On a late afternoon in early summer in the northwest Ohio town of Napoleon, 200 or so citizens have gathered at the VFW annex for the Henry County Democrats’ annual chicken barbecue, spilling out through the double doors onto a breezy brick pavilion. Old friends greet one another, families scoot together at wooden picnic tables and a little kid with cropped hair the color of corn silk looks up from his drumstick toward the park. across the street where he hopes to be playing baseball as soon as he can eat enough supper to satisfy his mother.
They have come to hear this year’s annual chicken barbecue speaker, Jerry Springer, former Cincinnati mayor, former Cincinnati news anchor and current host of the program ranked at the top of TV Guide’s “Fifty Worst” list.
Springer is in Henry County on the stump, or, more accurately, the pre–stump. It was in January that Springer first said he was thinking about taking on George Voinovich in the 2004 race for the U.S. Senate. Since then he has been thinking about it out loud at local Democratic Party fund–raisers, chicken dinners and steak fries all over the state.
After eating (chicken, potato salad and macaroni salad), buying raffle tickets (six for $5), and being introduced by Linda Howe (Henry County party chair), Springer addresses the crowd. He explains that he’s testing whether he can “get past the clutter of the show” and reach voters.
“I just have some thoughts about what needs to be going on in our country as well as our state,” he says. “If I feel I can be helpful, I’ll do it.”
The Democrats of Henry County are polite. And silent.
Springer tells the story of his parents, refugees from Nazi Germany who escaped to England, where he was born. He talks about his family’s arrival in New York and about seeing the Statue of Liberty. “One generation from new immigrant to doing my silly show,” he says. “That’s the American Dream. But the dream doesn’t exist for all Americans these days.”
Rumps shift on hard picnic table benches. One man’s head twitches, something resembling a nod of agreement.
He hits on the themes that he has rolled out these past months: political elitism (“I think the tax cut bill shows that regular people aren’t even on the radar screen in Washington“); education (“We have to find Bin Laden, but we have to find the next Thomas Edison, too!“); health insurance (“More people die of cancer than any bomb“); and the miserable Ohio economy (“If we can rebuild Iraq, where is the money to rebuild Ohio?“).
At “education” there is a clearing of throats. “Health insurance” brings an actual Yes! By “rebuild Ohio” the mood is unmistakably enthusiastic. He says that The Jerry Springer Show—again he calls it “my silly show“—didn’t close one factory or school, and it shouldn’t be part of the debate about Ohio’s problems. And he ends with a classic Jerry Springer remark—funny, antic, self–deprecating. “George Voinovich is a nice man,” he says. “You’d probably want to have him to dinner before me.
“Go ahead. Invite him to dinner and send me to Washington!”
If you’d charted the mood of the crowd at 60–second intervals it would have been an illustration for the phrase “meteoric rise.” The Democrats of Henry County have gone from polite indifference to genuine enthusiasm in 20 minutes flat. There’s laughter, applause and a hubbub as people gather to pose for snapshots with Springer, now the favorite cousin at this family reunion.
A visitor from a neighboring county had come to the event because he suspected that Springer would get a tepid reception. “Those Dutchmen sit on their hands,” he’d later joke. But he’s impressed: Springer turned the room. Doing that in Henry County means something.
But there is another telling moment—one that the visitor doesn’t observe.
It’s the parents of the boy with the drumstick. Mom’s an elected official, and she and her husband are both interested in what Springer has to say. By the time the evening’s over they’re enthusiastic about the possibility of a Springer candidacy. Even so, there is a sticking point, something not quite right. Their son, curious about the man at the center of attention, turns to his father. “Dad,” he says, “who is that man?”
The father hesitates for a moment then looks down into the boy’s sweet face.
“That,” he says, “is a man from a TV show you’ll never see.”
