When I was in high school, I was an insufferable young Republican. I’ve talked about this on my podcast and on the blog, so it’s not any sort of revelation. Like a lot of kids who self-identify as conservative, as soon as I left home and began to learn about the real world, among other things via higher education in the field of political science, my personal values and politics rapidly shifted leftward simply because, as Stephen Colbert famously said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
But in the late 1980s, like many confused, awkward conservative kids, I also was totally addicted to the Morton Downey Jr. Show. Downey was the television Patient Zero who spawned both the Jerry Springer talk show circus format and the Bill O’Reilly Fox News pundit format. He was a far-right, cigarette-smoking screamer who hosted a syndicated telecast that was set up like a daytime talk show, complete with an audience and a panel of on-stage guests, and the topics, at least initially, were all wafer-thin political issues. Needless to say, 17-year-old political junky me in 1988 and 1989 absorbed it like a really shouty drug.
So when I watched a new documentary about Downey titled ÉVOCATEUR: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Downey’s show, I was both surprised and not surprised at all to learn that it was essentially a political broadcast specifically designed for 17-year-olds boys with every topic simplified into digestible good-or-evil, right-or-wrong, with-us-or-against-us ultimatums. And of course it was. Post-Reagan conservatism is largely based on stunted, undeveloped, childish, contra-empirical ideas about the world — ideas that both confirm and enable simplistic notions about the role of government in society. The success of the Downey show was due to the carefully choreographed delivery of the ideas from an authoritative, alpha-male role model who wasn’t afraid to throw down like a testosterone-possessed teenage boy. He was a heavy metal political rocker without the hair and leather and he used the persona to tap into that politically immature mindset.
The movie artfully carries us through Downey’s career and, augmented by animation sequences that reminded me of Gerald Scarfe’s work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, illustrates what compelled Downey’s ambition and what contributed to his crash-and-burn disintegration. It seems as if Downey was always seeking to escape from his famous Dad’s shadow (Morton Downey Sr. was a popular crooner). The challenge to live up to his father’s success perpetually haunted him, especially when it became clear he didn’t quite have his Dad’s talent for singing. But Downey kept trying and trying to make it in the music business which eventually led him into Top 40 radio in the 1970s. Like many of the modern conservative talkers, the transition from music to right-wing talk seemed more of a career move rather than any real interest in changing public policy. There’s money in conservative entertainment, so… why not? Later, Downey was fired from a Sacramento, California radio station after referring to an Asian caller as a “Chinaman.” He was replaced by newcomer Rush Limbaugh.
Throughout the film, various interviewees hint at the fact that Downey’s on-air persona was mostly an act. Talk show host Richard Bey came right out and said in the movie, “It was an act, just like Sean Hannity is an act. It’s television.” Downey’s lifelong friend Lloyd Schoonmaker said of Downey’s politics, “He would seem to go in either direction, whatever would seem to work at the time.”
The act involved a pumped up studio audience; a topic — usually political; a panel of tomato can guests who Downey could easily destroy with the help of 180 superfan accomplices; a lot of cigarette smoke; a lot of shouting and in-your-face confrontations; a cartoon parody version of political debate; Downey’s gigantic mouth full of capped chompers and ultimately no real resolution. Pat Buchanan describes the atmosphere of the show as “the angry voices of people left behind.” “Angry” tends to understate the emotional content of the show.
The tone and style that made it a ratings hit ultimately destroyed it, just as Downey’s obsession with showmanship — the act — ultimately destroyed his reputation. In the documentary, Downey’s former producers recalled how, after a while, they were simply unable to book legitimate guests because no one wanted to endure the abuse. In one segment which I had totally forgotten about until I watched the movie, Downey rips into Ron Paul who was struggling over the studio chaos to talk about his support for drug legalization. Downey shouted him down and implied that Ron Paul’s high, plaintive voice was due to Paul’s shrunken testicles. (If Downey had been interested in nuance he would’ve realized that Ron Paul was and is farther to the right than Downey and would go on to become the most conservative member of Congress.)
So the show’s producers relied almost entirely on both Al Sharpton (also portrayed in the documentary as a showman first and foremost) and the African American activist’s involvement in the controversial Tawana Brawley case, interspersed with panels that would become Jerry Springer fodder six years later: freaks, KKK guys, strippers and nutbags. During a particularly shocking scene in the movie, Downey confronts a stripper with the misogynistic threat, “I’d show you how to kick the living shit out of a broad!” The producers of the show also describe how Downey offered another stripper from the same panel a job as a producer on the show. The next day, Downey called the woman into the men’s room and asked her to hold his penis while he urinated. “Conservative” values indeed. Suffice to say, the movie reveals Downey’s obvious sociopathy and anger toward women. Years later, the infamous feminist lawyer and activist Gloria Allred, who was also a guest on his show, attended Downey’s funeral.
The show was canceled after existing for less than two years. But Downey wasn’t finished with “the act.” In a fit of desperation, perhaps for publicity or perhaps to win the sympathy of his third wife, Downey staged a publicity stunt in which neo-Nazis accosted him in a bathroom, cut his hair and drew a swastika on his face with a magic marker. Of course he did it to himself — the swastika drawing was hilariously botched, among other things (if there’s one thing neo-Nazis are familiar with, it’s swastikas). The year after his show was canceled, he filed bankruptcy, hosted two random shows on CNBC and in 1996 he was diagnosed with lung cancer (four packs of cigarettes a day!) which eventually killed him in March of 2001.
I can’t help but to imagine that if Downey had remained healthy, he would’ve fit perfectly into the Fox News line-up, especially followng the 9/11 attacks when the simplistic 17-year-old-teenager “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” brand of patriotism infected the entire nation. In fact, I believe part of the reason Downey’s show failed so rapidly was because it was presented out of the context of right-wing cable television which wouldn’t appear until ten years after Downey. If it had been nestled within a channel that featured other like-minded shows, who knows? Maybe it would’ve continued a little longer. But ultimately, as the movie discusses, Downey’s unsustainable style killed his show. Fox News pundits on the other hand have learned to modulate the frequency and volume of their apoplectic freak-outs, unlike Downey.
He was the botched prototype that led to thousands of media ideologues who deliver Downey-inspired conservatism to low information voters — discarding the bits of the carrion that didn’t work while horking all of the good stuff, including a prominent degree of deception. I feel like 17-year-old me was taken by a well-crafted scam artist. Likewise, I firmly believe that Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the others are doing the same to their audiences — the only difference being that the audiences of today’s conservative talkers are old enough to know better.
The documentary, to be released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures on June 7, is a fantastic companion to Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, which documented the life and times of another influential conservative menace from the 1980s. Lee Atwater was to Karl Rove and Republican politics what Downey was to Bill O’Reilly and Fox News. Both succumbed to cancer after infecting politics with viruses that are still being transmitted years after their deaths. ÉVOCATEUR is required viewing if you’re at all interested in the evolution of the conservative entertainment complex and, more importantly, the development of the modern conservative movement with all of its accompanying showmanship, hyperkinetic jingoism, simplicity and bumper sticker sloganeering.
Downey wasn’t the first right-wing talker, but he was the first right-wing talker to attain superstar celebrity status. He was a wanna-be rock star who burned out with the same shooting star rapidity as a one-hit wonder. But the echoes of his loudmouth voice resonate today, and even though 17-year-old me was really into it, I see Downey’s influence as purely bad for America. Sadly, in spite of its chronological adulthood, the audience for Downey-style conservative punditry has yet to grow up.