Talk-show radio host Michael Medved was once addicted to hitchhiking.
In his teens, Medved, now with a weekly talk radio audience of more than 7 million, passed the time by thumbing his way across the country – once traveling from New Haven, Connecticut to San Diego, California in the week before finals in college.
“I think that everybody in adolescence wanted to do something that is adventurous and daring. A lot of my contemporaries did drugs, and my particular addiction was this feeling of going hitchhiking,” Medved told FrumForum.
Hitchhikers are often picked up to allay the boredom of a lonely drive – those who thumbed paid their fare in conversation. It’s no wonder, then, that Medved has found success in talk radio.
Answering questions, Medved is intensely thoughtful, mulling over questions – he’s not passive but endlessly reflective. It makes for a slightly slower conversation, but perhaps it’s just a function of the enormous journey he’s undertaken.
Just a short sampling of his life reveals an dizzying depth of experience: entering Yale at the age of sixteen, Medved studied with the likes of Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and upperclassman George W. Bush; he was standing in the ballroom when Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel; in the sixties, he joined the burgeoning anti-war movement, waving signs and chanting slogans before giving it all up in the 70s; he wrote screenplays and became a well-known film critic in the 80s and 90s.
He got his start from Rush Limbaugh, who invited Medved to guest host his show. From this, Medved got an offer to host a show in Seattle, which then expanded frantically as his audience grew nationally.
Medved’s journey continues, and he finds the conservative movement is changing – in some ways, for the worse. Undoubtedly, Medved is committed to the conservative cause. But he feels increasingly ill at ease with the course of the movement, and in particular, it current vehicle for progress: the tea parties.
“I don’t think that my personal outlook has changed substantially in recent years, but I believe that the conservative movement has changed, and as a result, my attitudes have altered to some extent,” said Medved. “The rise of a group of individuals… that I have dubbed ‘crazy cons’ – people who say stuff that almost everyone knows not to be true, but nonetheless proves provocative and entertaining - [has] developed a certain amount of traction in the conservative world.”
A sense of close-mindedness has gripped the conservative movement, says Medved. Case in point: a regular columnist for conservative website Townhall.com, Medved recently submitted two innocuous articles – one arguing that President Obama isn’t actively trying to damage the economy, and another holding that Canada isn’t evil. Both articles were ferociously criticized by readers.
As a member of the talk radio community, Medved is uniquely positioned to comment on its trajectory and current problems. The problem with talk radio? The incentives for radicalism, he replies:
The imperative for someone like me – a very successful audience on talk radio would be 7% of the available audience at any given time – you can get 7% or 8% by talking extraordinarily one-sided, shrill nonsense.
The talk radio game is intensely competitive – a game of ferocious jockeying about ratings. Medved tells an anecdote about Rush Limbaugh to reveal how the cutthroat nature of the industry dictates the policy stances of talk radio figures.
Back around 2006, Medved and Limbaugh supported President Bush’s initiatives for immigration reform. “Rush and I were only people on the radio who were pro-immigration and supporting the president,” Medved told me. “This is a deeply moral and profound issue… Rush used to scrupulously avoid the immigration issue because he had the same sort of visceral objection that I did.”
The turning point was the Dubai Ports deal in 2006, when a state-owned firm based in the United Arab Emirates attempted to purchase the right manage some American ports. Both Limbaugh and Medved supported the deal, even as conservative talk radio host Michael Savage worked with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to kill the deal.
“Rush was caught on the wrong side of this… Rush was defending the administration,” said Medved. Caught off guard by being out-positioned by Savage, Rush “decided he was never going to be outflanked on the right again… He went from supporting immigration reform and resisting nativist craziness to embracing it with a vengeance.”
The pandering of the talk radio community has led to some bad decisions, says Medved. Specifically, he’s incredulous that some talk radio hosts are forwarding the notion of Obama as a willful and malicious destroyer of the economy:
You’ll never convince Americans that Barack Obama is deliberately trying to wreck the American economy. Why in the name of God would Obama want to [do that]? It’s a daily theme on Limbaugh’s show – and of course it’s a theme on Beck’s show – and it’s profoundly influential!
