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Shock Is His Middle Name

Howard Stern isn't the only hellion of morning drive time. Don Imus' recent jabs at President Clinton only capped a career that's been riddled with controversy. Finally, it's L.A.'s turn to tune in.

July 07, 1996|Verne Gay | Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday

NEW YORK — The lion's den is not such a terrible place at all. It is almost erudite, really, more like the sanctum sanctorum of a stern but imminently respectable professor than the warren of a notorious radio talk show host.

The walls are dark burnished wood, and from ceiling to floor shelves are crammed with hundreds of books, mostly nonfiction. Three pleasantly plump chairs are covered with Southwestern designs, giving this windowless, dimly lit place in the bowels of the ancient Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens a faint and welcome suggestion of the great outdoors.

And--what's this?--a human hand is sticking out between the ceiling panels of the office. It is plastic, thankfully.

There is the lion himself, looking more flustered than ferocious.

"See if you know some sports moron from Philadelphia who can do this," he grumbles to an associate who is preparing a segment for the next day's show. John Donald Imus Jr. swings around in his chair and glares at a visitor with a pair of ice-blue eyes that could burn a hole through the steel shell of an assault tank. "So what," he demands, "can I do for you?"

Imus is no longer the bad boy of shock radio, of course. But for a guy who has lived life very, very hard--cocaine and alcohol abuse, homelessness, a career trajectory that could charitably be described as erratic--he looks pretty good at 55. The face remains as angular and sharp as ever, anchored by a glaring scowl that by now has become a permanent fixture. The head is topped with a copious swirl of trademark curls, and the almost adolescent appearance is complemented by jeans, a denim jacket and slightly soiled, untied Nikes. He is sockless.

Save for the pressures of getting ready for the next day's show, the I-Man looks as if he hasn't got a care in the world, which seems kind of odd for a fellow who has abused the president of the United States for so long--favorite adjectives being "fat," "weaselly" and "lying"--that if a secret enemies list exists somewhere, he must surely be at the very top of it. And as the honored (now dishonored) speaker at a March 21 dinner for the Radio-Television Correspondents Assn., he sweated his way through a speech that directly maligned no fewer than 54 people and one cat (Socks). Many of these people are the mighty and influential, who also happen to be regulars on his daily hit show, "Imus in the Morning."

Alas, Imus isn't worried in the least. No, President Clinton hasn't spoken to him since the dinner. And fact is, Imus doesn't want to speak to him either--"or until he's indicted." Cokie Roberts says she will never return, because Imus' speech include brutal barbs about her ABC colleague Peter Jennings, but no others have abandoned the show. Loyalists like Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) have been on since.

But if the law of unintended consequences needed an example--something that perfectly embraced the notion that for every action there is a completely unexpected reaction--it may be this: The dinner has been a booster rocket for the show. Since that night when Imus defamed the media and political elite of Washington, some 20 stations have added the syndicated show to their daily lineup (for a total of 85). Executives associated with the show say this is the single biggest growth spurt in the 2 1/2 years since "Imus in the Morning" became nationally syndicated.

Beginning Monday at 5 a.m., two L.A.-area stations--KLAC-AM (570) in Glendale and KMEN-AM (1290) in Riverside--will start airing the show. (L.A. listeners till now have heard it only when they could pick up San Diego's KOGO-AM.) Stations in Philadelphia and Detroit will pick up the show as well. Deals for these stations had been on the back burner for months, but observers say it was the Dinner From Hell that helped moved them to the front.

"It took me on a different level," says Imus, who played the speech three times on the air to prove that people in the audience really were laughing (some newspaper accounts reported that they were not) and to milk the publicity for all it was worth.

Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," who has been a regular listener and guest for three years, explains that the "evening really brought him more forcefully to the attention of the general public because a lot of cities where it hasn't appeared suddenly began to ask, 'Who the dickens is this Don Imus?' "

*

So who the dickens is he? To his admirers, he is a churlish, abusive, brilliant, funny, scurrilous, insolent, slightly twisted, brutally honest man who also happens to be a first-rate interviewer. He also has a deep moral streak that seems in direct contradiction to the scatological and faintly racist humor in which he frequently engages.

Oddly enough, his detractors feel pretty much the same way about him.

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