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Iowa's last word on politics

Jan Mickelson, host of the state's top talk-radio show, has an outsize sway over the GOP vote -- and the presidential candidates know it.

September 07, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

It was a few years later, while living in Minnesota, that Mickelson first thought of a radio career. By then he was married; Mickelson met his wife in speech class at a small Baptist college in Wisconsin. (The couple celebrated their 37th anniversary in June.) One day, while Mickelson was working at a gas station in St. Paul, a customer mentioned he was going to broadcasting school in Minneapolis. "The light bulb went on," Mickelson said.

He earned his degree and began a succession of radio jobs -- broken up by a few years of teaching private school -- moving from small markets in Wisconsin to Columbia, S.C., then Cincinnati.

He experienced plenty of on-air embarrassments: the time he locked himself out of the studio and listened helplessly as John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" faded to dead air. The song haunts him to this day.

Or the time, as a novice talk jockey in La Crosse, Wis., he glanced at the calendar and mused about a strange holiday, Chi-CHAWK-kuh, wondering whether it was an Alaskan occasion of some sort. "The phone rang," Mickelson recalled, and a none-too-friendly voice informed him: "That's Chanukah, you putz."

"I didn't understand either of those words," he said, deadpan. "I do now."

In 1988, a death in his wife's family prompted Mickelson's return home. He called WHO -- "the only call letters I remembered from Iowa" -- and, to his surprise, was offered a morning talk show. He has been there ever since. His wife, Susanne, works as a paralegal in Des Moines. Their only child, Scott, is a financial broker in Southern California.

Mickelson is a large man with a smooth voice and the certitude of one used to having the last word, which, on air, he always does. At just over 6 feet tall, with a slight paunch, his square jaw and blocky glasses lend a passing resemblance to George Reeves, the TV actor who played Superman in the 1950s. It is a change for Mickelson, who recently shaved his beard of 20-plus years and shed 35 pounds. As a result, he is not nearly as recognizable, which may be a welcome thing -- for all his exposure, Mickelson doesn't seem like much of a people person.

Broadcasting last month from the state fair, he drew a steady stream of fans who gawked through the studio glass and waited for a word after. One was Chuck Dennis, 65, a retired trucker from Toledo, Iowa. "He tells it the way it is," Dennis said. But rather than linger, Mickelson chatted a bit then exited as quickly as good manners allowed.

What animates him are ideas, which Mickelson absorbs through books and taped lectures -- speeches, sermons, academic presentations -- which he collects as a hobby. At home in Ankeny, a bedroom community outside Des Moines, he may be happiest pedaling his bicycle, as much as 150 miles a week in the summer, listening to other people talk on his MP3 player.

The Mickelson program is not all politics all the time. He might discuss dieting, or coaching kids' soccer, along with the latest Washington scandal. Much of the appeal is the host's regular-guy persona -- though, it should be said, most regular guys don't quote esoteric scholars or presume to tell a White House candidate he is ill- informed about his own religion.

"Jan's not closed-up," said Mark Steinfruck, 65, a listener from Des Moines, who counts on two hands the number of Mickelson shows he has missed in 19 years. "I know he lives in Ankeny. I know he's married. I know his kid's grown. I know a cardinal was crashing in his laundry room window a couple years ago. I know he had a strange electrical problem that made all his clocks keep the wrong time."

Mickelson has his critics. Most Democrats have little use for the show. "It's not our audience," said Jeff Link, a party strategist. Gay- and immigration-rights advocates have accused Mickelson of insensitivity on more than one occasion. A few years ago there was talk of a boycott -- which fizzled -- when he called the gay support group at a local high school a "sodomy club."

"That's a prime example of how mean-spirited he can be," said Rudy Simms, director of the Des Moines Human Rights Commission, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the city. "He's very skilled at belittling people."

Mickelson shrugged off the criticism, saying anyone is welcome to come on his show and, marshaling the facts, explain why he is wrong. "If I brush up against someone's sensitivities, or how they feel, I don't worry about it," he said.

Take gay rights, for instance. In his view homosexuality is a sin, but no one else's business unless government gets involved by, say, recognizing same-sex marriage. Asked how he would react if a gay couple moved in next door, he replied, "I'd take them a casserole. . . . I'm not on a mission to fix people."

There was a hint of a mischief in Mickelson's voice as he addressed Romney: "Is Roe vs. Wade the law of the land?"

"It is now . . . " the presidential hopeful started to say, but was interrupted.

"You just flunked the Cleon Skousen test," Mickelson said.

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