Alan Dershowitz: How Morton Downey blew up TV

Story highlights

  • What Donald Trump is to the Republican field in 2016, Downey was to TV in the late 1980s
  • Downey, a complicated man, could be bullying and nasty but also warm and friendly

Alan Dershowitz is a lawyer, constitutional scholar, commentator and author. His new book is "The Case Against the Iran Deal: How Can We Now Stop Iran From Getting Nukes?" The views expressed are his own. CNN Films' "Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie" airs Thursday, August 20, at 9 p.m. ET.

(CNN)Although he might fit in well to the current milieu of reality show television and talk radio, when Morton Downey Jr. made his television debut, he was as disruptive to conventional television as Donald Trump is today to the Republican presidential field.

Pundits were predicting that Downey would lower the bar and drive television into the gutter. A kind of Gresham's law would operate to produce a new, low normal.
Alan Dershowitz
I recall that after my first appearance on "The Morton Downey Jr. Show," I received a call from a producer at PBS who chided me for appearing on so raucous and anti-intellectual a show and gently cautioned me that it might make me less attractive to the elite listeners of PBS.
    Nonetheless I continued to appear on "Downey," because I wanted to get my message to his audience as well as the more elite ones. Of course I later learned that many PBS viewers also tuned into Downey for entertainment purposes.

    Raucous and uncensored -- like the Internet

    Downey shook up the world of television because he knew no boundaries or limits. "Anything goes on my show," he told me when I first appeared.
    He often used me to bait the audience because I was a fancy, hifalutin' professor from an elite university. And the crowd sometimes did go after me. But having grown up on the streets of Brooklyn, I know how to give as well as take, and I fought back against the sometimes raucous attempts to shut me down.
    Morton Downey Jr.
    Downey loved it, as apparently the audience did as well, since he asked me back on several occasions. The more I appeared on "Downey," the less I was asked to appear on PBS.
    In some ways, Downey was the prelude to the age of the Internet and social media, where everything goes and there is no censorship. People said on "Downey" what they said in local bars and what they now say on the Internet.
    Like any new medium, this phenomenon has positives and negatives. The positives and negatives of "Downey" were both essentially the same: a raucous, uncensored revelation of what people really think and feel, but were previously afraid to say and show on television.

    Off camera, a different Downey

    I rarely agreed with Downey. We had some good fights. Sometimes I convinced him. I don't recall him ever convincing me. But I also don't recall him ever trying.
    Alan Dershowitz, on 'The Morton Downey Jr. Show'
    He never got personal with me, though he often did with audience members. I didn't like it when he did that, but I saw him apologize after the show to an audience member he insulted on the air.
    Morton Downey Jr. was a complicated man. He could be arrogant, bullying, opinionated, nasty and vengeful, but he could also be warm and friendly. He was very different on and off the air.
    On the air he was a showman expressing extreme views on a range of subjects. Off the air, we talked about the Kennedy family and his family's relationship with them. He confessed to having been a Democrat and agreeing with lots of Ted Kennedy's populist views, though not his big-government approach.
    He was smarter and more nuanced off camera than on. He was also kinder and gentler, always asking about my family, my health and my life. He seemed really to care.

    Dying with a clean slate

    One day, after being out of touch with him for many years, I received a phone call.
    Downey told me he was dying and he wanted to make amends to everyone he had ever offended. I assured him that he never offended me, and he was relieved to hear that.
    But he told me he had acted boorishly to me on occasion, and even if I wasn't offended, he wanted to apologize.
    "I'm trying to die with a clean slate," he told me. "Not because I expect to go to heaven, but because I hope to leave here without too many enemies."
    I think he succeeded, and I think his contributions to American media and culture will be long remembered, if not in a favorable light by everyone.
    He did not live by the Sara Lee motto, "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee." But Sara Lee is a cake. Morton Downey Jr. was a spicy meatball -- an acquired taste that some never acquired.