Editor’s Note: Kathy Y. Wilson was nominated for a 2006 National Magazine award for the following piece.
I like white men like Bill Cunningham. It has taken a considerable toll on my God-fearing Black lesbian psyche to articulate this, but I do.
At the risk of racial alienation, I’ve performed counterintuitive intellectual somersaults to land here. At the risk of sounding like an urban conspiracy theorist, I believe there are forces at work in modern America, saddled as She is with red-state-blue-state-gay-straight-God-bless-America-America-bless-God-liberal-v.-conservative gimmicks, who would love nothing better than to keep us apart.
We Americans are lazy; we’ll never do the work required to understand a man like Cunningham or vice versa. Hatred favors the lazy, and superficial hatred runs amok in America. It is my inalienable right to know the texture of my fellow Americans. Corny as it sounds, I, too, sing America, and I have a right to know who on the Right is hard at work for control of Her.
During a lifetime of observing men like 58-year-old Cunningham, 700 WLW’s loud-mouthed and influential afternoon talk show host, a profile has emerged. (And when I say profile, I mean “to profile” in the standard dehumanizing-racial-stereotype sense.) Such men easily out themselves as arch-conservatives, exchanging the white sheets of the easy-to-see racists of yore for golf shirts, Brooks Brothers suits, and business class. These men run and socialize in tight cliques. They secure important jobs for one another and host million-dollar fund-raisers for ascending politicos who are also friends. They are nearly always socially and politically conservative and claim God as their copilot.
They golf. They love men of color like Tiger Woods because he’s a hard worker, talented, and non-threatening, and because he got filthy rich using all three. They are usually white, though there is a rising trend of recruiting minorities (also mostly men) into their ranks, a strategy that increases conservative voting numbers nationwide. All the while, they privately “deputize” one another, endorsing further the secret confidence that they’ll keep control of America’s most hallowed and susceptible halls of government: Congress, the House, the Senate and the White House. Liberals—especially well-meaning liberals, the worst of their ilk—behave like their conservative counterparts, only in a much less organized manner. They are therefore far less effective and may leave America a legacy of
bitter griping. Meanwhile, archconservatives maintain a stealth pattern of control.
It’s easy to feel flattened and disenfranchised around these men. They’re smart, bombastic, powerful, and they render The Other—that is, anyone unlike them—invisible. Like the powerful leaders they admire, Ronald Reagan chief among them, they spin their own identities, engaging in repetitious sloganeering about Traditional Family Values and Weapons of Mass Destruction and Bringing Folks to Justice until they’ve embedded their conservative-speak into everyday language.
I like white men like Bill Cunningham because they leave out the guesswork. To paraphrase my late grandfather, I seen’t them when they pulled up.
It is July, and I am in the WLW studio where Cunningham holds forth weekdays from noon until 3 p.m. On the phone, and waiting to go on the air, is Sean Hannity, archconservative author, syndicated radio host, and co-host of Fox’s Hannity & Colmes.
“I am happy and humbly proud,” Cunningham says to Hannity seconds before they’re on the air together. But he has some actual business to arrange with the Fox host before the broadcast. “Are you gonna do a fund-raiser for Ken Blackwell?” Cunningham asks. He needs to know, he explains, because, “I’m gettin’ shit from Blackwell. We’ll have to schedule it at least a month in advance to sell tickets.” Cunningham’s got sway and connections—juice, as they say on the street—and this year he’s using that juice on Blackwell’s behalf.
On air, he and Hannity indulge in an exchange peppered with such phrases as “it’s not George Bush’s fault.” It’s typical elbow-on-the-bar chatter that segues into a tirade against The New York Times and liberal Democrats, and a spewing of fear-factor verbiage typical of post-9/11 America. Then it morphs again into spun-sugar familiarity. “Bill Cunningham,” Hannity says, “do you know it’s one of the great honors of my life to be able to call you friend?”
