Talk Is Cheap 

Even talk-radio provocateurs illustrate our innate decency

Even talk-radio provocateurs illustrate our innate decency

In the wake of the recent election drama with its ugly torrents of bile, it might be difficult to keep sight of the truth that as a nation we are more decent and sensible than our politics sometimes encourages us to act.

Talk radio is not generally a source of clarity, but this reflection is based on a moment when I was driving up to Connecticut for the Thanksgiving holiday and listening to the radio somewhere approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge. I was tuned to Sean Hannity, one of the top-rated New York talk-radio hosts. Hannity is probably best known to audiences in Nashville for the show he cohosts with Alan Colmes on the Fox News Channel. He plays the strident, loud-mouthed right-winger who beats up on Colmes, the dim-witted, nerdy liberal, during interviews with various names in the news. Hannity is also one of the preferred fill-ins for Rush Limbaugh.

At the time, Hannity was talking to a caller who was engaging in some common, garden-variety Gore bashing when he suddenly got more interested in going off on a tangent.

The caller explained that she had moved to the New York area from Louisiana and was living with her beau without benefit of marriage. Hannity decided to convince her that shacking up was a bad lifestyle choice for her because her man got all the benefits and she got all the liabilities. He even persuaded the caller to put her gentleman friend on the line to hector him about it for a while.

The breakthrough moment came when the beleaguered couple claimed that they would have to wait until after the election was decided and said they could only get married if George W. Bush won. If Al Gore won, they said, he wouldn’t do enough to roll back the so-called “marriage penalty” on their income taxes and marriage would be too costly. (I will resist here the temptation to climb up on my soapbox and explain the speciousness of the concept of a marriage penalty.)

This was too much for Hannity.

“Don’t let what’s going on in Washington determine how you’re going to live your life,” he told her.

“Just pay the taxes. It’s not that much money,” he told him. In that brief fit of exasperation, Hannity discarded the basic premises of his whole talk-radio persona, which hinges on the notion that taxes are outrageous and that the trends of the Clinton-Gore era were bitterly oppressive to average Americans.

Here he was confronted with some people who had been taking the talk-radio gospel too seriously, and he didn’t like the look of it.

Of course, it was only a fleeting moment for Hannity, who got back on the reservation quickly enough. But letting his guard down for a moment probably confirmed what we have suspected about so many of the talking heads of the left and the right who have made broadcast political discourse into a lowbrow version of the World Wrestling Federation.

They’re all a bunch of frauds. They don’t believe it at anywhere near the venomous level at which they function for commercial purposes.

The bitterness of the last election was only partly the result of the bizarre way it came to a conclusion. The polarizing style had been evident throughout the campaign, extending all the way back through the primaries.

But as the new year begins, maybe it’s time for all of us to start getting a grip on what is going on here. It’s as though Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum—academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small—has been writ large on the national scene. At a time of greater national prosperity and greater national consensus than at any time since World War II, our national political discourse has become unremittingly nasty. The election was so close not because the nation is so divided; it was close because the nation is so united.

This is not to say that we should put aside politics; healthy debate on real issues such as Social Security and prescription drugs is what politics should be all about. Nor is this an embrace for “bipartisanship” as articulated by Bush in an effort to climb back onto the high road after the ugly months of the election process; vigorous competition produces creative ideas.

What I am saying is that we ought to get back in touch with proportion. Or perhaps not all of us—after all, half of Americans didn’t vote at all, and they may have been onto something. I’m not embracing civic shirking, since making good political choices is critical to having a good society. It is important, though, that those who do care do so in a way that gives them the peace of mind to enjoy the blessings of democracy.

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