Making 'Right Turns' into conservatism

Posted: Feb 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Sitting in a radio studio towering above New York City in the Empire State Building was the highlight of one of my many trips to New York. But not because of the view. No, it wasn?t what I saw that blew my socks off, it was what I heard.

Michael Medved was hosting his popular radio show (normally done from KTTH in Seattle) from the grand building while attending the same convention I was in town for, and I had tagged along to watch this great master of history, entertainment and the pop culture in action.

He used no notes, was able to weave lessons of history and current events into clever responses to a wide variety of issues by both crazed and sane callers, and spoke with the greatest of ease and delight. To be blunt, Michael Medved is the best radio host on the air. Better than anyone. Period.

Like many other celebrities, he has a personal story that?s quite interesting -- and it involved a dramatic political conversion.

He?s not alone: Ronald Reagan started out as a Democrat and became a union leader in Hollywood. Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Girl and ran for high-school student council as a Young Republican. So it?s fitting that Michael first gained notoriety as an anti-war activist who doubted God?s existence.

Today, Michael is a well-known conservative -- a famous film critic who refuses to let Hollywood off the hook for pandering to the lowest common denominator, a radio talk-show host who skewers leftist platitudes daily, and a religiously devout father of three. To say that he?s left his liberal days behind him is quite an understatement.

In fact, reading Michael?s new book, ?Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life,? you see just how much America as a whole has changed. From the casual attitude toward drug use that pervaded college campuses (such as Yale, which Michael attended in the late 1960s) to the general hostility toward all things military, the America of 35 years ago seems light years removed from the America of today.

Take the student protest that Michael led when Yale held a meeting to discuss the prospect of having the university sever ties with the military?s Reserve Officer Training Corps. Amid the back-and-forth of what Michael calls ?a raucous debate,? the university?s president, Kingman Brewster, said, ?I happen to respect and even honor those who decide to serve their country in the military.? Big deal, right? But a small detail caught my eye: This statement, Michael notes, was greeted with ?boos and catcalls.?

It?s hard to imagine that happening today. Over the last 20 years (thank you, President Reagan), military service has reclaimed its rightful place of honor in our civic life. Even the most left-leaning critic of the war in Iraq takes great pains to praise our troops and note that he or she supports our men and women in uniform.

But attitudes can change -- and so can people. Michael certainly did, as we learn throughout ?Right Turns.? Consider how his perspective on the police changed. Like many liberals in the early 1970s, he viewed cops as ?racist thugs and sadistic bullies, the storm troopers of a repressive, intolerant regime.? But as part of some PR work that he was doing for a police recruitment campaign, he did ?ride-alongs? with some officers. He soon came to appreciate them as good, decent people who do the hard, dangerous and vital work of protecting law and order.

In time, Michael also found it hard to share the knee-jerk suspicion, if not blatant hostility, that many of his liberal friends displayed toward the notion of using American force to protect American interests. Many of them insisted that ?racist? America was no better, really, than the Soviet Union with which it was then locked into mortal combat. But this made no sense, Michael concluded:

By the end of 1973, such arguments not only struck me as unpersuasive but downright offensive. America?s flaws didn?t mean that our wonderful country, which had so abundantly blessed my family and countless others, deserved no support in its struggle to defend itself against Communist dictatorships committed to our destruction. The suggestion that people of goodwill couldn?t choose between an imperfect United States and the nightmarish brutality of the Soviet Union made as much sense as saying that a patient should express no preference between the prospect of contracting a common cold and developing colon cancer since both conditions involved some form of illness.

But ?Right Turns? is more than just a political odyssey filled with thought-provoking moments of self-discovery and family remembrances. It?s also a fun read. Anyone who ever watched Michael appear with Jeffrey Lyons on the film-review show ?Sneak Previews? will enjoy the anecdote-laden tour we get behind the scenes. Priceless, too, are Michael?s attempts to deliberately botch a job interview at a Wisconsin college he didn?t want to work for. (The school?s officials had offered to pay his travel costs from California, but only if he accepted the job or they turned him down -- not if he turned it down.)

I?ve got to hand it to Michael: Somehow, this straight shooter who refuses to mince words unfailingly comes across as gracious, reasonable and warm. And he can explain the liberal mindset better than most conservatives, because he was a liberal.

Now, with ?Right Turns? (available at his Web site,, and at, we have the engaging story behind that metamorphosis. Mazel tov, Michael -- and thanks.