“I know, we’re great friends,” Cunningham says in a low and modest voice. “I’ve asked off air, now I’m gonna ask you on the air,” he continues, his voice rising as if on cue. “Will YOU come to Cincinnati in September or October to PARTICIPATE in a fund-raiser for J. Kenneth BLACKWELL to become the next Republican governor of O-HI-O?”
I expect confetti to fall from the ceiling. I wait for a cheer to rise up.
“Bill Cunningham,” Hannity replies, “it’ll be my pleasure to come there and to have a Bill Cunningham, Ken Blackwell, Sean Hannity trio. You’re a great American!”
I think I’ve died and gone to hell, and it looks and sounds like the Republican National Convention.
Hannity has been a Cunningham fan since 1995. He’d just gotten hired in Atlanta at WGST when his producers brought in Cunningham as a buffer for the fledgling show. (“To get everybody mad so the next (guest] would seem like a nice guy,” Hannity claims). It was the start of a powerful political friendship between two influential, deeply connected media dons. Now the two are organizing a blockbuster fund-raiser for the GOP’s man for governor of Ohio, and Cunningham is playing up Hannity’s involvement for all it’s worth.
The Ohio governor’s race has been the subject of media scrutiny from The New York Times to The New Yorker. In Rolling Stone’s recent story “The Battle for Ohio,” reporter Tim Dickinson practically indicts Blackwell, claiming the secretary of state delivered Ohio to the Republicans in 2004 by intentionally using faulty voting machines “that spoiled 66,000 ballots,” and that he “tried to scrap tens of thousands of registration cards filed by new voters, and refused to count the ballots of voters who lined up at the wrong table on Election Day.” Dickinson claims it’s even more dangerous for Blackwell, as secretary of state, to be overseeing his own election for governor. If he wins in November, he could help Ohio again be key to determining America’s next president in 2008. Which is to say, Blackwell’s campaign against Democrat Ted Strickland is nothing short of a battle for the soul of Ohio and America.
Late-summer polls have Strickland 20 points ahead of Blackwell. But that gap will close if Cunningham has anything to do with it. During a break, he worries aloud about Strickland’s lead, and he thinks Blackwell will suffer because of Republican Governor Bob Taft’s misdeeds, a regular rant topic for Cunningham.
“Strickland might show a photo of [Taft and Blackwell) together and ask voters: ‘Do you want two more years of this?’ ” Cunningham fumes. “If Blackwell loses he should blame Bob Taft ’cause people are just fed up with promises not kept.” But he remains confident in Blackwell’s abilities. With his rubber-cleated golf shoes plopped up on the studio console, Cunningham goes on glowingly about Blackwell, timing his comments to the length of the breaks, like the radio pro that he is.
“I’m a conservative, not a Republican,” Cunningham quickly points out when I ask about his party affiliation. Later he amends his self-description to “white-bread, cloth-coat Repub-lican.” The obvious distinction for Cunningham is class—the difference between men who get by on their names and men who work their way up.
“Some of the worst Republicans are Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, who fly around on private jets and play golf in Scotland and tell me about family values,” he says. “I went after Bob Taft real hard. I went after [Republican Hamilton County Commissioner] Pat DeWine pretty hard. You have to hold Republicans to a higher standard so they won’t be hypocrites like Democrats—which most of them are.”
He insists he does not toe a party line. “I’ve helped some politicians and I’ve hurt some politicians,” he says. “I think I’ve helped make the area more conservative and, sadly, more Republican. I’m not a fan of organized politics because Republicans are no better than Democrats. People elected Taft and thought they were getting a Republican and he was no better than (former Ohio Governor, Democrat Richard) Celeste. Spending’s through the roof and [Taft] committed a crime while in office.”
And so he has thrown his shoulder behind Blackwell, a man who has himself been known to ruffle feathers in the Republican party. Blackwell’s a fiscal and social conservative, but what seems to excite Cunningham most about Blackwell is that he’s, well, black. “He went to Timothy Thomas’s funeral in 2001,” Cunningham says pointedly. “No other Republican could’ve gotten away with that.
