was strongly opposed to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but I had concluded that his views were related to his libertarianism, not his homosexuality.
A few weeks later, on January 5, 1995, Brudnoy was back on the air, broadcasting from a home studio created for him by WBZ Radio. I again fought back tears as I listened to Brudnoy describe the events leading up to his hospitalization; I was a little shocked when he noted that he was “scared shitless” by the experience, with the expletive going over the airwaves uncensored.
Just a few days prior to Brudnoy’s return broadcast, I completed a lengthy essay for my high school newspaper condemning what I regarded as an escalation in anti-white sentiment among African-Americans. The essay was heavily influenced by Brudnoy’s criticisms of such figures as Louis Farrakhan, and just before the essay was published, I mailed an advance copy to him, with a cover letter expressing my admiration. I didn’t know if he’d be able to respond, considering that he was just getting back to a normal schedule, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
Two weeks later, I received a one-page typewritten letter from Brudnoy, thanking me for sending along the article and expressing gratitude for my comments about him. He apologized for the brevity of the letter, blaming his illness, but he really didn’t have to do so. The length of the letter was irrelevant; I was just happy that he read the essay and liked it.
In mid-March, Brudnoy’s producer contacted my school and informed me that Brudnoy had mentioned the article to him and proposed that I appear as a guest on his program. I immediately said yes, although I was nervous about how I would sound.
On April 27, I headed over to Brudnoy’s home studio on Commonwealth Avenue. I was greeted by an aide and waited in Brudnoy’s ornate living room. His walls were completely covered in paintings and pictures; for a moment, I thought I had stepped into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts! It was one of the most beautiful residences I had ever visited.
A few minutes later, Brudnoy came out to greet me. I couldn’t help being surprised by how frail he appeared; despite his health maladies, I still expected him to physically match the strength of his still-vibrant voice. I shook his hand and walked into the studio, which was filled wall-to-wall with books and autographed photos of previous guests. My God, I thought to myself, he has a personal library.
At 9:05 pm, my segment began. I no longer have a recording of the broadcast, but in a way, it’s just as well, as I waged a valiant, though losing, battle against nervousness. Brudnoy politely advised me to relax after the first commercial break, and believe me, I tried, but it was tough. It wasn’t exactly a disaster, but I don’t think I came across as professionally as I had hoped. I was trying to sound as “adult” as possible, but I didn’t come close to hitting the mark, or at the very least, not close enough for my standards.
Towards the end of the first hour, Brudnoy once again reassured me during a commercial break that I was doing fine, and that one day I could possibly host my own show, replacing either WBZ’s overnight or weekend host.
“Or maybe…you!” I responded, and we both laughed.
At the end of the broadcast, I shook Brudnoy’s hand again and thanked him. He once again said I did great, and advised me to keep in touch. I left the station exhausted, but relieved that the broadcast was over.
That fall, I began my freshman year at Boston University, where Brudnoy taught a course in media criticism. Although I had to wait a few years before I could take the course (as it was open only to juniors, seniors, and graduate students), I still kept in touch with David, visiting him before his classes to chat for a few moments and calling into his show every few weeks. I was amazed by how hard Brudnoy worked; in addition to his show, his classes, and his movie reviews for the now-defunct Boston TAB, Brudnoy was writing an autobiography, Life Is Not A Rehearsal, which was released just before the end of 1996. As to be expected, it was a brilliant book, though heartbreaking in several respects; the book is still memorable for Brudnoy’s refusal to hold anything back in terms of his romantic misadventures and near-death experiences. Such descriptions generated a few negative reviews, but those of us who knew Brudnoy appreciated (though in some cases were stunned by) his honesty.
In January 1998, I began taking Brudnoy’s Media Criticism course. It was one of the best courses I ever took at BU, but also one of the most intense and nerve-wracking. Brudnoy was an outstanding teacher and an energetic presence, perhaps even better in the classroom than he was on the radio. Brudnoy had the ability to take apart any issue and analyze it thoroughly from every philosophical standpoint—and he had no tolerance for weak arguments (or someone who showed up wearing a baseball cap: Brudnoy was notoriously contemptuous of those who had no respect for traditional sartorial standards.). Early on, he clearly intimidated some students with his intellect, but after a few weeks those students rose to the challenge he presented, and soon posed the best questions in the class. (One class was filmed for the 2001 documentary Undetectable, which chronicled his battle against AIDS; I’m still embarrassed by the lack of fashion sense I exhibited that day.)
Brudnoy invited me back to his show on September 24, 1998 to discuss the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal with two other guests; thankfully, I was far more relaxed than I was the first time around. Brudnoy remained a friend after I graduated; over the next four years, we traded e-mails back and forth concerning movies, politics, his media appearances, and his health status. We also liked to hash over Mike Barnicle’s columns in the New York Daily News, which I forwarded to David every Sunday morning from 1999 to 2004; Brudnoy always felt that Barnicle was treated unfairly by the Boston Globe in August 1998, when he departed under controversial circumstances, and was happy that the Daily News gave Barnicle a new forum to express himself.
There was one e-mail I wished I never had to send to him, however. It was dated September 23, 2003.
On that day, Brudnoy announced to his radio audience that he had been diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma. The radio broadcast was quite emotional—not so much for Brudnoy, who had clearly accepted the fact that he was in for a fight, but for his listeners, who wondered how much more fate would put him through. We were confident that he would wage a valiant battle against this new disease, but we were just as regretful that he had to wage a second fight in the first place.
Immediately after the announcement, I send Brudnoy an e-mail letting him know that I would pray for him. He replied shortly thereafter, thanking me for doing so.
