Jewish World Review Oct. 10, 2003 / 14 Tishrei, 5764

Lewis A. Fein

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Talkers and doers | Religious iconography is easily apparent, corporate banners equally visible. But what is liberty's emblem, the symbol that best represents victory against corruption and incompetence? The answer is audibly clear: talk radio, and its broadcast tower -- the perpetual transmission of a message that is passionate and politically strong, "Recall!" For this week's election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as California's next governor - regardless of the candidate's own celebrity and wealth - is talk radio's ultimate triumph.

That victory has an address and a staff, a supportive yet necessarily critical forum for political change. The station is Los Angeles flagship, 790 KABC-AM, home of the recall's most fervent supporters. And these supporters - conservative by habit, liberal when necessary, independent forever - are the true forces responsible (in a good way) for the recall's momentum and success. These individuals, radio personalities like Al Rantel and Mr. KABC, have the ability to quickly approve or reject a political idea, providing voters with intelligible data about a candidate's positions or a campaign's message. (Full disclosure: I am a previous guest of both shows, having discussed the Iraq war, Middle East peace and sundry state issues.)

The next step - the recall's less advertised sequel, "Governance" - will also unfold before the scrutiny and commentary of talk radio. This medium does not allow, because its hosts will not endorse, political incompetence: Governor-elect Schwarzenegger has goodwill and popular support, but his effectiveness - his tendency toward slogans and political proxies, testimonials from retired statesmen and aged leaders - now yields to outside review, What are his economic policies, and to whom shall the burden of fiscal reality fall?

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Regardless of Schwarzenegger's answers, talk radio will not reflexively support bad policies with Republican ingredients. And herein lies the power of talk radio, which its opponents too easily confuse as conservatism's echo: the principal ideology of talk radio, though philosophically conservative, is operationally practical. That is, talk radio hosts can accept (even if they themselves oppose) abortion rights or limited gun control, provided politicians do not misinterpret incumbency as a justification for personal advancement and economic catastrophe.

In fact, the recall's success is more a rebuke against arrogance than plain incompetence. For the easiest way to motivate voters - the most reliable method of political encouragement, short of war or depression - is for an incumbent politician to be mean or arrogant. Why? Because images reinforce words which reinforce images, that a nasty man or greedy executive is worthy of public contempt.

The recall's primary message is about personal integrity, whether a politician simply annoys voters and infuriates reporters. The incumbent's policies matter, absolutely. But his ability to interact with people - the fundamental duty of political communication, before an actual audience or alongside an inquisitive host - will almost always define his success. In other words, a good personality trumps a mediocre mind; but an arrogant attitude wastes the talent of a superior intellect.

Talk radio remains the most immediate poll, the best means of calculating outrage and political abuse. The recall's success is merely the most recent formulation of a wise idea: humility is power's restraint, justice its constant reminder. That maxim is the unspoken policy of talk radio, its professional credo -- "Vote for change, then question the alternative." Talk radio succeeds because of that principle, and KABC thrives by the same example. Just ask Governor-elect Schwarzenegger.

JWR contributor Lewis A. Fein is a writer and Internet entrepreneur in Los Angeles.Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Lewis A. Fein