True enough: It’s hard to tell these days if a black Republican is playing a race card. Besides, a black man doesn’t stand out at a black man’s funeral, no matter who the black men are.
“He’s just a good politician,” Cunningham says. “He’ll do anything.”
Ironically, Cunningham, like Blackwell, was once a Democrat. Cunningham graduated from Xavier University in 1970 along with Blackwell and several other politically active liberals. “I went to Xavier when gay meant you were happy, when Ayds was an appetite suppressant, crack was a deficiency in the sidewalk, and pot was something you cooked in,” he says, in that succinet way he has of minimizing large concepts. He graduated from the University of Toledo College of Law and, in 1978, lost the Democratic bid for state representative to Republican Helen Fix.
Cunningham laughs now at the memory. With his wife and mother working his “campaign,” he raised only $1,200 in Kenwood, Madeira, and Indian Hill. His slogan was: “The Fix is in. Get the Fix out. Vote the Man. Vote Cunningham.” He got 20 percent of the vote.
Cunningham made another intriguing career decision around that time: He joined the all-black law firm of Gaines & Gaines, co-headed by the iconic, Barry White-voiced Leslie Isaiah Gaines. Back then, Gaines was Johnnie Cochran’s prototype—a high-profile attorney handling TV news-worthy criminal cases, especially murder cases.
Gaines says Cunningham begged to practice law at his el-bow. “What connected me, really, to him was his sense of being humble,” says Gaines, late on a Friday afternoon. He’s slumped in a worn chair that looks like a preacher’s throne angled in the corner of his crowded office, which sits in a second-floor walkup on Court Street in the shadow of the Hamilton County Justice Center.
“He said, ‘I just want to work with you,'” Gaines recalls. “‘You’re handling all the big cases, all the high-profile cases, all these murder cases.’ I told him I didn’t have an office. He said, ‘Just let me work out of a broom closet.'”
Gaines remembers Cunningham as a good lawyer who “brought a lot to the table.” In a black-and-white photo taken the year before Cunningham joined Gaines, several black lawyers with dark suits and modest Afros sit around a table. The photo from the year Cunningham joined the firm shows a small, pasty-faced, serious-looking Cunningham wedged in among them.
By 1979, Cunningham had defended cop killers alongside Gaines. As with all his recurring life themes, the very thing that drew him to Gaines—the lure of sensationalism—is what ultimately drew him to radio. It took him years to get over that lure and give up defending hard-core criminal cases. In 1998, despite eyewitnesses and a confession, Cunningham got a unanimous not guilty verdict for William C. Donovan, who was accused of bludgeoning a prostitute to death in a downtown alley.
“You’re OK with that?” I ask when he tells me how he helped free a guilty man.
“I did my job,” he says without hesitation. “I performed my role.” He shudders, as if shaking off the displeasure of something foul-tasting. Here’s where Cunningham’s paradoxical, yet bluntly honest, nature is most evident: simply because he aligns himself with something–as he has with conservatism-does not mean he swallows it whole. In short, he knows in his bones that Republicans do wrong just as he knows that it’s creepy defending a murderer.
By the early 1980s, Cunningham’s career path had changed. These days he practices criminal law with the firm Katzman, Logan, and Halper, where he recently defended a client in an embezzlement case. Oh, and he’s no longer a Democrat. “I guess I was always a pro-life, pro-military Democrat like Harry Truman,” he says. “I changed when it became the party of Jane Fonda. I think the Democratic Party left me, I didn’t leave it. I like the Democratic Party of John Kennedy, not Ted Kennedy.”
When he met Ronald Reagan in 1985, “that was it,” he says. “I could never be a Democrat again.” Today he keeps a large bust of Reagan in his basement family room, part of something he likes to call “The Cunningham Walk of Fame,” which is filled with career and personal mementos—including the not guilty verdict signed by all the jurors in the Donovan murder case.