Jerry Springer spent seven months of this in dozens of towns like Napoleon, trying to figure out if he could get past the epic weirdness of The Jerry Springer Show and get back into politics in 2004. As it turns out, he couldn’t. He spent upwards of $1 million of his own money to learn this, which, many people would say, is advice that he could have gotten for free. His exit is a shame, if for no other reason than he could have breathed life into Ohio’s moribund political scene.
Springer hasn’t campaigned in two decades, but he never lost his passion to serve. That’s what he says, and that’s how his longtime supporters talk. His $1 million investment bought him one thing: knowledge. He now knows exactly what he has to do if he’s ever going to be a credible candidate. The choices he makes from here on will show if his passion truly runs deep.
Cincinnati got its first taste of Jerry Springer 34 years ago. He was 25, a New Yorker by way of Tulane University and Northwestern Law School, and he had moved here to work for Frost & Jacobs. The year before he had worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign, and it wasn’t long after he arrived in town that he took steps to start his own political career by registering as a candidate for the U.S. Congressional seat held by Donald Clancy.
One evening there was a fund–raiser at a downtown hotel for Jack Gilligan, who was running for governor. The room was jammed with the usual suspects—precinct chairmen, union faithful, business types and the occasional hipster wearing the occasional Nehru jacket. It was before the Ohio primary, and Gilligan’s people had made a nice gesture; they’d invited the local Democratic congressional candidates to be part of the program. They were asked to speak for just two minutes each, creating a sort of baffle so that the noisy, smoky, lubricated crowd could finish socializing before the featured speaker, Birch Bayh, took the podium.
Legend has it that Springer stopped them cold. He started to talk and the room went silent, he was that good. He spoke passionately about his immigrant parents and about America as a welcoming place. He talked about what Americans owe to one another, what they owe their country, and what this country could be at its best. “Rarely have I seen someone with less of a build–up capture a crowd,” says Mark Shields.
Back then, Shields was a Gilligan staffer; today he’s the host of CNN’s The Capital Gang, and even though he has seen legions of politicians at work since, he still remembers that night. “I have seen very few naturals in politics—people who can speak to a noisy crowd, frame an issue, reach out to a diverse audience.” He compares the experience to a baseball scout stumbling onto a brilliant high school prospect who has it all–hitting, running, pitching. “That’s what Jerry Springer was like.”
Springer did win the primary, then lost to the incumbent Clancy. Still, he got 44 percent of the vote—an amazing accomplishment for a young anti–war candidate running in a conservative district. It was clear that people found him engaging, even if they didn’t agree with everything he had to say. He ran for Cincinnati City Council in 1971 and won. He was 27, council’s youngest member.
During his second term, in 1974, a “health club” in Northern Kentucky was raided for prostitution. Springer had been a customer. When the young councilman began to get threatening phone calls, it quickly became clear that that fact wasn’t going to remain a secret. Faced with the possibility of blackmail and the certainty of disgrace, he resigned. Then he held a press conference to explain exactly why he resigned.
It became a Cincinnati legend, of course—how Springer got caught because he paid prostitutes with personal checks, how he reclaimed his council seat in 1975 even though Democrats refused to put him on the ticket, and how he was elected mayor two years later, the top vote–getter in a field of two dozen candidates, winning by the largest plurality in city history. He was 33, the city’s youngest mayor.
What’s been lost in the frequent tragedy–to–triumph retelling of the story, or rendered silly by 20 years of glib remarks, is the fact that it was a terrible experience for Springer, for his wife, Micki, and for his supporters. Personally and professionally, it was a nightmare. When he was sworn in as mayor in 1977; Springer said Cincinnati was the most forgiving city in the world. What he didn’t say was that the city had roughed him up before forgiving him. Gene Beaupre, Springer’s aide back then, remembers what it was like to see him cross the parking lot at a church festival. People would make nasty remarks to his face, or simply turn their backs on him, and he’d just keep going, wading on through the crowd, looking for someone willing to shake his hand. “I think that resilience won people over,” Beaupre says.
