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Terry Sawyer

Imagining The Jerry Springer Show as the radical vanguard is unspeakably ludicrous. What politics does it address or challenge?

The most admirable thing Jerry Springer's ever done was getting a hooker to take a check, an act that led to his resignation from the Cincinnati City Council in 1974 (he won the seat back in 1975). Doubtless, he scribbled it out after services were rendered, and the poor girl had to remember the day's date and the spelling of her real last name while hiking up her fishnets. For some reason, she didn't just have her pimp work him over with a sack of tangelos.

This tacky moment came to mind as I watched Springer's new infomercial, "Run Jerry Run," announcing and explaining his potential run for the U.S. Senate. In this extraordinarily painful half hour, he asks for a wholly undeserved line of political credit.

Frame for frame, "Run Jerry Run" seems a bad garage sale of a political campaign, combining a local morning show and a Viagra testimonial with Schindler's List. It opens with a heartbreaking segment about his parents' flight from Nazism. For any other candidate, this would be your typical American dream yarn, replete with a father who provided for his family by selling homemade stuffed animals on the war ravaged streets of London. Here, it reeks of opportunism. (I wouldn't want to suggest that he's using the Holocaust for political gain, but it's certainly out of place here, juxtaposed with his shameless merchandising: "We have t-shirts in red or blue, to match your eyes.") The implication is that voting for Jerry will be the fulfillment of his immigrant parents' aspirations. It's hard to imagine anyone fleeing history's greatest totalitarian nightmare so that his son could ringlead a motley group of trannies throwing chairs at their lovers. Hitler foiled again.

This assumption of victimhood is hardly isolated. Rather, it's the marinade of Springer's "message": We are the victims of them, and only a professional victim like him should represent us in Washington. "We scare them," he says. By "them," he always means "the powerful" who, as far as I can tell, seem to be Monty Burns and the Illuminati, because he never says what constitutes this cabal keeping "us" out. Springer talks about "the elite" and "the people" in a pinched and halting manner, as if the pose of sincerity fits like lead panties. Apparently, he has decided that all he needs for a political campaign is a series of "Final Thoughts" laced with low-rent paranoia.

Jene and Jerry Galvin, two Cincinnati morning show DJs, narrate a loose string of everyday accolades from interviewees who sound like they've been pegged with ketamine blow darts. At one point, John Snow, Director of Technology for Covington Independent Schools, says, "He's one of the guys, a little guy, but one of the guys." This sort of truck stop chummery, constantly awash in maudlin piano riffs, makes up much of the infomercial's testimonials. The one accomplishment of any note that I could glean from his political history was that he turned Cincinnati's City Hall into a traveling mobile home. I sure hope he brings that idea to Washington. Imagine how much more responsive the Federal Government would be to our needs if all the Senators traveled across the U.S. in one huge Mad Max caravan.

The overarching focus of this bloated ad is a fortuitous insult from Jonah Goldberg, humorist and conservative polemicist for the National Review. Mouthing off on the Sunday morning talkie circuit, Goldberg commented, "To me, this proves that voter turnout is not this glorious thing... because if Jerry Springer shows up, he'll bring all these new people to the polls, they will be slack-jawed yokels, hicks, weirdoes, pervs, and whatnot." Without irony, Springer makes this tossed-off punchline the core of his campaign. Emblazoned on the t-shirts and photos, it's treated as if it were a press release from the headquarters of Elites, Incorporated.

Goldberg never mentions socio-economic status, but Springer performs that act of sleaze alchemy, transforming Goldberg's statement into something along the lines of "only rich, highly cultured city folk should vote." Anyone who reads Goldberg regularly would know that he fills many a column inch shilling for a raise, praising Homer Simpson, talking to his couch, and making Lord of the Rings' jokes. This is hardly the disdain of the upper crust. Goldberg is simply questioning the meaningfulness of voting as a generic and absolute good. He implies that Jerry Springer's guests and their ilk might not have anything to contribute to a public dialogue.

While you might disagree with this, it's certainly impossible to argue that the people who skulked across Springer's stage are ciphers for the vast lot of us. No matter, Springer's campaign takes a blind aim, unhindered by contrary facts and nuance.

Clips of his claim to fame are conspicuously absent; no doubt, they run counter to the kind of pallid seriousness this infomercial tries to invoke. When he mentions The Jerry Springer Show, he does so from a position of treacly martyrdom. "They will try to use the show against me," he says, or against the "cause," as he calls his campaign. The only reason Springer can cite for why anyone would use the show to attack him is the timeworn: "It's politically incorrect." It's true that mainstream opinion frequently dons the lingerie of rebellion in order to feign novelty. But imagining The Jerry Springer Show as the radical vanguard is unspeakably ludicrous. What politics does it address or challenge? Still, he acts like, try as he might, he just can't understand why people might vehemently attack it.

Let me help. Your show revels in gruesomely commodifying the most sacred of human intimacies, treating everyone's bedroom and violent melodrama like a deviance terrarium. Maybe people criticize you because you exploit poor morons' willingness to lie, exaggerate or expose their lack of potty training for a minor stab at "fame."

No surprise, Springer doesn't confront his own culpability in this airbrushed hagiography. Instead, we get 30 minutes that alternate between hallucinatory besiegement and railing against amorphous villains. I've had homeless people give me more coherent reasons for wanting my change.

As I trudged through this intellectual gruel, I couldn't pull out a single policy position that might give Ohio voters a reason to cast their vote for Springer. Sure, he wants to "save schools" and "get the job done," but this amounts to a proposal to overhaul the "corruption" of the "elite" by airdropping badly written platitudes on them. All politicians resort to the linguistic colonic of cliché, but only the most debasing populists empty their platform of everything but.

All of this makes me think that Goldberg is at least partially correct. If you fall for such claptrap, if all it takes to rouse you from your recliner is a couple of shots of snake oil and empty pronouncements about "shaking things up" or attacking "the powers that be," then you probably suffer from what I call "irritable apathy." Deep down, you don't really give a shit about actual conflict, policy or the necessary roughness of making change happen. All of us have probably peered at scab-picking spectacle of Springer's show. But supporting his cancerous spread into national politics is unconscionable. Springer is not championing the powerless. He's just looking for another chance to fleece them. And this time, it's on their dime.

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