Don Imus is the anti-hero for our sordid times, the white shadow who reveals everything about the culture. Elvis Presley took black music and made it white, and that was shocking in the '50s, but his raw talent excused a lot. Rock 'n' roll developed as a fusion of black and white rhythms.
Don Imus, it's fair to say, has no rhythm. He merely took the vocabulary of black rappers and made an insult of an unfunny attempt at a "joke." If a black celebrity had made a remark about a "nappy-headed ho," it would have passed without notice. But the Imus controversy is not about Don Imus, but the culture.
We've become so inured to vicious vulgarity that the language seeps into the talk of a man who regularly interviews serious politicians and media stars who want to be serious. They banter with him as if they're all just raunchy boys together.
Don Imus is a fusion talk-show host whose audience and guests have lost the ability to make clear distinctions between entertainment and news, between insult and opinion. His frequent guests say they're searching their souls to decide whether to appear on his show again, if he has a show again, and we can only mutter that it's about time.
"If it were anyone else, I wouldn't have anything to do with them," Bob Schieffer, the sometime anchorman of CBS News, tells The Washington Post. "But I'm not going to sever a relationship with someone who has apologized for what he said." Power in the media, like power in politics, means having to say you're sorry. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, a frequent guest, says he didn't like it when the I-man compared his wife to Squeaky Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. "But it's part of the usual tone of the show." (What a thoughtful man.)
Jeff Greenfield and Andrea Mitchell are awed by the clubbiness and salon-like atmosphere of the show, as if Imus rivals Oscar Wilde and Mme. de Stael in fusing the lifestyles of the wits and famous. The guests are eager to demonstrate, if only to themselves, how hip their repartee, even if their host is a serial insulter.
But it smacks of colossal hypocrisy when the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton become the arbiters of rectitude and righteousness. They're willing to sacrifice Imus because he's white. Men of the cloth they may be, but has anyone heard them rebuke the black rapper celebration of drugs, violence and utter contempt of women?