Beaupre met Springer back in ’69. The brash young candidate went to speak to a student
group on the Xavier University campus and came away with a following of idealistic, energetic, Jesuit–educated liberals. Through Xavier he met Beaupre as well as Mike Ford, Tom Collins and Tim Burke. With their fresh college degrees in hand, the four formed the self–named “Xavier Mafia” that ran Springer’s campaigns and became the very young council member’s very young staff.
On council, Springer had a reputation for grand-standing. His first motion as a council member was a proposal to make it illegal for Cincinnati residents to be drafted for the Vietnam War. He hijacked a city bus to make a point about public transportation and “went undercover” as a prison inmate when a social worker complained about shameful conditions at the old Workhouse. But there was always a point to those antics, Beaupre insists. “His concern was always about creating basic services. He rode with the waste collectors, with the firefighters. We had a mobile city hall—a van that went to street corners, and people could come in and talk about issues. It was just another way of making government responsive to the people who most need it.” In his enthusiasm to lead, he sometimes over- reached. During a blizzard he went on the news and told non–essential city employees to stay home. Later City Manager Bill Donaldson reminded city workers that according to the charter, he was still their boss, not Jerry Springer.
Springer holds to the ideology that says government can make a positive difference in people’s lives, Beaupre says, and that’s the passion that drove him. “He once said to me, ‘It almost doesn’t matter what office I have as long as I have a microphone.‘ That’s the way to shape public opinion. He understood that at the outset and was good at it.”
Springer has always loved the microphone even when he wasn’t shaping public opinion. Even back then he was a performer—a handy skill for a politician. He played the guitar, he sang, he took to the air on WEBN to read commentaries about the news. He was funny and he wasn’t afraid to look silly. He joked, and his best jokes were at his own expense.
At the end of 1981 he left city council to pursue a louder microphone and a brighter spotlight, throwing himself into the gubernatorial primary along with Lieutenant Governor Richard Celeste and Attorney General Bill Brown. Since he was an unknown in the rest of the state, he was starting from the ground floor—actually, lower than that. He was running against two powerful, established public figures, he had to get name recognition, and he had to deal with “the Kentucky incident,” as his supporters now call it. He did it in a matter–of–fact television commercial. He came in third with 20 percent of the vote, and remained in the good graces of Celeste, who won. But he spent a bundle doing it.
With no job and huge campaign debts, he took an offer from WLWT–TV to do commentaries on the evening news. Within two years he was a coanchor. From time to time there were rumors about his return to politics, but when asked he always said that he was committed to broadcast journalism. He was with the station for a decade, won seven Emmys for his commentaries, and by the time he left in 1993, WLWT was first in the ratings.
He left, of course, to host The Jerry Springer Show, which was born in Cincinnati in 1991. Multimedia Entertainment, which owned WLWT, was syndicating several talk shows, including Phil Donahue’s, and wanted to develop a new property with a new host. The Jerry Springer Show got on its feet in Cincinnati as a conventional talk show like Donahue’s. In a year it moved to Chicago, acquiring the sort of street credit needed for syndication. Springer commuted, continuing to coanchor the evening news in Cincinnati. In 1993 he left WLWT altogether, making the move to Chicago permanent.
It was in Chicago that The Jerry Springer Show evolved into what it is today. As kinder, gentler Oprah—wannabes proliferated, Springer turned to bizarre topics, dysfunctional guests, bleeped curses, fights and censored nudity. Springer, who once told Beaupre he didn’t care what office he held as long as he had a microphone, had a microphone, but no office.
