Imus' Return: A Fan's Notes

At 6:33 this morning, Don Imus offered some reassurance: "Dick Cheney is still a war criminal. Hillary Clinton is still

At 6:33 this morning, Don Imus offered some reassurance: "Dick Cheney is still a war criminal. Hillary Clinton is still Satan. And I’m back on the radio!"

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Mr. Imus was indeed back on the radio at 6 a.m. (he himself first spoke at 6:06) on WABC and several other Citadel Radio-owned stations across the nation. His first show was broadcast live—with a 21-second delay—from Town Hall off Times Square to an audience which paid $100 a head and which lined up as early as 4:30 a.m. The money went to Mr. Imus’ Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer.

Eight months earlier, Mr. Imus had disappeared slowly, but still, for fans, abruptly — offed by a nervous WCBS and MSNBC (which simulcast the show on TV) after referring to the members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." At 6:18 this morning, he addressed that controversy, talking of his meeting with the team back in April, after his firing, as close to a "life-changing experience."

I’d been looking forward to this day since Mr. Imus’ return to the air was first announced. I started listening to Mr. Imus about nine years ago, on a friend’s suggestion, via a station out of Raleigh, while living and working in the middle of North Carolina. Like any decent Imus fan, around 10 percent of the show made me squeamish; another 10 percent bored me (his wife Deirdre is a lovely person I’m sure, but enough with the green cleaning wares); and the other 90 percent enthralled me. I followed Mr. Imus up the East Coast to the show’s flagship station at WFAN, an affiliate of CBS Radio.

As the decade wore on, Mr. Imus’ opposition to the Iraq war, his support of John Kerry (a frequent guest in 2004), and his championship of veterans’ care made him an unlikely hero to many on the left. Here was an avowed Republican (he often said he was probably the only registered one on the Upper West Side) slapping around war apologists and fence-sitters—as well as calling attention to environmental crises, and generally bemoaning the nation’s priorities under President Bush.

One of the last great WFAN Imus moments was his tete-a-tete in March of this year with New York senator Chuck Schumer. Mr. Imus had been lamenting the conditions that recuperating veterans of the Iraq war faced at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. Senator Schumer responded by blaming President Bush for everything, vowing some sort of civic vengeance upon the administration if things at the hospital didn’t get better, and blah blah blah.

Mr. Imus would have none of it. Here below is the crux of their exchange, via conservative news site NewsMax.

Mr. Imus: So, we have elected you — first in the Congress and now in the Senate — and you’ve got a bill now to do something we’ll get to in a minute; but you haven’t even been to Walter Reed Hospital.

Senator Schumer: No, no, no. But I have visited regularly the veterans’ hospitals throughout my state. That’s where I have focused on . . .

Mr. Imus: Well, you must have seen the state of affairs there . . .

Senator Schumer: I did.

Mr. Imus: Well why didn’t you do something about it?

Senator Schumer: We did . . . I did . . . I tried, I have been pushing . . .
Mr. Imus: Well nothing happened, Senator.

Senator Schumer: No, nothing happened, I agree with you. It’s a shame. It’s a disgrace.

Mr. Imus: Did you vote to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq?

Senator Schumer: Yes.

You could almost hear the wind wheeze out of the bag. A top United States senator belted off his spit-shined pedestal by an old man in a cowboy hat who, thanks to ongoing health problems, could barely breathe without an oxygen tank some mornings. In its truth-to-power appeal, it could hardly have been more American.

Memories of such exchanges only heightened the anticipation of Mr. Imus’ return this morning: Specifically, would the real Don Imus — simultaneously befuddled and sharp-witted, alternately self-deprecating and shamelessly preening — really be back? Would the man who elevated acerbity to an art form again declare the vice president of the United States a "pork-chop licking war criminal"? Would the most elegantly cantankerous man on radio — a dying medium for, oh, the last half-century — generate more daily headlines than every blog, TV talk show and newspaper front page combined, in a single minutes-long exchange with just one guest?

And, ah, the guests? In particular, the luminaries of the broadly liberal world of New York/DC media: Tim Russert, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Brian Williams, et al. Would they be back? And what about the politicians— including 2008 presidential candidates like John Edwards, John McCain, Chris Dodd and Rudy Giuliani, as well as big-name senators like Mr. Kerry and Joe Lieberman?

The first guest on the new WABC Imus in the Morning show was Levon Helm, the former drummer for The Band who now rocks a solo act from his home in upstate New York. Mr. Helm and his band played the Town Hall stage.

Several minutes after Mr. Helm’s initial appearance, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin came on. That was when the show’s familiar texture truly re-established itself — a mélange of banter, and Bill Clinton impersonations, and interviews (Senators McCain and Dodd were scheduled guests later) and weather reports, and traffic reports, and Charles McCord reading the news, and producer Bernard McGuirk’s side comments (along with those of newcomers Tony Powell and Karith Foster), and musical fade-ins and -outs, and those ads for Hackensack University Medical Center, and over it all the same grumpy, gravelly voice like sand tossed on a sore throat.

In its very familiarity, the new show managed to convey the most important news of all: That Mr. Imus was back, and not in any sort of extraordinary way; just his old self with the same on-air neuroses and nemeses and quirks and obsessions. And thank God for that.

Imus' Return: A Fan's Notes