The politics of personal convenience. That is – make my life easier, make my struggle a little more bearable. For Howard Stern, it was about traffic. Bitter over his limo ride home from Manhattan to Long Island, he made road construction a pillar of his goofy but culturally prescient 1994 campaign for Governor of New York. Forget the logistics, the pesky financial details – Stern was going to Make Traffic Great Again. In doing so he tapped into the magical thinking of a successful politician. The other pillar of his campaign was a commitment to bring the death penalty to New York, the sort of promise of a man who doesn’t get much further than New York Post headlines. His campaign slogan – “A Volt For Every Vote” – was further evidence of this. His plan was to get elected, fix these “problems,” and return to his radio show.
“A person with an IQ of 85 gets one vote. A person with an IQ of 185 gets one vote. I just gotta get those morons to vote for me.” – Howard Stern explaining American politics
In 1994 Stern was already King of New York. The cultural dominance of the show is difficult to appreciate in this era of personalized social media. But yes – if you laughed in your car on the way to work, you could look over and find someone else laughing at the same joke. Many people were late to work sitting through a Sam Kinison interview because that was just more important than getting to the ER on time. When Stern saved a man from jumping from the George Washington Bridge, he asked him over the phone for other cars to honk their horns and an orchestra followed. His success would soon reach a ceiling – his 1997 film, while moderately successful, was not the box office smash he’d predicted, and today his show has been marginalized on Sirius Radio, a shell of the witty, edgy universe it once was. But there seemed no limit in 1994. His radio empire was expanding through syndication and his hold over the tri-state area was like a dictatorship.
Was his run for governor just a radio bit? It probably started that way, just as Donald Trump’s presidential run began as a bid for publicity. I found myself going back through tapes of the Howard Stern gubernatorial run while researching a film script. I was surprised by how smart, funny, and relevant the whole goofy exercise was. His bitterly honest wit breaks through the political charade – during a visit to Saugerties, NY he cracks some jokes (“Didn’t I study him in college?…What’s your biggest export, people leaving in droves?”) before meeting with some straight laced town leaders. All of these meetings are broadcast on the air, and his public speeches include his sarcastic off-bullhorn asides to his crew. He had aligned himself with the Libertarian Party, which caused internal friction between party loyalists and those who saw his candidacy as opportunity for exposure. In the end, both were right – he brought prominence to the party at the cost of some of their core values. Stern had to balance these demands during a campaign that became very real due to the power of his audience. This culminated in a raucous trip to the party convention in Albany. His official nomination was almost blocked by Libertarian insiders until they were promised positions in his cabinet. The party leaders essentially exchanged their oppositon in the interests of their own careers. That meeting was broadcast on the air (“I’m going off to make a backroom deal, Robin”) and it’s pretty shocking in its wide open evidence of political maneuvering. Again, very relevant, as Mitt Romney can surely attest.
To be sure, Donald Trump always seemed to fit right in on the Stern show. His past appearances probably would have made more controversy if not for the rhetorical atrocities on which Trump ran his actual campaign. But Howard always got the best of Trump, luring him into traps by stroking his ego. In Stern’s world, Trump’s brand of macho capitalist swagger is fodder to be ridiculed. The fraud of his earnest nationalism can be exposed for the joke that it is. I can picture Howard interviewing 2016 Trump: “You don’t really believe that shit, do you? That’s just for the rubes, right?” And I can imagine Trump – who has to be the coolest alpha in the room at any cost – even admitting as much. If anyone in the media could beat Donald Trump at his own game, it was Howard Stern.
Of course I’d be more comfortable with President Stern than President Trump. Damning by faint praise. But I grew up as Howard Stern fan – my mom was a listener from the AM radio days, my walks to school were accompanied by the antics of his peak years, and even today I prefer his best of tapes over most podcasts. You can criticize the show for its crass humor, but there was a meta-level of audience involvement that remains unique. Even the proto-Trumpian campaign slogans of his gubernatorial run were imbued with a certain wink. A campaign stop at a grimy strip club made for great radio as well as a subversive form political performance art. Am I being too analytical? Perhaps, but what else can we do as we prepare for President Trump?
Howard Stern campaigns at a strip club
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We hear a lot about “political correctness” and a culture that’s too “PC.” What is political correctness? Is it really a problem in our world? No. It’s the sort of complaint borne from a privileged class, noses slightly out of place because they can’t still openly use racist or sexist terms. But we as a people will not be lectured on morality. That was once the sole territory of the conservative right, but somehow the Trump campaign shifted the narrative. They were the rebels who talked with obscenities and slang as he tweeted out cracks and insults , while his critics were aghast at this lack of decorum. Decorum? Unfortunately, competency and decorum was not what the public was looking for in 2016. The antiquated, nationalist, even racist positions of the alt right somehow became the subversive rebellion, while the progressives were “the establishment,” and even worse, the school marmy arbiters of morality.
We’re dancing in a dangerous area here, but I’d argue that the distinction between Trump’s ignorant bombast and the crass humor of Howard Stern or Frank Zappa is the key to explaining the 2016 election. Get down in the mud, get dirty, and win. To stay “above the fray” was a surefire plan to lose. Furthermore, as far back as 2006 Sam Harris argued in his essay “The End Of Liberalism?” that the lack of perceived strength on questions of national security from the left will create a vacuum that could potentially be filled by something far worse. That is, Hillary Clinton, an experienced stateswoman and by no means a dove in terms of foreign policy, was portrayed as the weak apologist while Trump’s non-existent foreign policy was somehow perceived as strength.
Of course, it was all an act. Trump, like Stern, is a politician of the New York Post headline variety, hardly skilled or educated in the intricacies of the issues. Stern was similarly dogged by personal financial issues; he ultimately withdrew from the race rather than disclose the details of his wealth. I’m tempted to say that this was an excuse, that Howard looked into an abyss where he might actually become the governor and realized that he was simply not fit for the job. He shifted his support to George Pataki, who went on to win. I’d argue that his decision to withdraw underscores a certain honestly that can evidenced throughout his run. It’s a brutal sort of honesty – at one point he interviews two candidates for lieutenant governor, the first of whom is unmarried (“You’re not a homo right? I don’t care, but the voters…”) while the second is Jewish, which Howard views as a similar sort of liability. These are jokes, crass jokes, but they’re delivered at the expense of ignorant voters. But at least the Stern audience is in on the joke; the Trump electorate is not.
My argument is ultimately about successful opposition. We can’t allow old school racism and sexism to come off as hip rebellion against the genteel morality of the progressive left. We can’t allow open prejudice to appear as strong foreign policy. There has to be a way to reach the Midwest and the coasts, the red states and the blue cities. There has to be a way to talk tough without resorting to bigotry. To talk openly about sex without being vulgar. The answer can be found in Howard Stern’s 1994 gubernatorial run. I’d advise every Democratic strategist, every political science student to listen to the whole compilation of tapes, to tap into that earthy, honest talk and sometimes crass humor. Combine that with the competence and morals of progressives. Add in some good old bullshit, some magical thinking. And ‘wave that flag’ as the Grateful Dead sang. What other choice do we have?
Howard Stern at the 1994 NY Libertarian convention