Morning rush hour has begun. It’s the middle of June, and Jerry Springer is in Toledo. The day begins with two radio guest shots. On the first (Hit Music format; DJ in gym shorts) he talks about representing the “little guy” who’s “getting screwed.” On the second (Classic Rock; DJ in khakis), the same message comes out as “an effective voice for regular people.” At the first station he calls The Jerry Springer Show “my silly show” and explains that his producers have only one rule. “If we get a warm, touching story we send it to Oprah.” At the second, “The Mark & Micki Show” with the Classic Rock format, he takes a more elevated approach. “None of the people who come on do it because they think they’re going to be famous,” he says. “But they do believe someone will listen to them for the first time in their lives. This is ennobling even if the subject is absurd.”
After each guest appearance at each station he poses for pictures with an assortment of youthful DJs, producers, assistant producers and ebullient receptionists. At one he even cheerfully tapes a promotional spot for two on–air personalities who hadn’t even had him on their show. Then he returns to his ride, a Ford Explorer driven by a volunteer assigned to take him around town.
Springer has already seen a good deal of Toledo, including the eerily empty sections of downtown, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, at about 9:30, the volunteer breaks the bad news to him: There are no Starbucks in Toledo.
“If elected, I will bring Stahhhbucks to northwestern Oh–hi-ya,” Springer says in his Bobby Kennedy voice. He is having a blast.
Before this summer, Springer hadn’t campaigned in 20 years. If you ask his friend Mike Ford how often Springer has talked about getting back into things, Ford will tell you “once a month.” The two have mulled over a slew of races over the years. Springer briefly considered taking on U.S. Senator Mike DeWine in 2002, but he says he backed off when he realized what a mess it would be to get out of his contract.
This time is different. For one thing, Springer’s current contract is up in 2004. For another, Ohio Democrats haven’t won a statewide office in 16 years and could use a candidate with built–in name recognition and built–in money. Plus, a presidential election year usually means high voter turn out, and a cruddy economy could mean dissatisfaction with the incumbent.
And a final factor: Nobody’s getting any younger. Springer will turn 60 in 2004. Ford sized up the situation and figured the bases were loaded. If Springer really wanted to run, it was time to step up to the plate.
The first political campaign Mike Ford ever managed was Jerry Springer’s run for Congress. Ford was a college senior at the time, and he went on to manage every one of Springer’s campaigns. Today he’s a political consultant based in Baltimore; he has worked in every presidential campaign since George McGovern, and he will still tell you that Springer is the best candidate he has ever worked with.
On this day in Toledo, Springer’s entourage consists of two people: Dale Butland and Jene Galvin. Galvin’s from Cincinnati, of course—a longtime friend of Springer’s. He’s armed with a digital camera to take pictures for Springer’s web site, runjerryrun.com. Like Ford, he’s worked on Springer’s campaigns since the first. Butland is a Columbus–based consultant. He was Senator John Glenn’s press secretary and worked for Senator Howard Metzenbaum as well. He knows Ohio media and Ohio party leaders inside and out. He also knows how to do a pitch–perfect Wolfman Jack impersonation. Presumably this skill was not required in service to Sen. Glenn. But he has had occasion to use it on the road with Springer.
Riding to the next appointment, Butland retrieves a message from his cell phone. “It’s John Eckberg from the Enquirer,” he says. “He wants to interview you to ask if Cincinnati’s image has improved around the state.” He hands the phone to Springer and preps him for the call–back: “Cincinnati’s getting a lot of attention because of the Contemporary Arts Center, and you might want to mention the new ballpark.”
When the press calls out of the blue to ask your opinion on a community matter, this is good sign. It means they’re taking you seriously—as a politician, not an entertainer. In January, shortly after word got out that Springer was thinking about a Senate run, he got invited to be on Crossfire to debate the war in Iraq opposite a fire–breathing conservative, Ann Coulter. Sure, he had to endure the obligatory jokes about his show, but then there was a serious discussion. Coulter even seemed subdued, maybe even intimidated. And he realized, hey, I can do this!