Cunningham got his start in radio in 1979, offering legal advice on Alan Browning’s show on WKRC. Back then, he recalls, the format for talk radio was how-to. “How to fix your car, how to grow flowers, legal ad-vice,” he says. In 1983 he also acted as Browning’s attorney, negotiating the talk show host’s planned move from WKRC to 700 WLW. He says Browning secretly switched lawyers and, at the eleventh hour, decided not to go to the rival station. So Cunningham reluctantly took the WLW time slot that was supposed to be Browning’s new gig. He’s been behind the microphone ever since.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke, another one of Cunningham’s college classmates, calls Cunningham “a bright attorney” who was “definitely a Democrat.” Burke witnessed firsthand Cunningham’s cut-and-run transition, and claims it wasn’t all about the magic of Ronald Reagan. “He was good friends with Dick Celeste,” Burke says from his Court Street office. But, he says, “everything changed with the savings and loan crisis.” In March 1985, Governor Celeste temporarily closed Ohio savings and loans as lawmakers anticipated the failure of Home State Savings Bank of Cincinnati. As the closing loomed, so did the possibility that Ohio’s funds insuring deposits would be obliterated. Only banks qualified for federal deposit insurance were allowed to reopen. In May, savings and loans failed in Maryland, draining that state’s deposit insurance and bilking taxpayers there of $185 million. Together, failure of the two states’ savings and loans sounded the death knell for deposit insurance. “Bill went on the air urging everyone to withdraw their money,” Burke says. “He caused the state to temporarily close the savings and loans He and Dick fell out and Bill went on the air and announced that he was a Republican.”
The announcement came just as “Reagan Democrats” were emerging, and Burke thinks that Cunningham may have sensed the dawning of a new political era. “I can’t guess what Bill’s motivation was, except he caught a wave that was out there,” he says. Whatever hap-pened, Burke adds, it was “a shtick that worked for him, and he has played that very well.”
A single utterance from Cunningham goes a long way. Literally. With 50,000 watts of power, a number one Arbitron ranking and, since March, North American saturation via XM Satellite Radio, Cunningham’s outré liberal bashing and biting conservative criticisms have morphed him from a hardscrabble Covington-born, Deer Park-bred son of an alcoholic father; ambitious young attorney; failed candidate for state representative; and late-night radio provocateur into a highly influential modern conservative. He’s secured that spot largely because he’s a masterful gossip. He spends more time working the phones than a teenager with unlimited minutes.
“I think I’m his show prep,” says Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters. “He’ll call me and say, ‘What’s going on?” ” The two met in the mid-1980s; Cunningham was handling misdemeanor D.U.I. cases at the time. “I remember when he first went on the air. He sucked,” Deters says. “He really just grew into that role. He’ll say some of the dumbest things and people will believe he’s honest. At a fundraiser for Mike DeWine, John Pepper comes up to him and says, ‘I understand you think we should turn the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center into a casino.’ Bill looked at him and said, ‘It’s a joke.’
“A lot of people have filters in their personality so they won’t say things in-appropriately,” Deters adds. “Bill’s lost all his filters because he’s really got everything he wants.”
That “everything” includes the respect of those who carry the conservative message to an audience that stretches far beyond the 1-75 corridor. “Bill Cunningham is a great American!” is the first thing out of Sean Hannity’s mouth when I call his home in August. It’s a regurgitation of Cunningham’s infamous, oft-repeated laudatory description of himself and any American he favors. “We’re talking about one of the greatest Americans of all time!” Hannity explains where, in his opinion, Cunningham fits on the right-wing-talk-show continuum. “His value isn’t so much to conservative thought,” he says. “It’s a value to independent-minded thought. He does a very high-energy, entertaining show, which is what we’re supposed to do. He criticizes Republicans, which he’s supposed to do.”
Veteran conservative Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Peter Bronson agrees.
