04/09/2007 03:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Imus in the Evening

It was inevitable that Don Imus, the humanitarian/shock jock (now there's an oxymoron for you) would go too far. They always do. It was also inevitable that Al Sharpton, the defender of the indefensible Tawana Brawley and Newark's egregious Mayor Sharp James would demand the end of Imus; threatening boycotts and rallies against his network and his sponsors should Imus remain on the air. The crime? Imus and his dim-witted side kick - that necessary adjunct to all High School bullies - made racist fun of the female student athletes at Rutgers, African American women, mocking their appearance, their "nappy hair" and tattoos and calling them Ho's and Jigaboos - playing at being a pretend Brothers commenting on the Sisters. Personally, I don't give a damn about the I-man as he is reverentially called by his politico admirers from McCain to Lieberman to Kerry. Sometimes a right wing apologist, now anti-war and tending Democratic, Imus is mostly a big mouth who is occasionally witty, sometimes smart; more often cruel, a man who puts the lie to the notion that speaking your mind means speaking the truth. Once, he characterized the gloriously bright and personable African American Gwen Ifill of Washington Week in Review as "a cleaning lady." That was so stupid it should have lost him half his audience and his high powered followers, but it took this recent festival of Imus insults to put a dent in his glory.

What I do care about is the degradation of discourse that Imus and his fellows have brought to the American scene, and the huge following they have. I do care that smart Andrea Mitchell, and the sagacious Frank Rich along with the giddy politico pundits from Time and Newsweek and the Tims and the Toms call in frequently to shoot the breeze and kick it around with the I-man. I think I know why. All of them were nerds in High School. They are flattered to be on joking and speaking terms with the class bully who would have kicked their bottoms down the stairs and spit on their prone bodies in their sophomore year. But now they have risen high in the world, and the bully invites them on his radio gab fest, welcomes their views, and makes them believe that they are all a part of the in crowd. Who knows, he may even offer to share a joint with them if they are properly deferential. Best of all they gain access to his large radio audience. And as we have learned from the deferential Washington press corps and the Bush administration, access is all. Today, it matters more than truth or honor among the powerful in the media.

There is something Honest Abe about Imus's life-weathered face, but it can also be viewed as the face of a reformed hater who every so often falls off the wagon and stumbles about spewing invective on innocent passersby, particularly those of a minority race. Trouble is that for the joy of access, the pundits who play with him are all too willing to overlook the bullying, the racism and the cruelty that takes place on this and other talk shows, when the "grownups" are away working on their day jobs, and there is air time to fill by the bad boys who are just horsing around. Now before I would go after Imus, I would suggest that the Reverend Sharpton goes after such serial race baiting offenders as Rush Limbaugh, but Imus is rational on such subjects as the war and Republican corruption and that makes him a softer target to shoot down. He does not have the hard constituency of the far right that the other radio-H-mongers have, and I doubt if Andrea Mitchell will be leading a "Save the I-man" rally soon. It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out. Sure it will probably blow over soon enough; Sharpton will find a new cause to trumpet, some other public figure will make a jerk of him or herself and the heat will go down on Imus, but he will never again enjoy the comfort of living in a safe bully zone. I think it's easy to predict that Imus won't be dominating the morning much longer, he will be drifting towards the evening of his career. It's a part of the 21st century American story, the one we are all living today. How do we sensitize our speech and respect the rights of others and at the same time keep a balance of fresh, spontaneous, unfettered and irreverent discourse going. If Imus departs the scene, it will not be as a sacrifice to free speech, but because race baiting is now a dangerous game for the players, even more dangerous than being a black woman on a Rutgers team.