I have known some baffling people. Then there’s Jerry Springer.
Or, trying to make sense of a weird life, and failing.
I am writing this in a coffee shop on a rainy morning in Washington, DC. The gray day may be contributing to the wistfulness I feel at the passing of Jerry Springer.
Unless you lived in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1970s and ’80s, what you probably know of him is that for 27 years Springer was host of an unbearably vulgar American syndicated television program that was a hybrid of talk show, reality TV, and on occasion professional wrestling. Unbearably vulgar but also a smash hit.
I knew Jerry Springer and I liked him. When I knew him he was a politician and I was a freelance reporter. I wager that it was news to most of the people who read his obituary this morning that he’d had a career in politics, but he had and he was very good at it, the most popular and skillful politician in Cincinnati in his heyday. He was a left-leaning politico in a conservative city who in 1974 was forced to admit to sex with a prostitute after the check he wrote for her services surfaced. He resigned his council seat in disgrace. At the time, there were local jokes about what cost him his seat, the scuzziness of hiring a hooker or the stupidity of paying by personal check. A year later the city’s supposedly prim voters returned him to city council anyway.
I think they recognized that despite that glaring lapse, Springer was a very smart guy and a conscientious, well-meaning city councilman with a gift for engaging voters who did not always agree with him but wanted him to represent them anyway. He worked well with his council colleagues to get things done. The combination of bullet-proof self-confidence and self-deprecation goes a long way in American politics (cf. Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan). During his 1975 campaign he said, “A lot of you don’t know anything about me, but I’ll tell you one thing you do know: My credit is good.” Thousands of voters shook their heads, chuckled at the guy’s chutzpah, and voted him back into office. Two years later, they elected him mayor. He had a gift.
Every time I interviewed him, no matter the story, he was respectful, patient, funny, incisive, and as forthright as you could expect of a politician talking to the press. He never turned me down and he never lied to me. I always looked forward to our professional encounters.
He found his way to television in the 1980s by delivering occasional commentaries on local news. He was good at that, too, and before long became news anchor for a local Cincinnati station, WLWT. (And here is a fun fact: One of his rival local anchors was George Clooney’s father, Nick.)
Then came “The Jerry Springer Show” in the ’90s and I was as dumbfounded as anyone else who had known him before. By 1998, about 8 million people were tuning in daily, and people like me scorned every one of them and scorned the show’s host. But I could never forget what he had been. Or might have been, because I think he could have been elected to Congress and I think Congress would have been the better for it.
Life is a long strange trip. I have never understood the mayor-turned-sleazemeister and I never will. Contemporary American culture is an exasperating amalgam of lofty aspiration, boundless energy, heedless greed, rampant ignorance, pervasive anxiety, creative excellence, and unrestrained crassness. Plus racism and gun violence, just to keep things fun. In several ways, Springer was a harbinger of where the culture was headed, and perhaps we should have paid more attention to that back in the day. He always did whatever he wanted and rarely tried to justify himself. He was Jerry Springer, take him or leave him. All those years of bad television? They do not erase his years of public service, or the $230,000 he gave to Park School in Chicago to build a special facility for students with disabilities; his daughter Katie, who worked at the school, was herself severely disabled and has praised her father for his devotion to her.
He delivered the 2008 commencement address at Northwestern University, which rankled some Northwestern students, and his remarks were vintage Springer: “To the students who invited me—thank you. I am honored. To the students who object to my presence—well, you’ve got a point. I, too, would’ve chosen someone else. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a comfortable measure of success in my various careers, but let’s be honest, I’ve been virtually everything you can’t respect: a lawyer, a mayor, a major-market news anchor, and a talk-show host. Pray for me. If I get to heaven, we’re all going.”
If heaven does not have room for him, I am not interested.