In his latest book, Behind the Lines: The Untold Stories of the Cincinnati Riots, Bronson compares WLW’s riot coverage with that of 1230 WDBZ, the city’s black talk show station. “WLW was, at times, incendiary,” Bronson says. “(But) in comparison to what was on WDBZ, it was plain vanilla.” Bronson later sent me an email lauding Cunningham’s party criticism.
“Criticizing Republicans is not so rare for conservatives,” he wrote. “It’s part of what sets conservatives apart from liberals, who contorted themselves into pretzels to defend their pants-dropping president. If you are honest and consistent in your beliefs, there will always be times when you disagree with politicians and policies that are supposed to be ‘on your side.’ I think it’s healthy. Talk radio is more like an opinion page than like front-page reporting.”
“Like an opinion page”—that’s the highly sanitized way of putting it. Political talk radio is akin to the World Wrestling Federation with its shouting, bullying, bad manners, and testosterone oozing from every mic. (“It’s Big Time wrestling,” agrees Deters. “There’s no other way to describe it.”)
This, however, doesn’t much assuage all the seemingly irresponsible things that come out of Cunningham’s mouth that he ascribes to “entertainment.” For example, when it’s announced that Andrea Yates, the mother found not guilty by reason of insanity for drowning her five children in Houston, will be sentenced to a mental health facility and released when she’s deemed healthy by the court, Cunningham blurts out a cutting remark off the air. But then he’s so pleased by the dark emotion he’s tapped that he repeats it verbatim on the air.
“She’ll be treated and released,” he says. “She should be drowned. As soon as she’s restored to sanity, she should be drowned. Ridiculous.”
Daryl Parks, director of operations for Clear Channel’s AM stations, says Cunningham is merely following station rules. WLW’s topics, Parks says, must have an emotional effect on listeners.
And then there’s money. “The number one rule is about ratings and revenue,” Parks says. “WLW is a very successful radio station. There’s no question that Willie’s very connected.”
In a recent issue of Cincy Business, Cunningham was ranked No. 8-above bankers, politicians, and even Ken and Rosa Blackwell (No. 15) among the local Power 100. It’s the kind of profile that suggests Cunningham might be a successful candidate himself. He has twice toyed with the idea of running for Congress, most recently in March 2005, when President Bush appointed Congressman Rob Portman to a federal post. But he says that the thought of extended separation from his family–his wife of 37 years, Domestic Relations Court Judge Penelope Cunningham; son Evan, 32; and grandchildren Cole and Avery-kept him from jumping into the fray.
Not surprisingly, he has more than a few opinions regarding the prospects of this fall’s crop of candidates. He predicts that Republican Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich will lose to former Democratic City Councilman and failed mayoral candidate David Pepper.
If Pepper wins, Cunningham says, it will be the tipping point for Hamilton County’s turn from a Republican stronghold to a Democrat-run county—a change he blames on an exodus of people looking for lower taxes, better schools, and less crime. “Maybe it’s time,” he says. “If the Democrats can’t win in this climate, they oughta quit being a party.”
When I tell Heimlich about Cunningham’s predictions of his defeat, he sounds hurt. “Why?” he asks. “Because of the demographic change?” Heimlich says he and Cunningham speak “pretty regularly” and he’s never taken umbrage with any of Cunningham’s public criticisms of him. He’s more enamored of Cunning-ham’s influence. “Anybody who’s got 50,000 watts at their disposal is influential,” Heimlich says. “It’s good to have a conservative voice who won’t give people a pass in our own party when they don’t deserve it.”
Like most powerful Republicans in the area, Heimlich has been on Cun-ningham’s show. His latest initiative-getting the new county jail built–was a recent topic of discussion. But Cunningham thinks it’s one of the reasons Heim-lich is bound to lose. “The jail can’t be built,” he says flatly.