Ford and Springer have always known that, if Springer would run for office, The Jerry Springer Show would be what political analysts call “a negative.” In February they found out how much of a negative. There was a survey done by the University of Cincinnati that gave Springer a 71 percent unfavorable rating—a huge figure. If he couldn’t get past that kind of negative, he didn’t have a chance of winning, and if he didn’t have a chance of winning he wasn’t going to run. So Ford put together a strategy that involved research and aggressive “exploratory” campaigning.
The research was to find out if voter’s minds could be changed. It included dial groups—the kind of focus group that explores how voters react to hearing the worst possible things about a candidate, then the best about his opponent, then the positive information about the candidate. Ford used a researcher who’d done work with “problem” candidates such as California Governor Gray Davis. They set out to test two target groups—the disenfranchised, infrequent voters that Springer hoped to lure to the polls, and the traditional voters that he hoped not to alienate.
The exploratory campaigning was what Springer was doing in places like Toledo, Youngstown, Steubenville. He was meeting with Ohio Democrats to find out if they were able to take him seriously. He needed to find out for himself. And he needed to prove it to other Democrats. Because during the summer, there were two views of Jerry Springer as a candidate. One, that he might revitalize the Ohio Democratic Party. The other, that he would drive a stake through its heart.
At the next meeting—with Toledo union leaders—Springer is first through the door. The lobby is deserted except for a lanky janitor, a mop bucket and a thicket of “caution wet floor” signs. He heads straight for the janitor.
“Hi, I’m Jerry Springer,” he says.
The janitor nods matter–of–factly, as if he had been waiting for him. Which, as it turns out, was probably the case. “I was just wondering,” the janitor says without preamble, “what kind of music you like?”
This is a very good answer, absolutely the right answer, because the janitor plays in a band and, wouldn’t you know, it is a rockabilly band, and he has brought a CD with him that he wants to give to Jerry. He explains all this to Springer while pumping his hand and beaming like a man who has just found his long–lost brother.
Springer’s speech is well received by union leaders. Lots of enthusiasm for his payroll tax relief. “That’s the working man’s tax.” Lots of reaction to talk about health insurance and his promise that if he runs and if he’s elected he’ll be a “a free and independent voice for working people.” And he hits hard on the administration’s economic track record. “My show has no relationship to your life. They’re going to want to talk about it, but don’t let them get you to take your eyes off the ball. Because if they were proud of their record, they wouldn’t be talking about me!”
The only break in the love–fest is when Springer talks education. “We have to keep the manufacturing jobs we have,” he begins. “But we have to be realistic. Our children and grandchildren are not going to work in the same factories.”
Icy silence. There’s no reaction to his declaration that early childhood education should be a Federal priority, or his proposal for college tuition remission for inner–city science and math teachers, or to his vision for educating “the next Thomas Edison.”
Later, during the question and answer period, a man in the audience—arms folded, jaw set—returns to the topic: “If we don’t farm, don’t mine and don’t manufacture anything, what are we educating our children for?”
Springer talks about technology, about encouraging the Creative Class, about preparing the next generation so that they can create the next economy. He evokes the names of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and talks about the innovative spirit that made America great. But he does not promise factory jobs, and so there is another brief, frosty silence. Then he handles their questions about NAFTA and GAP, the Patriot Act, privatization and the high cost of prescription drugs to their satisfaction and the mood goes positive again. Finally someone asks the Big One—“Can you win?”
“That’s what we’re testing,” he explains. He says he knows his show has “baggage.” What he offers, he says, is the ability to engage the disenfranchised and disaffected, the 2.5 million Ohioans who don’t vote regularly because they feel they aren’t listened to and don’t count. The people who he comes right out and says it—”may not know who their congressman is, but they know JER–RY, JER–RY.”
“I seem to have a connection with them.” Laughter, applause. “If I can bring them to the polls in addition to Democrats, we can win.
“That’s the real issue,” he says. “We’ve got to get somebody and right now we have nobody. The Democratic Party is down and out.”
