HEY, DID you hear what Don Imus said about Hillary Clinton? It's a song parody that ridicules how she "fornicates," "menstruates" and "urinates," and includes the refrain: "That's why the First Lady is a tramp."
Or maybe you caught one of the "Beavis and Bubba" skits, in which Bubba (Bill Clinton) is portrayed as a leering Arkansas hick whose "knees knock" when women of low repute come near?
Ouch! Did the president of the United States (regularly described by Imus as a "fat pantload" and "lying weasel") boycott the radio show after those bits appeared early in his term? Not a chance. Clinton eagerly phoned in and joked about why he once kept Astroturf in the back of his pickup (not, he insisted, for the lascivious reason Imus suggested). But don't look for Bob Dole to make an issue of this cultural degradation -- he's an Imus regular too.
While Clinton glared angrily at Imus during his off-color routine at the Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner last week, he has done more than anyone else to turn the I-Man into a media superstar. It was during the 1992 New York primary when Clinton strategists decided their man could win Gotham's heart by calling into Imus's show and trading barbs with the local yokel who had tagged Clinton a "redneck bozo." Clinton won the primary, and Imus was on his way to national syndication.
Sure, Imus went over the line a couple of times at the dinner, particularly in savaging Peter Jennings's love life. And yes, some low-rent material should not be repeated in front of the First Couple. But most of the jokes were milder than what Imus dishes daily to 78 radio markets around the country. So why was Clinton, described by his spokesman as having endured a "painful" evening, surprised? Why did his aides once give Imus a VIP tour of the White House? And how can Clinton (and Dole) rail against immorality in Hollywood while maintaining a co-dependent relationship with one of the nation's top raunchmeisters?
Let's face it: Politicians vie for the privilege of being abused by Imus. In the Senate, Chris Dodd, Bill Bradley, John Kerry, John McCain and Al D'Amato love to shoot the on-air breeze with the craggy-faced shock jock. Imus dismisses those who won't join in the banter as "not happening." And, increasingly, politicians want to be happening with his upscale audience of 10 million listeners.
Most pols are so boring that the public tends to click them off when they take to the airwaves. So they relish the chance to demonstrate that they're not humor-impaired. "You get to show that you're kind of a hip guy," says Clinton pal James Carville, who went on the show last week despite the dinner flap. "If you're Bob Dole, it shows you can't be that staid and sour."
Some officeholders get carried away by Imus's freewheeling approach. D'Amato was roundly condemned last year when he ridiculed "little Judge Ito" in a mocking Japanese accent. But he returned to the show.
Indeed, cozying up to Imus may be preferable to landing on his hit list. He slammed Lamar Alexander as "the single phoniest person ever to run for public office." He ripped Steve Forbes as "a mean-spirited creep" and "a lying, elitist, rich worm" who "doesn't have the guts to appear on this program."
Imus's political devotees say he gives them a chance to be heard. In a "Crossfire" media culture of prosecutorial questions and prepackaged answers, they are grateful for 15 minutes of uninterrupted conversation.
"He happens to ask damn good questions, and the people who find him offensive might spend a few minutes listening to him," says Dodd, the Democratic Party chairman. "This town is in desperate need of more humor." Says Kerry: "He pushes the envelope on poking fun at us, at the process, at politics. Sometimes he can go over the line. But it allows a candor that rarely comes through on the radio and never on television."
And then there's the buzz factor. "The number of people who come up to me in New Jersey and say I heard you on Imus' is 50 to 100 times the number who say I saw you on "Face the Nation,"'" says Bradley, a fan since his basketball days. "He makes fun of me, but never in a cheap-shot way."
Imus puts it this way: "It gives them a chance to humanize themselves. Because I'm not Ted Koppel or Tim Russert, I can ask them the things that everyone talks about. But I don't roll over for them like Larry King does."
Empowered by the political heavyweights, the 55-year-old former freight-train brakeman and onetime cocaine addict is now a $5-million-a-year phenomenon. Imus's status is further enhanced by the celebrity pundits who appear regularly (Dan Rather, Tim Russert, Mike Wallace, Jeff Greenfield) and are standing by their man. But the fourth estate is split. Cokie Roberts, calling Imus "profoundly rude," says she'll never go on again, and Mort Kondracke lambastes him as a "scuzzball." Now the shocked politicians are piling on, with Ross Perot calling Imus "just gross" and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle branding him "that jerk."
But going too far -- and Imus has clearly stretched the boundaries of bad taste, even spoofing Ted Kennedy as gurgling after a car accident -- is precisely the point of the program. Who was the correspondents' group expecting, Henny Youngman? Imus captures the obscenity-filled chatter of the average newsroom. He caroms from policy to penis jokes and back again, exposing our secret love of raunch.
Imus, Howard Stern and other loudmouths reflect a high-decibel society in which journalists insult each other on talk shows, pathetic souls denounce their relatives on daytime TV and politicians slam each other in attack ads. But these radio rebels would be out of work if we (the audience) didn't find them funny and they (the big-name pols) didn't pant after the free air time. The hand-wringing over the Imus imbroglio carries just a whiff of hypocrisy. Howard Kurtz, a Washington Post reporter, is author of "Hot Air: All Talk, All The Time" (Times Books).