The man who drove us into our national ditch

Story highlights

  • Smerconish: Morton Downey pioneered a form of television that feasted on anger and incivility
  • He says Downey and his successors helped create the bitter partisanship we see in America today

"Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie" airs on CNN Thursday, August 20, at 9 p.m. ET. Michael A. Smerconish is the host of "Smerconish," which airs on CNN Saturdays at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET. He is also the host of "The Michael Smerconish Program" on SiriusXM Channel 124, a newspaper columnist and author. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)"Certain things really burn my buns."

With those words on October 19, 1987, Morton Downey Jr. launched a television talk program that would catch fire and then flame out in under two years, but not before casting a pall on our political discourse that continues today.
Michael Smerconish
In the nearly three decades since Downey's foray into television, the media has become increasingly polarized and so, too, has Washington. Coincidence? I think not.
    More probable is that too many of our politicians are taking their cues from the loudmouth's successors to curry favor with the most passionate members of the electorate, who in turn wield outsized influence on our political process.
    "Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie" tells the story of the son of an Irish crooner who turned to talk radio and television when his own dreams as a singer didn't pan out. Downey's approach was all bark and bombast.
    Before the rise of Jerry Springer, it was Downey, gesticulating, cursing at guests, and chain smoking on set, who stole a spotlight from the more sedate, cerebral likes of Phil Donahue, Oprah, and Sally Jessy Raphael.
    Many who incurred Downey's wrath as guests are still familiar faces in the cable world. "If I had a slime like you in the White House, I'd puke on you," Downey bellowed to a younger Ron Paul, much to the delight of his white, working-class, studio audience of 30-somethings gathered in Secaucus, New Jersey.
    "I think I detect his voice changing, maybe his cojones are getting small," he intoned to his audience in the presence of the libertarian leader and father of a current presidential hopeful.

    No chivalry

    Downey fashioned himself as a conservative leader but shunned chivalry in the face of female guests, as evidenced by his treatment of a vegan as captured in "Évocateur":
    "I eat raw hamburger, I eat raw fish, I smoke four packs of cigarettes a day, I have about four drinks a day, I'm 55 years old and I look as good as you do." (Downey died in 2001 of lung cancer.)
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    Today, you'd expect a woman on the receiving end of a Downey-style sexist rant to hire the likes of Gloria Allred. Only in the heyday of this hit show, it was actually Allred with whom he had the following exchange:
    Downey: "What the hell is a feminist, I thought anyone who had breasts was a feminist."
    Allred: "There are almost no feminists who have ever burned a bra so let me get that straight."
    Downey: "There are almost no feminists who ever had anything they needed a bra for."
    Allred: "Likewise on your jockstrap."
    Downey: "How does she know? Does she have a tape measure on her tongue?"
    Downey's success came from railing against liberal policies of the Democratic Party, and the live audience ate it up. No matter that the self-professed conservative rabble-rouser was himself a friend of the Kennedy clan, having resided in proximity to the famed compound in Hyannis Port.
    "Évocateur" lays bare the way in which Downey's angry, populist positions were actually developed at a preshow production meeting for maximum impact, and then delivered during the program based on his extraordinary memory.
    And no topic gave him resonance like when the TV gods delivered the gift of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old girl from New York who claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by six white men.

    A lesson from Brawley case?

    A chief supporter of the "victim" was a younger, heavier Al Sharpton, who provided Downey with the perfect foil. Brawley was an ongoing saga of the "Morton Downey Jr. Show" right up until the moment a grand jury concluded that Brawley made up the horrific story and fabricated evidence of her own victimization.
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    Maybe that's where Mort got his idea. When his influence began to wane, he staged his own attack in a San Francisco International Airport bathroom stall. Downey claimed he'd been assaulted by three neo-Nazi skinheads but the police were incredulous.
    In reality, he'd drawn a swastika on his own face and clothing, shaved some of his hair, and tore his shirt so as to reignite interest in his suffering TV sideshow and spark the attention of his fourth wife.
    His good friend, Lloyd Schoonmaker, admitted years later that on the day before the alleged attack, Downey had bought a pair of scissors and a black felt pen at a 7-Eleven. Returning to his home after "being attacked," and in the ultimate irony of our modern arena, Downey is seen in "Évocateur" being greeted by his building's developer -- a younger Donald Trump in the lobby of Trump Tower.
    The Morton Downey Jr. show was canceled in July 1989. But it created a template for media conflict that continues today.
    "Hannity, O'Reilly, Glenn Beck are not as crude as Mort was, but they are appealing to the same audience" noted conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. "They are the angry voices of people left behind," he added.

