Freak show

Posted: Apr 30, 2003 12:00 AM

There is some good news in talk-show host Jerry Springer's possible run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. Springer is a Democrat.

Imagine: If Springer wins the primary, the Democratic nominee for president has to stump in Ohio for the White House standing shoulder-to-shoulder with America's most sleazy TV talk-show host.

I'd like to think that there are some Democrats running for the White House who wouldn't stoop so low. But there's only one way to find out.

One GOP operative expects Springer, a former mayor of Cincinnati, to beat state Sen. Eric Fingerhut in the race for the Ohio Senate seat held by Republican George Voinovich because Ohio Dems are eager for a candidate who can fund his own campaign -- as Springer is expected to do, should he choose to run.

Which means Ohio voters could get a bird's eye view of modern class warfare -- in this case, no-class versus high class, as the super-rich Springer goes after the incumbent, who, according to USA Today, recently purchased his first dishwasher.

Talk about opposites. Conservatives have begun attacking Voinovich because he and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, forced Senate GOPers to hold the proposed Bush tax cut to $350 billion instead of $726 billion. Voinovich isn't backing off.

Even voters who disagree with Voinovich have to respect him for his principled stand, whereas it's not clear that Springer has any principles. Springer told Cox News that his show doesn't exploit people: "People choose to go on, and the fact is that in a free society, that is exactly the opposite of exploitation."

No, the opposite of exploitation is charity. Or selflessness. Exploit is to "make use of meanly or unjustly for one's own advantage."

Monday, while preparing to write this column, I tuned in to the last half of Springer's show. The show is worse than I remembered.

The guests are pathetic people -- so inarticulate that they are reduced to swearing and taking fey punches at each other, and so needy that they are willing to publicly demean themselves for a chance to get on trash TV.

You hope their stories are fake. You hope that Windy, the stripper who went on the show to tell her unemployed boyfriend Mike that she was dumping him for a woman, only then to tell her girlfriend Stephanie that she was cheating on her with a guy named Scott, is a put-up job. After all, Windy says she has four children.

But it's hardly soothing to think that someone would see Windy's story as entertaining.

The show is supposed to be a guilty pleasure, but it offers no pleasure -- and I say that as someone who enjoyed watching Tonya Harding take on Paula Jones in the boxing ring.

Toward the end of the show, Springer invites audience members to tell the guests what they think of them. No doubt the intent is to provide home viewers with a sense of release as they hear others say what they are thinking.

Except there is no relief in watching people with so little going for them that they feel the need to lord over Springer's cast of losers.

Springer's political supporters are left urging observers to keep an open mind and separate Springer the Man from Springer the Show. That can't be done.

Springer would have to do serious penance -- by ministering to lepers for a decade, maybe -- for anyone to forget how he has degraded needy people for cheap thrills.

The Jerry Springer show's audience isn't known for its subtlety. "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry," it chants. And: "Take it off. Take it off," to female guests, who have kept their shirts on. Producers constantly bleep out "dialogue" and blur the image of women's chests. But they can't blur over the void where the would-be senator's character is supposed to be.