On- and off-air, Cunningham can be perfunctory, even jarring. He has this way of boiling everything down to absolutes. “All terrorists are Muslim but not all Muslims are terrorists,” he tells me while we talk in the studio. “Only small-breasted women can play golf well,” he continues, practicing phantom golf swings during a commercial break. “If you’ve got big boobies, don’t play golf. I think you can bowl. Gymnastics could be bad. What about the balance beam? Write that down. It’s one of the 10 rules of Bill Cunningham.”
I feel like Cunningham’s Boswell. There’s something to this, I keep telling myself. When the show’s on-air conversation meanders into deconstructing the fallacies of the peace movement in the wake of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Cunningham engages in a spitfire debate with Clear Channel staffer Zach Kramer, whom Cunningham calls “a gofer.”
“If you want peace, prepare for war,” Cunningham barks at Kramer on a break. “If you want war, go the other way because what that does is bring about war by eroding liberalism.” Then he’s off: “Rape the women. Kill all the men. Fuck ’em. We win. You lose. That’s what the Jews should do.”
Glancing up at one of the studio’s TVs—permanently tuned to Fox News—Cunningham sees Cindy Sheehan, the war protester whose son was killed in Iraq. “What a prick,” he says.
“Her son enlisted in the war, he wasn’t drafted. He didn’t agree with his mother. He was killed and now we can’t argue with her because it looks like we’re denigrating the mother of a dead soldier.” During this same broadcast I try to count the number of times Cunningham says “America” or “American,” but it’s impossible. I can’t scrawl notes and make constant hash marks simultaneously.
This is the Bill Cunningham many of us have grown to loathe and even love to hate. And I’m ready for it–for the slurs, for the vitriol, for the divisiveness. But Cunningham is more complex than any sound bite. He doesn’t make it easy to pigeonhole him, to slap him with the same stinging hand of absolutism he marks others with. “Today’s conservatism is both complex and confusing,” writes John W. Dean, former White House counsel to President Nixon, in a chapter called “How Conservatives Think” in his latest book Conservatives Without Conscience. “To understand contemporary conservative thinking it is essential to understand authoritarian thinking and behavior in the context of traditional conservatism, for authoritarianism has become the dominant reality of conservative thought.”
For Cunningham, conservatism is more of an industry than a tangled intellectual precept. And in the industry that conservatism has become—Sunday morning punditry, books and book tours, radio call-in shows, and worldwide dominance—Cunningham has found a sure way to, as he frequently says, “live out the American dream.” He usually follows this with a smile and one of his favorite rhetorical punctuations: “Isn’t life great?”
I‘ve already admitted it: I like white men like Bill Cunningham. But each time I walk away from a conversation with him unafraid and unboth-ered, I ask myself: “Have I gone soft?” Ultimately, I wonder if I’m apathetic, disenfranchised, or just distracted. My mental back-and-forth with Cunningham began in earnest sometime early in 2004. At the arrangement of my publicist, I was making the rounds to promote Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths In Black & White, my collection of CityBeat columns and NPR commentaries. As soon as my appearance on Cunningham’s show was scheduled, I started an exhausting mental exercise. It was a loop of me trying to anticipate every conservative attack, every ignorant rant, every bit of bait to get me to defend the entirety of the black race. By the afternoon of the show, I’d landed back where I always reside: at comfortable irreverence. I decided to play one-sided word association by just saying the first thing that came to mind to whatever he said.
Cunningham had my book but hadn’t even cracked it open (the spine was un-bent). Instead, he talked ad nauseam about an inflammation afflicting his balls and his doctor’s treatment. Unbeknownst to me, Cunningham sometimes ad libs about surreal but true afflictions from his everyday life. It may be his stab at being a middle-aged shock jock.
I don’t listen to commercial radio, so I wasn’t ready for how loud and lewd he was. He made only one fleeting reference to my book; I can’t even recall it. But he could take it as good as he gave it. I rechristened him “Big Silly” on the air-which rhymes nicely with “Willie,” his nom de guerre-and proceeded to tell him and his listeners about his lackluster sexual prowess with the black women in my neighborhood. They’d been com-plaining, I said, that Cunningham never comes to the ghetto to visit his half-black bastard children. His face red, he smiled hard behind the microphone, stifling his laughter.
