Springer candidacy points to what's wrong

Posted: Jan 29, 2003 12:00 AM
"Toothless hookers of the world unite!" This could conceivably be the campaign slogan for Jerry Springer's potential Senate campaign, proving that democracy isn't the beautiful maiden some people think it is. Talk show host Springer is contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate from Ohio. Since the Ohio Democratic Party is nearly broke, he says he might be willing to spend up to $20 million of his own money to take the seat from Republican Senator George Voinovich. If you've never seen Springer's show you've missed a lot and a little. On one hand, it can be an immensely entertaining freak show. Toothless hookers vie for audience sympathy as they explain how they lost their fake teeth in unusual places. Pregnant strippers, midget pimps, KKK wackos and Black Panther freaks are shocked when people think there's something wrong with them. And there's always a lot of fist fights and stripping. I'll admit that I've watched more than a few Jerry Springer shows. I've laughed, squirmed and grimaced through episodes like "My Girlfriend's a Boy," "My Boyfriend's My Sister" and "My Father's a Prostitute." Needless to say, since I am not a citizen of Ohio, nor a Democrat, nor a lobotomized mouth-breather who couldn't kick the airplane glue habit, it's unlikely I would ever vote for Springer. Indeed, even if I were an Ohio Democrat, I wouldn't dream of voting for Springer (I can't promise I wouldn't pull the lever for him if I were lobotomized and couldn't put down the glue). On the other hand, "The Jerry Springer Show" is a freak show which, in caricature, illustrates one of the fundamental problems with American culture today. It celebrates the deviant and denigrates the normal. At the end of the show, Springer's "parting thoughts" -as he calls them -are usually some pabulum about how freaks are people too, and unless you know what it's like to be a cross-dressing hooker you have no right to judge. In short, he attempts to put some socially redeeming lipstick on the pig of exhibitionism, debauchery and plain old low-class shabbiness. A good-natured fellow, Springer understands the double-edged nature of his candidacy. "There are pluses and minuses," Springer said. "The plus is that I'm known by everybody. The minus is that I'm known by everybody." And that's what concerns me. Springer is a former politician, but that's not why he would be running this time around. Sure, he was on the Cincinnati city council and he was the "boy mayor" of the city, too. But if his political resume were the issue, his Senate bid would be a non-starter since he got caught writing a personal check to a prostitute while a public servant. No, he's got a shot because he's A) rich and B) rich from appealing to the most prurient interests of the television-viewing public. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle had it right when he said, "I think we can do a lot better" than Jerry Springer. I'd like to think Daschle was speaking for more than just the Democratic Party or even the Senate but for America in general. If Springer got the Democratic nomination, many conscientious and decent Democrats would vote for him out of loyalty to the Democrats or out of a desire to unseat a Republican in a narrowly held Republican Senate. I'm also sure there would be more than a few completely normal and honorable people who vote for Springer just because they like Springer. As I said, I don't loathe the man, and I'm a pretty conservative guy. But, for a moment, let's imagine that none of those people voted for Springer. Instead, assume that only the core Jerry Springer crowd of toothless yokels, body-pierced exhibitionists and dedicated tramps and slatterns turned out to vote for him. And, let's assume that many of these people were first-time voters. According to the reigning civic orthodoxy, this would be a grand triumph. In recent years, "voter turnout" has come to be seen as more important than the issues that the voters are turning out for. Personally, I'd be delighted if every single pimp, hooker and Klansman ever to appear on "Jerry Springer" never entered an American voting booth. If you must declare to the world, "Im a transsexual and pregnant!" fine. But I will sleep soundly if you never cast a ballot. This is becoming a serious issue as reality TV expands into every nook and cranny of American life. Jerry Springer isn't Lonesome Rhodes, the populist fire-breather from Elia Kazan's brilliant 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd." But as media and money make it possible for celebrities to leapfrog over the traditional hurdles and tests of public service, Americans need to be very careful about voting for name recognition. They need to ask , " Why do I recognize this guy's name?"