His friends say that when Jerry Springer was Cincinnati’s mayor and he was facing unhappy citizens, he always felt that if he could just sit down with ‘em at a table he had a good shot at bringing them to his side. And this summer he was doing that, very well. Getting around to the people in his own party, introducing himself, getting them to look past his image as a master of sleaze and to listen seriously to what he has to say.
Springer has always had a talent for winning people over. It’s impossible to overstate this. He has charisma, but not the plastic–hair–Pepsodent–smile kind. He just seems to genuinely like and accept people, and they return the favor. Look at the record: He’s a Jewish East Coast liberal who came to Catholic, conservative, insular Cincinnati and got elected to city council, then got reelected after a public humiliation. He won 20 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial primary, even though most of the state had never clapped eyes on him six months before. He won numerous Emmy awards and carried a television station to the top of the local ratings with no prior training as a news anchor. And today he can get on an elevator and a trucker who has voted Republican all his life will greet him like a neighbor and ask when he’s going to run for president.
Those experiences make you resilient; they give you the will to plow ahead in spite of the naysayers. They can also blind you to the obvious.
That’s the reason for the research. Mike Ford’s working theory was this: Yeah, there’s a mountain of negative stuff about Springer out there. But it’s a mountain, not an iceberg. If he should run, Republicans and the Christian Right would use the show against him, and The Kentucky Incident would be trotted out. But voters wouldn’t be learning anything new. The news is that Springer is smart and serious. So the GOP would spend millions telling voters the bad stuff that voters already know, and Springer could spend his millions telling voters the good stuff that they don’t know. At least that was Ford’s theory. But it was only a theory, and it had to be tested in the focus groups, which Ford described as a “very objective” approach.
By late afternoon of the Toledo visit Springer has conducted several cell phone interviews, lunched with the Lucas County Democratic leadership, had a long, private meeting with Toledo’s current mayor and now has arrived at a taping at WTVG, the local ABC affiliate, where Toledo’s former mayor has a weekly talk show.
Springer was tired before the taping, but doing the sound check seems to revive him. He gives the engineer two sound levels, one as Kennedy (“Give me your haahht and your hand…“) and another as Maurice Chevalier (“Sank heaven for lee-tell gulls“). Carty Finkbeiner, the irascible coach–turned-mayor–turned–talk–show–host, barks instructions at his crew, then turns to Springer. “Those shoes better be comfortable because they’re the worst–looking shoes I’ve ever seen!”
Springer’s on–air with Finkbeiner, Fritz Wenzel from the Toledo Blade and Rebecca Regnier, the station’s weekend anchor—pretty, thirtysomething, excited and eager to show her chops as a serious journalist.
She’s come armed with a list of Springer show titles and reads them on the air, the usual assortment of Pregnant Strippers, I Slept With My Brother, I Married a Hermaphrodite things.
Regnier: Doesn’t that demean politics? Jerry: Ronald Reagan made Bedtime for Bonzo.
Regnier: But Reagan didn’t get in bed say? At some point, it might have occurred with Bonzo.
Under the cover of laugher Springer deftly gets back on point, talking about representing the state’s “regular” people.
A few beats later Regnier again takes a wrong turn, this time on her way to payroll tax relief.
Fritz Wenzel: You sound like Jesse Ventura. But he couldn’t work with the people already in the system.
Jerry: I worked with people when I was mayor of Cincinnati. Are you suggesting that people in the U.S. Senate are more difficult to get along with than people in Cincinnati?
Regnier: You’re very charming and—
Jerry: I like you too.
Regnier:—photogenic, but I was—
Jerry: How about lunch?
Regnier:—wondering how you would pay for the changes you’d make in payroll tax?
When the show is wrapped up and Springer stops to talk with the station’s sports director, Regnier admits she was flustered. “Normally we have the guy who fills potholes on the air. So you can see why we’d be jazzed up.”
But she was also impressed. “He’s great,” she says. “He’s…great. I mean, he’s really, really great.”
