Commentary: Cincinnati Knows Another Side Of Jerry Springer
The world—and I do mean the world, just about all of it—knows one Jerry Springer.
In Cincinnati, we know another.
The Springer the world knows is a rather outrageous syndicated talk show host whose shows, over 27 years, had been wildly popular but generally so insanely grotesque that some stations (including Cincinnati's WLWT, where Springer's TV career started) refused to run them and chose to air reruns of old Springer shows instead.
Here's just a sampling of Springer's recent episodes: "Stripper Sex Turned Me Straight;" "My Bestie Is Stalkin' You;" "Stop Pimping My Twin Sister;" and, in what was no doubt a classic, "Babes with Baguettes."
We know that Jerry here too, but we also know Jerry The Politician, who, in the 1970s, resigned from City Council after paying a prostitute with a check and then ran the next year and won his seat back. We know the Jerry who served a stint as Cincinnati's mayor, and the Jerry who ran (unsuccessfully) for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982.
And, of course, we remember him as the serious-minded news anchor at WLWT who would end his newscasts with a thoughtful commentary on the news of the day.
In other words, Jerry Springer has covered a lot of ground since he first came on the Cincinnati political scene in 1969.
A month or so ago, I was invited to be a speaker at the National Association of Newspaper Columnists, which was meeting at the Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center at the University of Cincinnati. I spoke in the afternoon, but in the morning session, Springer came by to talk to the columnists, most of whom had come from out of town.
At lunch, I was seated with a fellow who was a columnist with a newspaper in suburban Washington, D.C. All he knew about Springer was his reputation as the host of an outrageous talk show.
"I was astounded,'' the man said. "He was intelligent, thoughtful and well-spoken on politics and journalism. Clearly, this is a man who thinks about the issues. It was not what I expected when I saw his name on the agenda as a speaker.
"Was this an act?,'' the man said.
No, I explained, it was no act.
After 27 seasons of classic television like "I Married a Horse" and "Hooking Up With My Therapist," and despite being number one on TV Guide's list of the "Worst Shows in the History of Television," that sleazy talk show had made him a gazillionaire.
And throughout it all, there was a side of Jerry, the liberal Democrat, who was determined to keep a foot in the world of politics. That's why he raised enormous amounts of money over the years for the Democratic Party in Ohio and Cincinnati and for countless Democratic candidates.
Periodically, there would be eruption of rumors that Springer was ready to chuck the TV show and run for office. He was rumored as a candidate for Ohio governor, U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, even a return as mayor of Cincinnati (now that Cincinnati's mayor has some authority, which wasn't the case back in Springer's day).
But despite all the talk, all the rumor-mongering, he never jumped into a race—and is unlikely to even now, with his syndicated talk show out of production.
He does get his licks in on politics these days on a podcast he produces at the Folk School Coffee Parlor in Ludlow, Ky., with his old chums, Jene Galvin and Megan Hils.
The fact is, Jerry Springer is one of the most eloquent political speakers I have ever heard, at any level.
Back in March 2013, Beyond Civility, an organization that promotes civil dialogue between people of different political views, held a forum at the University of Cincinnati Medical School for one of their "Side-by-Side" events.
This one matched two former colleagues from Cincinnati City Council who are both former mayors and, now, two men with vastly different political views: Ken Blackwell, conservative Republican; and Springer, liberal Democrat.
Both told stirring and emotional stories of their childhoods and youth. Blackwell talked about his father, a meat packer in a West End sausage factory; his mother, who dropped out of high school but who read voraciously and encouraged her children to do the same. And he described what it was like growing up in the Laurel Home projects of the West End.
Blackwell spoke of his uncle, DeHart Hubbard, a track and field star who was the first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal and a man who faced racial discrimination as he pursued his dreams.
"My uncle scored five touchdowns in his first game for the Walnut Hills football team,'' Blackwell said. "The school district found out and ordered him off the team because he was black. The entire team—every one of them—voted to forfeit the whole season because he couldn't play."
Springer had a far different story to tell that night. He was born in a railroad station in London, where his parents had gone from Germany to escape the Nazis' slaughter of Jews.
"All of our family was exterminated by the Nazis, but my mother and father survived,'' said Springer, who was born in 1944. "The train stations were used by people as shelter, and that was where I was born."
His family moved to New York City when he was four years old. After high school, Springer went to Tulane University for his undergraduate studies and to Northwestern's law school. It was between his two years at law school that he first came to Cincinnati to serve as a clerk at a local law firm.
Being a liberal, Springer said, "was in my DNA."
"If you are a child of Holocaust survivors, it's hard not to be a liberal,'' Springer said. "Twenty-seven members of my family were wiped out. You learn that you never judge people on what they are, but what they do."
His first political hero was Robert F. Kennedy. As a young man, he got involved in Kennedy's run for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination—a campaign cut short by the assassination of Kennedy.
"Bobby Kennedy was in politics for all the right reasons, especially in the final years of his life,'' Springer said. "He cared about people who were struggling, who were discriminated against, who had no chance to succeed. Why else be in politics unless you want to make life better for people who have nothing?"
It was a powerful statement of what motivated him in politics and it deeply affected most of the 400 or so who heard him at UC that night.
Several years before that, I went with Springer one afternoon to the old Tangeman Center on the UC campus, where posters slapped all over campus advertised the fact that Jerry Springer was going to speak. Springer's show was at the height of its popularity then and, oddly enough, it had a special appeal to college students.
Hundreds of students packed Tangeman and when he came out on stage, they began a deafening version of the chant from the TV show: Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!
There was a buzz in the crowd as Springer began. I got the impression that the students thought he was going to throw out some red meat from what he always referred to as his "stupid show."
He did not. He had a message to deliver.
"Do you ever wonder,'' he asked, "why politicians in Congress pay so much attention to issues like Social Security and Medicare?"
This was clearly not going to be Jerry giving an inside look at the making of the "Pussycat Probation" episode.
"There's one reason, and one reason only,'' Springer said. "Older Americans vote. Your parents vote. Your grandparents vote. I talk to people from your generation all the time and they constantly tell me that they don't believe in politics or politicians because the politicians never pay any attention to what they have to say.
"I ask them if they are registered to vote,” he continued. “So many of them are not. Now, I ask you this—explain this to me—why would politicians pay attention to the issues and ideas of people who don't vote?
"The answer is—they won't. They never will. If you vote, you have influence. If you don't vote, you have no influence. That's the way it is. And if you want to go through your lives having no influence on the government that has so much impact on your lives, then be my guest."
You could hear a pin drop in the room.
"If you don't vote, you don't matter,” Springer said. “Your opinions simply don't matter."
And a roomful of young people learned that day that there was much more to Jerry Springer than some stupid TV show.
"Tales From The Trail" is Howard Wilkinson's weekly column that gives a behind-the-scenes look at his more than 40 years of covering campaigns, personalities, scandals and business of politics on a local, state and national level.