That afternoon I “got” Bill Cunningham. He’s an entertainer. He likes smart people who can be as outrageous and off-the-cuff as he. If it’s outrageous, he’s probably heard it, thought it, or said it already about himself. To steel himself he doesn’t even respond to e-mails. Good luck gettin’ through.
Going to visit Cunningham at his Sycamore Township home, I get lost, missing the quick turnoff to his hilly, tree-studded street. It occurs to me that he works and golfs within five minutes of his home, restricting his life to the familiar confines of a wealthy, predominantly white suburb. When I finally find the driveway—he’s told me to look for the two stone lions—there’s Cunningham waiting to greet me. He’s standing in his driveway, waving his arms, his tousled, late-morning hair making him look just like he does in grade-school photos.
On the short side of 5’8″, Cunningham retains the boyish athleticism that helped him excel at baseball and bas-ketball. He is barefoot and wears loose shorts and a faded Reds/WLW promotional T-shirt. There is a large American flag billowing on a pole in his front yard. “I’ve been accused by my friends-who are very few and are very close-of never leaving Kenwood,” he says. Cunningham had his house custom-built five years ago. There’s a putting green in the side yard, a 10-zone automated sprinkler system, and a stunning wrap-around deck overlooking lush, manicured acre-age. The house is spacious. It is beige.
It has levels. He walks me through his sunken bedroom (later, his wife is mortified to learn this), pointing out the spacious shower and Jacuzzi. There are multiple plasma TVs on the ground floor, toys neatly tucked into corners, and a high chair in the formal dining room. He guides me around with exuberance. It reminds me of my conservative, nouveau riche brother with his big-ticket items. He simply must show them off.
The far end of the sofa in the great-room off the kitchen is Cunningham’s throne. Here he watches hours of Fox News shows, committing to memory the intricacies of hot-button political and social stories of the day. His nightly viewing schedule is as follows:
6 P.M. Special Report with Britt Hume
6.30 P.M. “Propaganda on CBS News”
7 P.M. FOX Report with Shepard Smith
8 P.M. The O’Reilly Factor
9 P.M. Hannity & Colmes
10 P.M. On the Record with Greta Van Susteren
11 P.M. The O’Reilly Factor (replay)
MIDNIGHT Special Report with Britt Hume (replay)
1 A.M. Hannity & Colmes (replay)
Every day he visits drudgreport.com, newsmax.com, worldnetdaily.com, and townhall.com, and reads the Enquirer, which he calls “the greatest newspaper in the world.”
After a quick phone chat with his executive producer, Rich Walburg, who controls the daily content of Cunning-ham’s show, we settle down for an inter-view, which rapidly devolves into actual word association.
ME: Fidel Castro.
CUNNINGHAM: More evil.
CUNNINGHAM: Profound evil.
ME: Osama bin-Laden.
CUNNINGHAM: The chieftain of evil.
CUNNINGHAM: The greatest country in the history of the world.
CUNNINGHAM: Needs help.
You get the idea. Cunningham thinks liberalism is “an illness,” that Christians are “God’s people,” and Over-the-Rhine is a “cesspool.” We go on like this for several minutes and his responses are predictable throughout. Bill Clinton? “Sleazemeister.” George W. Bush?
He pauses. “Very good and at times very wrong.” My prompts run the gamut from Charlie Luken, Valerie Lemmie, and Mark Mallory to Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and the NAACP. (Unintentionally funny; complicated; disappointing; a freak; a messiah; and misguided fools. In that order.) His most hilarious and most telling response is when I say “Tiger Woods.” “The greatest golfer of all time,” he says. “I never thought I’d say that because of Jack [Nicklaus). He has the mind of an Oriental, the drive of an African-American, and the persistence of a white guy.”
See: I told you white men like Bill Cunningham admire Tiger. I don’t have the heart to tell him that people aren’t Oriental; they’re Asian. Only items like vases, rugs, and food are Oriental.