Brudnoy left the airwaves in November to undergo chemotherapy; as he told Globe columnist Brian McGrory in January 2004, the experience was so physically and emotionally debilitating that at one point, he asked God to take his life. However, Brudnoy managed to survive once again, and after appearing as a guest on his own show in February, he made a triumphant return to the airwaves in March.
Brudnoy delivered a series of excellent shows, delving into such topics as the upcoming election, Bill Clinton’s autobiography, the thirtieth anniversary of US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s forced-busing decision, and the passing of President Reagan. With regard to the Bush-Kerry contest, Brudnoy was priceless, going after both “Jean-Francois Kerry’s” (his term) reverence for the UN and Bush’s attempts to appeal to the religious right.
A few weeks after Bush’s win, Brudnoy sent out a group e-mail, letting those on his list know that he’d be in the hospital for a few days, as he had been feeling a bit under the weather. As was his tradition, he asked that we not send him any e-mail, since it would be automatically deleted while he was out. Sadly, however, he never came back.
On December 8, it was reported that Brudnoy was near death; the cancer had returned, and had now spread to his liver and kidneys. Gary LaPierre, WBZ’s veteran morning newsman, interviewed Brudnoy from his hospital bed that night. To this day, I cannot find a word to describe how I felt when I heard Brudnoy’s severely emaciated voice: the best I can do is to describe it as a sort of rage that this man was being stolen from us by Death. As I listened to Brudnoy say goodbye to his fans and colleagues, and express his appreciation for their support over the past three decades, I also couldn’t help feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, this would not be the end, that Brudnoy would somehow come back once again from the brink of death, that he would yet again shock people with another medical miracle. But it was not to be. David Brudnoy passed away on December 9, 2004, at sixty-four years of age.
Three days after his passing, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote a magnificent tribute in which he noted:
He was a bon vivant who’d been everywhere, seen everything, and learned to enjoy what was enjoyable in this world. He was also a deeply sympathetic man, tolerant of human weakness and quick to put fairness and friendship before ideology. Not that ideology didn’t matter—it did, greatly. A spirited libertarian conservative, Brudnoy was for many years a contributor to William F. Buckley’s National Review, and his acclaimed radio talk show was an important stronghold of the right in a Boston media landscape that tilts precariously to the left. He was a merciless scourge of Bill Clinton, a great booster of conservative authors, and an energetic popper of liberal balloons. Yes, ideology mattered.
But friendship mattered more. And what a talent he had for it! Brudnoy’s pals were legion—young and old, white and black, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat. I don’t know how I came to deserve membership in that fraternity, but I know I didn’t earn it for my politics. There was no philosophical litmus test for his affection. He sharply disagreed with Ted Kennedy on many issues, for example. But he cherished the personal warmth Kennedy had shown him—something he must have mentioned to me half a dozen times.
My politics, once so heavily influenced by Brudnoy, have changed in the years since his passing. Even before he died, I had some disagreements with his vision, some of which I discussed with him, others I kept to myself. I distinctly remember a broadcast right before Thanksgiving of 1997, in which Brudnoy debated the wisdom of federal anti-discrimination laws with a liberal caller; when the caller defended laws against restrictive covenants as noble, Brudnoy denounced such laws as unconstitutional and overreaching, which stunned me. Why would a gay Jew oppose laws that protected gays and Jews from housing discrimination?
Brudnoy’s intense skepticism of government’s ability to right perceived societal wrongs even extended to state efforts to combat lung cancer by banning smoking in restaurants; as he noted in a 2002 Boston Herald column, “[L]ike ‘global warming,’ which many scientists deny exists, second-hand smoke’s ‘dangers’ are disputed by experts.”
Brudnoy’s thinking also strongly influenced almost every conservative and libertarian friend in my social circle; looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the friends who most admired Brudnoy were also the friends who so strongly objected to my reconsideration of climate change.
I imagine that were he alive today, Brudnoy would be ridiculing Al Gore the same way he ridiculed Bill Clinton, denouncing the supposed alarmism of climate scientists, and trashing the recently concluded Durban talks. Assuming that Brudnoy would be espousing the libertarian line on climate, I can’t help wondering now what I would say to him.
I would tell him that just as his views shifted from the liberalism of his youth to the libertarianism of his later years, so too have my views shifted from the libertarianism to my adolescent years to what is now labeled “moderate,” though it strikes me more as basic common sense.
I would tell him that I was taught to respect facts—and that in a conflict between facts and political orthodoxy, facts must win, or else society becomes disordered, unhealthy, polluted.
I would tell him that contrary to what President Reagan stated in his 1981 inaugural address, there are times when government can be the solution to problems, instead of merely being the problem itself.
I would tell him that the sight of grown men and women running around peddling a Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy theory about those who support efforts to reduce carbon emissions is a profound embarrassment for the American right.
I would tell him that there is no reputable climate scientist who denies that anthropogenic global warming exists; even the infinitesimal number of “skeptical” scientists ceaselessly promoted by the conservative/libertarian media concede the reality of anthropogenic warming, arguing only that it’s not potentially catastrophic.
I would tell him that any political movement that invests in scientific ignorance will inevitably find itself consigned to the dustbin of history.
Finally, I would ask him to take a look around and ask him for his opinions, off-air if need be, of the right-leaning pundits who don’t, or can’t, live up to his high intellectual standards, of Republican politicians who seem to be proud of the ignorance he spent years denouncing, and of the microphone monsters who degrade the industry to which he devoted nearly thirty years of his life.