A dedicated student of history, Medved’s fear is that this type of talk will turn voters off, and ultimately hurt the conservative cause:
My vision of American politics, having been involved in politics since the age of 11, is that people generally vote against the side that scares them most, rather than for the side that inspires them most. And one of my biggest concerns is that in direct contrast to the genial, affable, optimistic conservative of Ronald Reagan, we now see a conservative message that sounds scary and dark that could ultimately snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this November.
Medved’s view of the tea party movement is not much more generous. Among his most serious concerns: the changing demographics of the United States. An electorate that is becoming less and less white provides imperatives to reach out to minority communities, he says, and the tea parties are an impediment:
There is no future for an all-white party in America… in 2008, 74% of voters in exit polls identified themselves as White. We’ll never have a number that high again. As recently in 2000, it was 81% … In that context the tea party is a problem. Although I don’t believe that the tea party is racist, it is essentially all white. And there is no future for the Republican Party chasing more white votes.
Having been an active and vocal member of the ‘60s anti-war movement, Medved also turns a skeptical eye towards the idea of tea party demonstrations:
Where did people get the idea that taking buses to go to Washington, D.C. and dressing in colonial garb and carrying anti-Obama signs in a way to win power? The one big lesson of the anti-war lesson should be that demonstrations accomplish nothing.
Medved argues that the protests against the Vietnam War were counter-productive because they turned voters against the anti-war position and led to support for Nixon. “Nixon reached the peak of his popularity after the mobilization on Washington on November 15, 1969,” said Medved. “Why? Because Nixon was so great? No! Because people hated the hippies!”
In essence, what Medved would most like to see changed about the tea party movement is to change their methods of engagement. Drawing from his own experience, he said: “What works is shaving your beard, putting down your sign, dropping your guitar, and going out and working precincts… joining the Republican Party and getting involved in Congressional races. Protest does not lead to power. Politics leads to power. “
By not wholly endorsing the tea party movement, Medved sets himself apart from much of the talk radio commentary of the right. “The idea of an enforced [talk radio] party line is destructive and needs to be resisted… I think that there is a political correctness on the right; and just like political correctness on the left ought to be resisted, political correctness on the right ought to be resisted,” said Medved.
Another striking example of Medved’s unique blend of conservatism is his fondness for responsible stewardship of the environment. “I style myself as a green elephant. I like national parks. I enjoy hiking. I think it’s good to preserve the environment. I’m proud of the fact I’ve planted over thirty trees on your property… I’m not like Glenn Beck, who celebrated Earth Day by cutting down trees.”
But why is he so different? Part of it comes with a dedication to his personal principles, rather than the dictates of industry pressure. “Most [talk radio hosts] are obsessed with radio,” as an end in itself, said Medved. “Yes, I care about the success of my show, but I really do care about the issues and the overall cause more. I decided a long time ago that I would rather damage my media career than identify with positions that no responsible or sane individuals would hold.”
One might assume that criticism of conservative dogma would hurt his personal prospects. But Medved appears to have carved out a niche out as a respectable, reasonable and modern conservative. “Beck has made a career out of being crazier than everyone else… it appears, based on the last six months, that we are doing very well by trying to be saner than everyone else!” said Medved.
Speaking with Medved, one comes to the conclusion that the deep roots of his success and worldview harkens back in a very real way to his hitchhiking days, when he escaped the set himself apart from his peers by wandering the American interstate system. “I’ve always been a sucker for the romance of America,” said the popular talk radio host. In a different way, his voice continues to provide accompaniment to millions on the open road, all across the nation.
Asked for his secret to hitchhiking success, Medved gives a particularly illuminating answer. “I found that you did better with a jacket and a tie.”
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