By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009
After holding forth for hours behind the mike on everything from Roman Polanski to Afghanistan, Don Imus walks from his gleaming new studio to a stretch limo, slumps in the seat, removes his cowboy hat and runs a hand through his mop of brownish-gray hair.
"I can't breathe," he says, his trademark growl reduced to a low rasp. He has run out of inhaler for his emphysema, exacerbated by a lung injury when he was once thrown from a horse.
Whatever his physical difficulties, the 69-year-old curmudgeon hopes to be rejuvenated when his radio program makes its debut Monday on Fox Business Network. He is eager to join the company that employs Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, a personal friend.
"It's pretty hard to define where I am politically," says Imus, who supported John McCain and John Kerry in the last two elections. "People think I'm more liberal than I am conservative, which I probably am."
Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes is adept at picking off personalities from other networks, as he did with Beck, and turning them into bigger stars. But Imus is too much the iconoclast to view himself as a team player at Fox.
"The perception is that even their news is skewed toward opinion -- not when I watch it. It's a fair news organization. It's not my job to defend them. But I'm more likely to believe Shep Smith than Katie Couric or Brian Williams. Their news is advertiser-driven."
And Fox's isn't? "We're better people and have a much closer relationship with our Lord," Imus deadpans.
The limo has deposited him at a stately building on Central Park West. Inside, Imus is sitting on a brown leather chair in his office, his latest property in the building where he has owned a duplex for nearly two decades. The motif is decidedly more Southwestern than Upper West Side -- earth tones, kachina dolls, miniature totem poles, horse photos conjure up his New Mexico ranch. He touches a wall button and the room fills with the sound of a Nashville country band.
After two years, Fox's challenge to CNBC's dominant business coverage remains low in the ratings -- drawing an average of just 21,000 viewers -- but reaches nearly 50 million homes. It is a far more prominent brand than Imus's previous television home, RFD (Rural Free Delivery), founded by Imus pal Patrick Gottsch and carried mainly on satellite. There, Imus says, he shared the dial with cattle auctions and the "Big Joe Polka Show." "It's the difference between being on television and being on an Etch A Sketch," he grumbles.
MSNBC simulcast his radio show for 11 years until the spring of 2007, when the channel, and CBS Radio, fired Imus over racially insulting remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team. CBS owed Imus almost $40 million at the time on the nearly four years remaining on his contract, and paid him at least $10 million to settle a subsequent lawsuit. Imus is now on more radio stations (65) than he was before signing with Citadel Broadcasting and its flagship station here, WABC.
There was a time when Imus was his own constellation in the New York-Washington mediasphere, with his political and journalistic guests often making news, or being prodded into newsworthy gaffes. He was, as Newsweek put it in a 1999 cover story, a "savvy ringmaster . . . the perfect voice for an age that prizes irony over solemnity."
But his profile faded when MSNBC dropped him, and some of that buzz now surrounds Joe Scarborough, who succeeded him as the network's morning man. What's more, Imus recently lost his Washington radio outlet when WJZW-FM switched from pop oldies to classic rock. And he avoids the limelight by granting few interviews.
Some Beltway types still call in -- Frank Rich, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, Michael Beschloss, Tom Friedman, James Carville, Mary Matalin (and, occasionally, me) -- but the appearances seem to fly under the radar.
Schieffer says the Fox exposure should help restore the I-Man's clout. "I think it's an older and wiser Don Imus," he says. In the wake of the firing, "Don learned something from that experience, and at heart Don is a fine person. We all make mistakes, and he made a beaut."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who had demanded his firing, says Imus was "humiliated" and "more important to us, he said he was wrong, which really abandoned the position of his defenders." On the new show, Sharpton says, "he's taken positions we disagree with, but as far as we've been able to monitor, he hasn't crossed the line in terms of a blatant racist or sexist statement."
Many of the regulars on the old Imus show -- Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Tim Russert, David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell -- were NBC anchors and correspondents who benefited from the chance to display their more playful side. The same could happen if the new show takes on a more Foxified cast.
While Imus insists the move won't affect his bookings, Kevin Magee, Fox News's executive vice president, says he expects more network folks to do the show. Fox business anchor Neil Cavuto was on last week, and Beck the week before that. That was a joshing interview -- "Glenn, you're starting to scare me, don't start crying" -- with the man who recently branded President Obama a racist.
On a recent morning, Imus and his sidekick Charles McCord are doing their radio show, as a kind of dry run, at Fox's glitzy new studio overlooking Sixth Avenue. The floor is mostly neon red, and the hosts sit on a raised, circular platform, surrounded by video screens with moving images (which help disguise the fact that a radio show is a static shot). Producer Bernard McGuirk, who remains at the WABC studio 15 blocks south, implies on the show that Polanski having sex with a 13-year-old girl is not all that different than Imus marrying a much younger woman.