Cunningham believes his unvarnished attitude accounts for his influence. “It’s the power of my ideas,” he says. “I have 200,000 people who listen to me in the tri-state every week. I say things listeners believe but that they don’t see in media. Liberals have captured America. They have all the educational institutions, all the media except Fox News. Conservatives are voices crying in the wilderness.” I stifle my laugh. “I package my conservative thought in a veneer of humor,” he says.
He claims that “White House insiders” told him he was partially responsible for Bush’s reelection. “Now,” he says, “I’m going to try to convince people to vote for Blackwell.”
He has a show to do. So, after watching him watch Fox News, watching him practice his golf swing, and chatting with his housekeeper, I’m off. The new car smell of my curiosity about Cunningham is wearing thin; I’ve had enough for one day.
Penelope Cunningham is the antithesis of her husband’s bravado. “I’m the one who keeps a low profile, typically,” she says. But she laughs easily, fully aware of what she’s gotten herself into.
It takes a confident, self-assured woman to lay beside Bill Cunningham for 37 years. She is running unopposed for the judgeship in the First District Court of Appeals. “My work here—that I do as a judge—is nonpartisan, objective,” she says when I ask her feelings on the war raging between liberals and conservatives. Like her husband, she has a work-ing-class work ethic and happily describes herself as “a Reading girl.” She started at the University of Cincinnati as a 31-year-old undergraduate and continued straight through to UC Law, graduating at 38.
Bill first laid eyes on his future wife as an eighth-grader. He was an athlete; she was a seventh-grade cheerleader. He arranged St. Saviour’s first boy/girl dance at his house just so he could meet her, but they didn’t really date until he was a freshman at Muskingum College, home on Christmas vacation. Their first date took place at White Castle, where she had to pay for the $2 meal because he’d left his wallet at home. “He showed up wearing the same coat and hat he had during junior high school,” she says. His mother annually duplicated them in larger sizes because he liked them so much.
They married when he transferred to Xavier his junior year. He was 21, she was 20. “At home, he certainly has his quiet moments,” she says, “but he makes me laugh every day.”
Of course, there’s nothing funny about the death threats he receives because of his radio bombast—threats that have even been directed against his family. But somehow Penelope has figured out how to deal with those, too. “You’ve got to keep one foot in front of the other, pray, and do the best you can,” she says. Everyone—lawyers to defendants—wants to know what it’s like living with Bill Cunningham and if he’s the same at home as he is on the radio. “I deal with individuals who’ve failed to pay child support,” she says. “I had a gentleman in my courtroom who just wouldn’t pay child support. As he’s being led away, he says, ‘Do you think I could get you to get your husband’s autograph?'”
Cunningham loves power, information, and influencing important issues. But he loves his wife, his son, and his grandchildren more than anything. He’s landed in a field in which he excels and that has been more than good to him. But his favorite part of the day is when he’s leaving the studio to take his grandchildren for hot dogs or swimming, or to go golfing with his buddies.
In this way he differs fundamentally from his archconservative, scorched-Earth white brethren. He loves the life he’s acquired because of the powerful role he’s played on radio, but he loves his real life more. That’s the one he’ll gladly stride into when it’s time to sign off for good. “When I walk away from radio, I’ll walk away,” he says. “In fact, I don’t listen to radio when I’m not on it. I have a life of family and friends, which I love very much. [Callers] who stay on hold for 90 minutes, I often wonder, What is their life?”
I get it. He’s not scary. He’s a real person whom I know more about than I need to. My job—my good deed—of working to like a man America says I’m not supposed to like is over. I still like him, but for now I can remove my gaze from him and white men like him.
“When’s this coming out?” Cunningham asks me for about the third time.
“November,” I say.
He is gleeful. “You’ll sell lots of copies of that issue, once people know I’m in it.”
“You’re right,” I say. And he is. Can so many white men like Bill Cunningham be wrong?