    Talk radio failure

    Before television, Downey took his first job in 1983 as a talk radio host on WDBO in Orlando, Florida, but was fired after throwing a punch at abortion rights activist Bill Baird and calling him "a son of a bitch" on the air. His next gig at KFBK in Sacramento, California, ended in much the same way.
    Downey was canned after telling a joke on the air about a local Asian-American politician, Tom Chinn, whom Downey repeatedly referred to as a "Chinaman." Chinn happened to be listening in his car and called in to Downey's program only to receive a harsh verbal tirade from Downey.
    According to Brian Rosenwald, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who recently completed a doctoral dissertation on talk radio, Downey failed at talk radio because he lacked the authenticity demanded by the medium, abused his callers, and provided a product that was more flash than substance.
    His time slot was taken over by a former promotions director for the Kansas City Royals named Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh quickly became the top talk show host in his market and was placed into national syndication by Ed McLaughlin, the former president of ABC Radio Network, in 1988, while Downey was still on TV.
    Limbaugh's impact on talk radio was transformative. Pre-Internet, before Fox News, and long before satellite radio, conservatives rightfully felt shut out of the mainstream media. News junkies had only NBC, ABC, CBS, The New York Times and Washington Post on which to rely, and all leaned left. Limbaugh, a gifted showman, filled that void by establishing a clubhouse for conservatives, and his programming attracted a very passionate base not unlike those who tuned into the "Morton Downey Jr. Show." Soon every major market would have Limbaugh and a stable of his imitators.
    The last big city market in America to take the Limbaugh program was my own, Philadelphia, at a station where I was then working as a guest host: 96.5 FM, WWDB. The radio station was owned by a local couple, Chuck and Susan Schwartz, who were reluctant to hire Limbaugh at the expense of local programming. Ultimately they felt they had no choice but to engage the rising star lest a competitor hire him and build a station around him.
    The lineup at what was called "The" Talk Station was typical of what you'd find at talk radio stations across the nation in an era then ending. What mattered most was whether you could sustain good conversation and make the telephones ring, not your adherence to talking points of a particular party. Much of my early work was spent guest hosting for the man who held the 10 p.m.-1 a.m. shift, Bernie Herman, who was billed as the "Gentleman of Broadcasting." Think about that. Today such a self-professed brand wouldn't get you a call back from a program director.

    Downey's ethos

    Talk radio today continues to reflect Downey's ethos. One can easily envision Downey trumpeting "Birtherism" as so many hosts have, or calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" the way Limbaugh did, or referring to President Obama as a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred of white people" as Beck has said. Those type of intemperate remarks find ears, and eyeballs.
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    When Fox News launched in 1996, it adopted the talk-radio playbook and MSNBC briefly gained viewers by giving Keith Olbermann a Downey-like platform for his diatribes against President George W. Bush. (His claim that Bush was "urinating" on the Constitution was Downeyesque.) The model for each was a toned-down version of that which Downey had established: Entertainment masked as news. Constant conflict. Good guys vs. bad guys. And preordained outcomes.
    But Downey's influence extended beyond media outlets and should be appreciated as more than just another contributing factor to the decline of America's cultural health. The media paradigm he fathered has taken a toll on the way in which we are governed. There has been a noticeable uptick in incivility and polarization among our leaders in the exact same period in which the media has moved to the extremes, in part because of the power that Downey's successors exert over primary voters.
    "Downey's heirs have fostered polarization through their influence in primary elections. Republican members of Congress must fear infuriating talk radio and cable news hosts because media personalities can use their platforms to offset several major advantages (including significantly greater fundraising and name recognition) held by incumbents in primary elections. Hosts demand purity from elected officials, label compromise as treason, and glorify Congress' rhetorical bomb throwers, such as Sen. Ted Cruz," explains Rosenwald.

    Rise of polarization

    Were we to chart on a graph the rise in polarization in Washington, it would correlate with the broadcast changes that began with Downey. Consider that every year for the last three decades, the National Journal has been tracking the ideological leanings of Congress. That analysis suggests we are at an all-time high for polarization.
    In 2014, and for the fourth straight year, every Senate Republican was more conservative than every Senate Democrat, and every Senate Democrat was more liberal than every Senate Republican. (The House is similarly divided.) Resist any temptation to think it has always been like this. According to the Journal, in 1982, on Ronald Reagan's watch, "58 senators and 344 House members had voting records that put them between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat."
    There were so many Republican Senate moderates during Reagan's time in the White House that they had their own weekly gathering, the Wednesday Lunch Club. Members included Alan Simpson, Ted Stevens, Nancy Kassebaum, John Heinz, Arlen Specter, Bob Packwood and Bob Dole. Today there would be no members showing up for lunch.
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    Here's another barometer of change in the last 30 years: According to tabulations from Congressional Quarterly, as late as the 1970s, the typical member of one party voted with his colleagues just over 60% of the time. Those numbers have risen every decade. In 2010, Democrats voted together 91% of the time, and Republicans 89% of the time.
    Unfortunately, those able to reverse these trends have ceded the debate to the loudest voices. A Gallup survey released in January found that more Americans regard themselves as independent (43%) than Democrat (30%) or Republican (26%). But any ground gained by the nonpartisan ranks continues to be offset by higher political interest resting at the political extremes. It's all about passion. As documented by Pew Research Center this past spring, liberals and conservatives exceed moderates and independents in their level of political interest, which translates into voter participation
    Polarization, as argued by Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, is an outcome, not a cause: the outcome of reduced willingness to meet the other side somewhere in the middle. (Kramer attributes gridlock to changes in party composition and competition, not to ideological polarization in Congress.) To be sure, other factors have driven the divide, including: lack of campaign finance reform, which causes nonstop fundraising and allows for little socializing, hyperpartisan districts, the ability to post anonymous and often contemptuous comments online, and, as revealed in Bill Bishop's "Big Sort," the rapid spread of politically homogenous communities.
    But high atop the list of what has driven us into our national ditch is the level of our discourse. And for that, we have a Founding Father: His name is Morton Downey Jr.