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The Right, the Left, the Media: It's All Fair Game

April 15, 2002|AMBROSE CLANCY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Sunday at 6:50 a.m. John Leonard may be one of the few intellectuals in Manhattan on his way to work. Or, perhaps, the only member of the literati even awake at this hour, except, of course, for those who still consider it Saturday night. "In my drinking days, I thought I was a night person," the 63-year-old Leonard says, walking on an empty West 57th Street to tape his spot as media critic for CBS' "Sunday Morning." "But it was just the booze. When I stopped, I realized that I liked going to bed and getting up early."

The massive CBS Building squats on a long block sloping down toward the Hudson River, gleaming in the bright morning. The writer calls his Sunday critiques, which usually run four to six minutes, "sermonettes." And he is something of a political chaplain, using wit to put across liberal orthodoxy from his '60s active service in the antiwar and civil rights movements. But Leonard can never quite be pigeon-holed, calling down God's wrath on American magazines, for example, from what seems a conservative pulpit: "Why should we shrug our shoulders at the glossy triumph of the kind of scratch-and-sniff journalism that, between pornographic ads for vodka and dot-coms, postures in front of experience instead of engaging it?"

Or calls for plagues on both political houses by arguing that they have sold out to the ruminations of one man, "the gnome of the Fed, Alan 'Chuckles' Greenspan." And he is the rare intellectual, on the left or the right, who not only admits to watching commercial TV, but enthusiastically praises it as "weirdly democratic, multicultural, utopian, quixotic and rather more welcoming of difference and diversity than the audience watching it." Leonard is as happy quoting Karl Marx as he is Ed Sullivan.

In his 10th book, a recently published collection of essays titled "Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures" (he's fond of subtitles; his last book, "When the Kissing Had to Stop," pulls a rollicking 36-word train behind it), the author describes himself as having once been "the young man from the provinces," that 19th century avatar of ambition, talent and cunning, who comes up to the Capitol burning to make good. Leonard's province was postwar Southern California, Lakewood, to be precise, where he grew up "word-drunk and moon-maddened."

Walking quickly through the narrow CBS corridors, he points out "the Edward R. Murrow Room, the only place we could smoke." He smiles nostalgically, "Yeah, that was the Black Lung Room." A locomotive smoker for more than four decades, Leonard, feeling perfectly fine, went for a chest X-ray late last year and in January found himself on an operating table having 40% of his right lung cut out. Practically race-walking though the maze of the building, he talks about the difficulties of working without his beloved Tareytons. "I've got to find a new dance at the keyboard."

Lean, long-faced, terrier-quick and nervous, Leonard responds to questions tentatively at first, searching, like all good writers, for the proper opening. After a false start or two he plunges ahead and speaks the way he writes; intense, amused, full bore.

"I first went on the air back in the '70s doing book reviews for local news. But," he says with a wicked grin, "when I talked about a biography of Leon Trotsky they suddenly didn't want me anymore."

More than 40 years ago he arrived and hopped "onto the pogo stick of a New York career," working for the New York Times for 16 years, including five as editor of the Book Review, which he transformed from the Buckingham Palace of American letters (either you were asked in, turned away, or, with excruciating ceremony, thrown out) to something open and inclusive. He has been literary editor of the Nation, is in his 19th year as the weekly TV critic for New York magazine and has had the CBS gig for 13 years.

In addition to the books (including a novel set in Long Beach, "Crybaby of the Western World"), he's written for everything from "the old weekly Life before it died for People's sins," to Playboy and TV Guide. He describes what he does as "sorting the signals of an overheated publicity culture, manufacturing opinions instead of widgets."

A subversive with a smile on his face, Leonard lays landmines for sleepwalkers strolling through a book review, a magazine column, a TV appearance. He believes politics and culture are two sides of the corporate coin, and in the Orwellian notion that professing no politics is in itself a political act.

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