She looks at Springer, who’s now taping an intro for the sports guy’s show.
“I’m still not sure how all of this“—she makes a vague gesture in Springer’s direction—“will work.
“What would it mean for Jerry Springer to be your senator?”
That question’s moot for now, of course. And it has become so in large part because Jerry Springer has never put any distance between himself and The Jerry Springer Show.
Time and again, when Springer was interviewed on local TV or radio during his summer traipse across Ohio, he’d get the same question. Jerry, some local DJ would ask, why not stop doing the show? And he’d always say that it wouldn’t make any difference, that Republicans would still come after him for it. It was his Too Late Now explanation–like a smoker using his damaged lungs to justify his two–pack–a- day habit. No point in quitting now.
But why hasn’t he extricated himself from the show before this? A few years back, once he’d made his fame and fortune, to Springer that The Jerry Springer Show could end his chances of having a political future, might it not? And if it didn’t occur to Springer, shouldn’t it have occurred to one of his supporters, those idealistic souls who have believed in him since the days of bell–bottoms and love beads?
Wouldn’t you think that might have happened in, oh, maybe 1998, the year when sleaze became the official adjective to describe the program, the year of the infamous “I Married a Horse” episode, the year that Senator Joe Lieberman coauthored a statement that labeled the show “The closest thing to pornography on broadcast television“? Wouldn’t you think that a dear friend might have taken Springer aside right then, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him until his teeth rattled, shouting STOP IT! STOP NOW!! YOU’LL NEVER LIVE THIS DOWN!!! YOU’RE RIPPING THE HEART OUT OF EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER CARED ABOUT YOU!!!
Apparently not. Or if they did, they won’t admit it.
“It’s his life,” says Jene Galvin. “He was not calculating about ‘What am I doing and Where will it go?‘ He just rode this entertainment thing.
“I was always in his ear… I always said. [his] talents for public policy ought to be on the battlefield. But I never said why don’t you stop?”
Galvin admits that for a while he really didn’t know what to make of The Jerry Springer Show. He was teaching journalism at Hughes Center at the time, and it was his students who led him to a more profound understanding of this cultural phenomenon. “It’s a morality play with booing and cheering and a lightweight analysis at the end.”
Galvin met Springer in 1969, sitting cross–legged on the floor of somebody’s apartment. His brother took him to meet this guy who was running for Congress, promising him an anti–war candidate who sounded like Bobby Kennedy, who looked like Bobby Kennedy, who was passionate and exciting. Gene found him to be as advertised and still does. “He hasn’t changed one bit. Not his personality, not what he cares about or his friends. He hasn’t changed his politics one bit and that’s what I care about. His core values are deeply rooted.”
But it’s still hard to take Jerry Springer’s core values seriously when they’re set against today’s episode of The Jerry Springer Show. One of Springer’s supporters likes to preface his list of all that Springer has to offer by saying, “If you take away the show….” But you can’t take away the show. Springer should know that. He said so in his “Final Thought” for the episode titled “I’m Making My First Adult Film.”
“For better or worse,” he said, “in our culture we are defined by what we do.”
On The Jerry Springer Show, when the stage is a melee of pinching and punching and pulled–down tube tops, there’s always the point at which Springer wanders off into the audience and looks at the chaos and shrugs. It’s out of my hands he seems to say. There’s nothing I can do about it now. And often when he answers questions about why he has stayed with the show, he seems to give that same verbal shrug. As if, somehow, he has had no control over how his life has drifted along for the past 13 years.
Of course, he does have control. And this summer, some vigilant would–be voters told him so.
On the afternoon of of August 6, camera crews and photographers jockey for position in a claustrophobic meeting room of the Hyatt Capitol Square Hotel in Columbus. Jerry Springer is set to announce whether or not he will run in the 2004 Senate race. He has already pushed back his self–imposed decision deadline by a week, and the rumor among the reporters is that he won’t run. The setting seems to confirm it. “It’s not a big room,” snorts one photographer.
