"Don Imus is a despicable human being. He's also a fat bald geek, a slimy weasel, a pathetic creep, a hideous transparent goon, a yuppie loser, an idiot who drools in his oatmeal. In short, he's just not happening."
"Actually, he isn't any of those things, at least as far as is publicly known. Those are just some of the colorful terms that the in-your-face, anything-goes host of the top-rated Imus in the Morning syndicated radio program has used to describe politicians, journalists, athletes, assorted celebrities and other willing and unwilling targets of his manic humor."
That was the way I began my profile of Imus that ran in The Hill on March 20, 1996, under the now-ironic headline, "Warning: The I-Man can be dangerous to your health." Imus, as the whole world knows by now, committed professional suicide by referring to members of the Rutgers' women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." The bushy-haired shock jock's remarks cost him his $10-million-a-year job as host of a CBS radio program simulcast on MSNBC and touched off a nationwide debate over racism, sexism and freedom of speech.
On a much smaller scale, it also cost me one of my jobs, albeit an unpaid one, as a commentator on the Washington, D.C. radio station that carries the Imus in the Morning program. (It also runs on conservative talker Laura Ingraham's program later on the same station, and on liberal talker Bill Press's program on another D.C. station.)
For more than 10 years, I have done a one-minute Imus spot, called "The Capitol Hill Report," which ran each weekday during the early morning hours. That's something close to 3,000 times that Imus's listeners in D.C. have heard me comment on the news of the day in between his raucous commentary and irreverent interviews of politicians like Sens. John McCain and Chris Dodd and journalists like Tim Russert and Maureen Dowd.
I did my final report on Friday, a day after CBS took Imus off the air and two days after MSNBC axed him as well. My commentary, as most of them are, focused on the Washington political scene. In this case, I noted that although this was Friday the 13th, it was not an unlucky day for Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, because he had just become the longest serving Republican in the history of the Senate.
"The 83-year-old Stevens," I said, "will mark his 13,890th day in the Senate, surpassing the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond actually service longer than Stevens, but he was a Democrat part of that time."
After reviewing Stevens' career in public service, including his 39 years in the Senate, I closed with these words: "But Friday the 13th is not a lucky day for me because I've decided that Don Imus and I must go our separate ways, so this is my last Capitol Hill report. This is Albert Eisele with The Hill. Thanks for listening for the past ten years."
I recorded this spot on Thursday afternoon, after deciding that I no longer was comfortable being associated with Imus -- even though he has a huge audience in D.C. and I get a lot of positive, and ego-gratifying, feedback from the politicians, congressional aides, journalists, lobbyists, think-tankers and others who hear me -- but before I heard CBS had canceled his radio show as well.
Anyway, after the I-Man crashed and burned and became the AAAA-Man (Abject Apologies All Around), I went back and read the profile I wrote in 1996 after interviewing him in his Astoria, Queens studio shortly before he spoke at the annual Radio and TV Correspondents Association Dinner. (My profile ran the day before his infamous "speech from Hell" in which he taunted head table guests President Clinton and Hillary Clinton for past personal and political scandals.)
As I wrote at the time, "Imus loves to have prominent journalists and political insiders on his politically astute program," including even Clinton, "who helped turn his campaign around by playing the saxophone on Imus' program during the 1992 New York primary."
I cited Clinton's then-political adviser Paul Begala's comments to Esquire magazine about why Imus's program attracted so many big names. "It's not some tribal ritual in Washington that only insiders watch or the media elite like Crossfire. You go on Imus and reach everybody. In Washington, people know me as Bill Clinton's adviser. In New Jersey -- where the entire state listens to his show -- I'm the guy who goes on Imus." (Many politicians, like Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, have told me the same thing.)
But I pointed out that Imus "isn't everybody's cup of morning tea. His mordant wit and raw, raucous satire (he's called Clinton 'that fat pant-load in the White House,' and aired a song called 'The First Lady is a Tramp') can be, to use his all-purpose adjective, hideously offensive and politically incorrect, combining racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, irreligious commentary and profanity."
When I sat down with Imus, he said to call him Don, but then he was immediately in my face. Referring to a recent editorial in The Hill that semi-defended then-Sen. Bob Packwood, who had been accused of sexual harassment of a female aide, he asked, "Are you guys still sucking up to Packwood?"
But he gave me a great interview. He claimed he didn't understand why many people were offended by his style, but professed that he didn't care if they were. "Those kinds of things are intended to be satirical and entertaining," he said, "so if somebody's offended I frankly don't give a (expletive deleted.)"
When I asked why politicians and journalists were so important to his program, he said, "Well, most of them, like Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or Tim Russert, Jeff Greenfield, Maureen Dowd, Anna Quinlan, all of those people, you're able to find out what they think about stuff. I mean, seldom does Rather offer his opinion about whatever, because he doesn't have the opportunity. Nor does Jim Lehrer, for example, who was on just the other day ... So I find it fascinating to have those folks on."
And he bristled -- pretty much his demeanor throughout the interview -- when I asked why any politician would be foolish enough to play verbal Russian roulette by subjecting himself to his kind of inquisition. "Well, no, I think insulted is the wrong word," he said. "I think he might get kidded, but you've got to give me an example of when I've insulted somebody, to agree with that."
Finally, I said, "A lot of your stuff is pretty raucous and rough, and you risk offending some people. For example, that H. Ross Perot character you had on this morning talking about Clinton's penis, or that hideous Cardinal O'Connor impersonator, who offends a lot of Catholics like me. Is your answer the same that you gave Paul Begala recently that your show is a comedy show and shouldn't be taken seriously?"
Imus's answer: "Yeah."
After the past few days, it's safe to say that nobody thinks Imus's program is a "comedy show" that shouldn't be taken seriously.