"Suggesting I'm sympathetic to Roman Polanski is just an outrage," Imus says.
"I don't know why you take child molestation so lightly," McGuirk responds.
"I'm getting bludgeoned by these Nazis who work for me," Imus complains.
The program has always been a mixture of politics, sports and culture, melded to the host's eccentricities and a brand of insult humor that sometimes goes over the edge. It seems an awkward fit with a network devoted to stocks and finance, though Imus begs to differ. "That's our audience -- an upscale, high-income audience," he says. "We have to find a way to make fun of business people, but that should be easy."
Fox will compensate for ceding the crucial pre-market hours by having business anchors Jenna Lee and Connell McShane do news cut-ins, and by airing an online business show in the 6-to-9 a.m. slot. Word of the debut "has already created excitement," Magee says. "Imus will bring an audience to us. You've got to get them to sample." As for the incident in which Imus called the Rutgers women "nappy-headed hos," Magee says: "Don has more than paid his price for that. He was censured by the marketplace."
That Imus crack came during a period when the program often trafficked in ethnic humor. "There's some material that we were doing, not racial, that was a little more risque than I was comfortable with," Imus says now. "We were being encouraged to try to compete with the Opie and Anthonys of the world."
Imus apologized to the Rutgers women in person, vowed to change his show -- he added two African Americans, one of whom, Tony Powell, remains -- and does not attempt to minimize his blunder.
"Had I not said it, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Imus explains. "Friends of mine wanted to defend me, they wanted my remarks put in context, which I thought was irrelevant. Then they wanted people to consider what a wonderful guy I was, because I helped kids with cancer. Being a wonderful person doesn't enable you to say whatever the [blank] you want to say."
The bottom line, he says, is that "making fun of black girls' hair" was way over the line, and Imus does not quarrel with the firestorm that followed. "That's what the media does, they overreact to stuff. I'm not going to whine about that. I didn't like it, but I could have avoided it." Nowadays, "we don't make fun of innocent people who don't deserve to be made fun of."
While Imus won't defend the Rutgers slam, he resents those he thinks piled on, including Barack Obama. In 2007, Gregory asked the Democratic presidential candidate whether Imus should be fired.
"I don't think MSNBC should be carrying the kinds of hateful remarks that Imus uttered the other day, and he has a track record of making those kinds of remarks," Obama said. "Look, I've got two daughters who are African American, gorgeous, tall, and I hope at some point are interested enough in sports that they get athletic scholarships. . . . He would not be working for me."
Imus says that Obama "was kind of duped into that. . . . He was being interviewed by that backstabbing, pigeon-looking, gut-sucking weasel David Gregory." Gregory's questions, though, were straightforward, such as whether Obama would appear again on Imus's show and whether the incident should spark a broader racial conversation.
Says Gregory: "Imus used to say those things about me even when he was being affectionate. I always tried to be fair to Don."
Imus hasn't entirely soured on the president: "Politics aside, I kinda like the guy. He seems kinda cool. He can go around the world without people throwing shoes at him. On the other hand, I'm not confident he knows what he's doing."
Since Imus runs a program for children with cancer at his ranch, he was more prepared than most when he learned in March that he had stage 2 prostate cancer. "The kids want to be treated as normal kids -- they don't want to be defined by their disease," he says. With his own diagnosis, "a lot of people acted completely differently toward me -- it could have been my perception -- in a patronizing way."
The diagnosis particularly scared his 11-year-old son, Wyatt, who has gotten to know some children who later died after sharing a house with the Imus family, which spends summers at the ranch.
Imus decided against surgery and radiation, choosing an approach that relies on diet and daily treadmill exercise, a regimen supervised by a Columbia University doctor. Under the watchful eye of his wife, Deirdre, he subsists mainly on uncooked, organic foods such as raw sauerkraut, flaxseed and searingly hot habanero peppers. Imus says this approach has stopped the cancer from spreading, rattling off numbers to show it is under control.
At that moment, Deirdre Imus breezes into the office.
"What can I eat?" he says.
"Did you do the sauerkraut yet?" she asks.
Her husband notes that he had already been a vegetarian for a decade. "His idea was to have potato chips and root beer," Deirdre scoffs. She looks at him. "How old are you now, 82?"
"Get the hell out of here," he barks. "You're such a jerk." They have perfected the squabbling-married-couple routine.
Imus is a millionaire many times over. He has bounced back throughout his life: from dropping out of high school, from early firings, from alcohol and cocaine addiction. Given his ailments, he could retire to the ranch, eat his peppers and count his money.
The suggestion makes Imus hark back to the Rutgers debacle.
"I had a fairly decent career up to that point," he says. "I didn't want to end on that note. I'm a great believer in karma and naively think things will work out for the best."
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."