Jan and Yolanda Queen are supporters who have driven in from Jackson, Ohio, and they seem resigned to the worst. Jan is talking to a reporter about the closed–mindedness of “some people,” making quotation marks in the air with her fingers. She is vice chair of the Democratic Party in Jackson County; Yolanda, her daughter, is on the Board of Elections. They showed Springer around when he came to visit Jackson, which was not such a long tour because Jackson isn’t a very big place. But they got on well and he has kept in touch with them for all these weeks, even calling after Jan had her knee surgery to find out how she was doing. He is, says Jan, the nicest person you’d hope to meet. Yolanda agrees.
Springer arrives without fanfare, looking pale, grim and nervous. He settles behind the podium and announces, “I’ve decided to film Terminator 4.” But his heart isn’t in it, and the room barely stirs at the joke. He pushes on. “This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he says, and it is impossible not to believe him.
He reminds everyone that he began this process because he feels passionate about public policy, but was not going to continue if he couldn’t “be helpful.” His travels across the state have shown him that people are receptive, and he’s grateful for that. But his research has shown that he cannot cut through “the clutter” of The Jerry Springer Show. More specifically, he says, “For me to be heard, I can no longer be doing the show.”
No show. No show. How many times has he been asked that question? And how many times has he shrugged it off? It took him seven months and $1 million to learn this?
Later a casually blunt Mike Ford, red ball cap and blue polo shirt surrounded by suits and ties, will give reporters the details of what the research spelled out. He’ll say that in the focus groups, people who were exposed to campaign material about Springer could be moved from negative to positive positions—moved decisively, in fact. But the moment of truth came when people were asked about The Jerry Springer Show. All the skillful campaigning in the world didn’t change how people felt about it. As long as he was doing the show, they said, he wasn’t a credible candidate. Hey, Jerry: Like you. Like your ideas. Lose the show. No show.
“I do recognize what I’m being told,” Springer says to the room. “I need separation. I haven’t created that separation. I blame no one.”
If he’d said “I blame no one else” it would have almost sounded like he regretted his past years as a talk show host. But he did not.
He takes questions from the press. Will he quit the show? Will he think about running in ’06? Would he consider hosting a left–wing political talk show, something to transition from what he’s doing now to an eventual reentry into serious politics? He says that he doesn’t know, that there are lots of possibilities for the future. But for now, he’s only making this one decision. “I will find another avenue to be helpful,” he says, “and that’s the truth.”
“What will it take to beat Voinovich?” a reporter asks.
Suddenly, his manner shifts as if he’s just gotten a shot of adrenaline. “Offer an alternative… a good alternative,” Springer says. “The Democrats have dropped the ball. Say what you want about the Republicans—they have their message. If you want to beat George Voinovich, you’d better have better ideas.” And for a moment he’s the Jerry Springer who got the Democrats of Henry County to stand and clap. He’s the guy that Jan and Yolanda drove all the way from Jackson to hear.
Outside the room a young man in a button–down shirt is standing by, ready to pass out flyers for Eric Fingerhut, the one person who has announced he’s a candidate for Voinovich’s seat. Inside the meeting room, things are winding down.
The reporters haven’t gotten Springer to budge a smidgen closer to saying that he’ll leave the show, but he is, it seems, a chastened man, one who is finally realizing at the age of 59 that he can’t have everything he wants. Something’s got to go. There’s nothing of the glib Jerry Springer about him, and it just might be that the hold of the show is loosening. It might.
He explains that if he decides to run in the future, it will be a campaign about competence, ideas and issues. “It won’t be a race based on the three transsexuals and a midget on yesterday’s show,” he says earnestly.
And then, you can see it in his eyes. The punch line comes to him, and he can’t help himself.
“Which, by the way, was a great show.”
This story originally appeared on the cover of our September 2003 issue.