September 02, 2010

I haven’t heard Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s radio show for many years now, but I still have many fond memories of the smart, brash, opinionated, no-nonsense, funny, bitchily-charming woman whose voice dominated the talk radio airwaves for a while, pushing even the mighty King Limbaugh’s ample hindquarters off of his enormous throne during a short, yet significant, ratings interval back in the mid-90s.

When I heard that Schelssinger was calling it quits after going off on an ill-advised tangent while talking to a caller last month, culminating in the fiesty host’s repeated use of the word “nigger” on the air, I was saddened at first. Though her very utterance of the term—which has obtained a ridiculously ominous, near-mystical, forbidden-fruit power these days—was clearly imprudent, no one listening to the exchange could seriously think she said it with malicious intent; in fact, her point seemed to be that if blacks found the word so offensive, they were degrading themselves by their continued use of it: a point in fact identical to one made by several black spokesmen in recent years.

But reading between the lines of her interview with the eternally decrepit Larry King the next day leads me to think that retirement has in fact been on Dr. Laura’s mind for a while now. Her dismay over this brouhaha, it seems, was simply the unfortunate catalyst which led to her taking this step.

The influence of this diminutive yet formidible, peroxide-blonde, Harley-riding, karate-chopping “little Jewish girl” from Brooklyn with a quick wit and an infectious cackle who set out to “preach, teach, and nag” while self-identifying as “my kid’s mom” ought not be underestimated. Before Dr. Laura, therapy was looked upon by many as “headshrinking” quackery, in many ways profoundly subversive of cultural values, as with Freud’s perverse obsessions with mother-son incest or Jung’s flaky excursions into New Agey weirdness. But the Schlessinger brand of therapy was down-to-earth, frank to the point of bordering on rudeness, and deeply, unapologetically conservative, affirming rather than deriding the tenets of religious faith. Dr. Laura meant business, and wanted you to shape up, and people, including those she frequently pummeled on the air, loved her for it.

“If Dr. Laura had flaws, she never in any way resembled the caricature constructed of her by her enemies: that of a mean, hateful, rapaciously-judgmental dragon lady.”

Dr. Laura wasn’t the first conservative talk show host, but she was the first whose primary focus wasn’t politics. A family therapist by trade, Schlessinger took a hard-line approach on her call-in radio program, affirming personal responsibility, fidelity, and the integrity of the family. She was scornful of indulgent approaches to child-rearing, and lashed out at parents who even considered teaching their children about contraceptives instead of instilling in them the principle of chastity. A particular bugaboo of Dr. Laura’s was the growing phenomenon of cohabitation, which she contemptously referred to as “shacking up.” She particularly deplored “shack-ups” when children were involved, and she was never afraid to say so. Dr. Laura was also a bear on the issue of adoption; she vehemently deplored abortion. When a young female caller would tell her she was pregnant and didn’t know what to do, Dr. Laura laid it on the line in this manner: “So… do you want your child adopted out to a loving, intact family, or do you want your kid cut to pieces and sucked into a sink?” Her manner, indeed, was notably frank, even flirting with vulgarity, at a time when most social conservatives primly eschewed such rhetorical methods, but she got her point across.

Of course, much as I admired her and refreshing as I found her, Dr. Laura wasn’t perfect. A good listener and a shrewd thinker most of the time, she could get hung up on tangential matters that would sometimes get in the way of the true meat of the caller’s issue. (It sounds as though the notorious call that triggered her resignation eariler this month might have been one instance of this unfortunate tendency.) And the more she grew to embrace her Jewish identity, culminating in a conversion to Orthodoxy, the more Dr. Laura seemed to get drawn into politics, mixing in commentary regarding Israel and the so-called War on Terror, all of which tended to undermine her cred as a nonpartisan, apolitical dispenser of relationship and family advice.

But if Dr. Laura had flaws, she never in any way resembled the caricature constructed of her by her enemies: that of a mean, hateful, rapaciously-judgmental dragon lady. Much as she frequently unloaded on her callers and spoke her mind, Schlessinger as often as not sent them off with a tender word; moreover, she was a true emotional sap, often driven to tears on the air. I vividly remember one call from a young mother with an infant child who shared her tragic story of being stricken by terminal cancer; when she mourned, “I’m not going to get to see my baby walk,” Dr. Laura was so choked up she couldn’t speak, and had to go to a break.

Of course this emotionalism could also shade into a certain thin-skinnedness that rendered her unable to respond well to the criticism that inevitably followed being a celebrity with strong opinions. In some ways, she always seemed temperamentally ill-equipped to handle the position in which she’d put herself. It’s probably for the best that her ratings eventually waned, and it’s probably a good thing that she’s decided to bow out as a radio host after her contract expires this year. Worthy a service as Dr. Laura has provided these last two decades as a radio “preacher, teacher, and nagger,” she’s probably better off focusing her attention on writing and other endeavors as she approaches retirement age.

Still, readers of and other outlets ought not dismiss Dr. Laura’s legacy as a conservative commentator and agitator, nor should her ignominous exit from talk radio be seen as representative of the illustrious career she’s charted. Instead, we should salute her for fighting so many worthwhile battles in the never-ending, interminable culture war, and wish her well as she continues to set forth to “take on the day.”


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