Imus Is Back!

Bloodied but unbowed, the show should retain its strange appeal. Over the years, Mr. Imus developed a broadcast style that mixed interviews with power players from media and politics with frequent—and often boring—stretches of meandering observations about whatever he happened to be interested in that day, from a new book, to a band, to the campaign by his wife, Deirdre, to abolish toxins from cleaning products. The effect—of a rambling, unpredictable adventure, rather than a carefully polished corporate production—built a remarkable degree of loyalty from guests and listeners alike.

“Every time Imus goes on the air, you get a pretty smart show,” one frequent guest, the musician-cum-artist-cum-comedian-cum-Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, told The Observer. Mr. Friedman said he was looking forward to returning. He added that Mr. Imus “got shafted”; that the country needed more voices like Mr. Imus and the late Molly Ivins, who aren’t “part of this homogenized, sanitized culture”; and that he was surprised by “the cowardice of the media elite.”

As for Mr. Imus’ critics: “In the beginning God created one perfect man,” Mr. Friedman said. “His name was Al Sharpton.”

Perhaps one reason Mr. Imus’ is being welcomed back is his indisputable record of good deeds. With Deirdre, he dedicates each summer to hosting kids with cancer or blood disorders on his 4,000-acre cattle ranch. And as a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, who over the years has wrestled openly with his addictions, he has leavened his cowboy persona with enough genuine vulnerability to make it hard for those who know him not to end up on his side.

Not everyone is happy about Imus’ return. Richard Prince, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), who writes the widely read column Journal-isms for the Maynard Institute, said Mr. Imus has a long history of sullying the public airwaves. “The whole business about Imus is that it’s not just about once incident,” said Mr. Prince. “It’s about a pattern of incidents. It goes back years … I think it would be interesting if you were to find black women, white women, men of color who are saying, ‘oh, there’s nothing wrong with this, so give the guy a break , he just made a mistake.’ I don’t know how many of those you’d find.”

But another prominent African-American journalist, Clarence Page, isn’t holding a grudge. A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Chicago Tribune, Mr. Page once got Mr. Imus to join him in a pledge to, among other things, “cease all simian references to black athletes”. But he told The Observer that, if asked, he would appear on Mr. Imus’ new show, and that he disagreed with his friends at the NABJ who feel that Mr. Imus should be barred from the public airwaves. “You make a martyr out of him,” said Mr. Page. “It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it.” Efforts to reach Gwen Ifill, an African-American journalist whom Mr. Imus allegedly once referred to on air as a “cleaning lady” (Mr. Imus has denied it), were unsuccessful.

Tim Russert is playing things a little more conservatively. In a recent interview with Aaron Barnhart of The Kansas City Star, the Meet the Press host seemed to equivocate, saying he would consider returning to the show, pending his bosses’ permission and the nature of Mr. Imus’ interest. “If he asked me to come back and talk about political developments, I would absolutely do that,” said Mr. Russert. “But I guess I’ll have to check with the folks at NBC.”

“That’s a pretty conditioned acceptance from a guy who was invited on Imus’ show countless times,” Mr. Barnhart told The Observer on Monday. “Especially for a guy who was there solely to promote Tim Russert.”

Meanwhile, other journalists’ hands, perhaps conveniently, are tied. Over the years, a number of Newsweek staffers and contributors—including managing editor Jon Meacham, editor-at-large Evan Thomas, and columnists Jonathan Alter and Anna Quindlen—have been regular Imus guests. But a Newsweek spokesperson told The Observer, “We are standing by the policy we announced in April. We will not participate in the Imus program.”

But Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, is under no such constraints, and said he would return. In April, soon after Mr. Imus’ firing, Mr. Tanenhaus—whose biography of Whittaker Chambers Mr. Imus supported on the air—wrote a ruminative and ambivalent essay for The Times exploring his own complicity in the affair. “Those of us who benefited from his attention can only feel saddened now,” wrote Mr. Tanenhaus at the time, “… because we too played a part in the performance he carried too far.”

But on Monday he told The Observer: “The whole business felt a little heavy-handed to me. There was a lot of piling on. I was one of the piler-on-ers.”

“I assume he’s a little chastened, a little chagrined,” Mr. Tanenhaus added. “So let him start all over again. Why not? When I make my own inevitable disastrous screw-up, I hope someone gives me another chance.”