It keeps happening. Callers share intimate details of their lives with Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and she is moved to tears. She tells ABC's "20/20" about growing up in a house with angry parents, and she cries. She is interviewed for a U.S. News & World Report cover story, and she sobs. She appears on "Oprah" and is overwhelmed with emotion after a young dad fesses up that he's been more concerned about bringing home the bacon than being with his kids.
On this day, the country's premier female radio star is seated on a wrought iron chair on the patio of the three-story dream home that she bought a year and a half ago in an exclusive, horsy San Fernando Valley enclave. And it's happening again.
Dr. Laura is recalling a summer teaching job three decades ago at a school for the handicapped in New York, and the tears are so persistent that her attendant media consultant discreetly disappears into the house for Kleenex. In those days, she had no values and no God. She was a basket case trying to cope with children who "would be dead by the end of summer."
Then one day, she met a paraplegic black man in his 40s who was intently bending wires on resistors--extremely exacting, repetitive work. "How can you do a job that's so boring?" she remembers blurting out unthinkingly.
"He was looking at a young little white girl with a whole life ahead of her," she relates, tears now flooding her face. "He said, 'There are lots of ways to think about what you do with your life. On the surface, my job may look very boring. But I take great pleasure in beating the other guys' times and figures." * A tissue is offered. "I was so ashamed and enlightened," she murmurs. "I've never been bored since that day. He changed my life."
She propels the conversation forward, then suddenly reins it back: "I am the guy in the wheelchair. I get things done faster and better."
For those who perceive the controversial national scold as one gnarly cookie, Dr. Laura would like you to know she's really a mushy-hearted kitty cat. As she reminds her legion of listeners every weekday, she is a deeply religious woman who uses her mega-pulpit to drum sense into a morally wayward culture, a recently converted Jew who was reared a heathen, a fervent apostle of motherhood who drapes herself in the Ten Commandments and reigns as values queen.
"I am a prophet," she proclaims with unapologetic grandiosity. "This is a very serious show."
It can also be a very unforgiving show. An undercurrent of breathtaking anger surges not far beneath the jokes and laughter. For all the chumminess and girlish teasing, there is a drum beat of invective as Schlessinger rips into people, snarling insults at often pathetically needy callers, their friends, members of their families.
You are lying! she will hiss.
Don't give me that crap; it won't fly here! She will demand of callers: Repeat after me, I am a dummy! I am a dummy!
And they do.
There is something of almost biblical proportions about the ascension of Laura Schlessinger. Her voice has been heard on various Southern California radio stations for more than two decades, most notably for the past seven years on "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program" (KFI, 640 AM, weekdays, noon to 3). During the KFI stint, she has also written a syndicated column and several best-sellers, including "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives" and "How Could You Do That?!"
Internationally syndicated in 1994, her celebrity soared. And last September, Jacor Communications Inc. paid Synergy Broadcasting Inc. (equity partners on the show with Schlessinger and husband Lew Bishop) a staggering $71.5 million for the show, radio's biggest deal ever, 40% more than it gave Rush Limbaugh. She has the fastest-growing show in radio history, a program now aired on 450 stations in the United States, 30 in Canada--where she is the No. 1 talk radio personality--and in South Africa. And it has made Schlessinger and Bishop very, very rich.
Every weekday, devoted listeners from Juneau to Johannesburg tune in to Dr. Laura's no-nonsense confessional to hear how to live moral lives. She doesn't care how people feel; she cares about how they act. "I don't do therapy," she says, "I do the Ten Commandments." Verily, she's not interested in mental health; she's interested in moral health. And she is unequivocal about her beliefs: Don't leave your kids in child care--"stranger care." Don't shack up with anyone until you're married. Don't get an abortion or a divorce. Control your animal urges. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Don't be weak, selfish or stupid. Stop whining. Get a life. Grow up!
Have little kids and a rotten marriage? You made your bed, Honeybaby: Deal! Want someone to go along with your manipulative, irresponsible little games and give you warm fuzzies? Call somebody else! Considering therapy? What for? Terrible childhood? Get over it!
"I have a background," she says, "that would curl your hair."