Elder Statesman

He was a promising young lawyer when he quit to stat a business. It thrived. So he sold it, moved across the country, and became Los Angeles's most controversial talk radio host. When Larry Elder talks about opportunity, people listen.

Larry Elder may be the Next Big Thing in talk radio. Not only that, the 43-year-old self-styled "Sage from South Central" may be the next--if not quite the first--libertarian host to boast a national listenership. Over the past two years, Elder, who appears weekdays on Los Angeles's KABC/790 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., has gained a wide and growing audience by pushing libertarian views on everything from drug legalization to gun control, prostitution to public school education, gambling to taxes, affirmative action to government pensions. He delights--and infuriates--audiences with outspoken opinions, in-depth knowledge, satirical impersonations, and good-natured humor. Many of his shows revolve around racial issues and his basic message--despite racism, hard work pays off--enrages and engages listeners who alternately brand him an Uncle Tom and a truth-teller. He has recently come under attack by a South Central-based group that branded him "without doubt, the most racist, anti-Black talk show host in Southern California." The Talking Drum Community Forum has called for an advertising boycott of Elder's show, resulting in some sponsors pulling their ads--and others publicly supporting the controversial host. Meanwhile the whispers about syndication deals--for both radio and television--keep growing louder.

Although born and raised in Los Angeles, it's been a long round trip back home for Elder. After graduating Crenshaw High School, he entered Brown University (with, he readily admits, a boost from affirmative action). From there, he went on to University of Michigan Law School and a job with a prestigious Cleveland firm. Stifled by the lock-step progression of the legal profession, he created his own successful legal headhunting business. After 15 years, Elder turned the day-to-day operation over to an associate and began immersing himself in the classical liberal canon, and reading other books he'd always meant to read. He also landed a job hosting a PBS public affairs show and, later, a talk show on Cleveland's Fox affiliate. A chance meeting with L.A.-based radio and TV personality Dennis Prager led Elder back to the City of Angels, whose residents have been paying close attention ever since.

Elder spoke with Senior Editor Nick Gillespie and L.A.-based writer Steve Kurtz at the magazine's offices late last year. Elder is a lively, energetic personality; after two hours of conversation, he started asking us questions. He blends hard facts, personal anecdotes, intellectual honesty, and a good dose of humor into excellent conversation.

Reason: Journalists usually call you a "black conservative." You've described yourself at various times as a Jack Kemp-style "bleeding-heart conservative" and as a "libertarian." So which is it?

Larry Elder: As we use it right now, the term conservative typically means somebody who wants to reduce spending, reduce taxes, reduce the size of government. But it also has come to mean somebody who feels that government has an active role to play in our private lives. So, if that's the definition of a conservative, that ain't me.

What I am is somebody who believes that government is way too big, and people are being taxed way too much. The government is assuming responsibilities it should not be assuming. The government is intruding in our private lives. Republicans ought to be talking about ending farm subsidies. They ought to be eliminating the Departments of Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. They are taking a pocket knife to a problem that requires a machete.

Social Security should be part of it, too. To me, it's an improper role of the government to take current workers' money and give it to somebody else. I would like private safety nets. This would have to be done in the context of the dramatic reduction of taxes so people have more disposable income.

I'm very critical of Republicans, but I understand the politics of reality. The fact is that people talk out of both sides of their mouths. They say on the one hand they want the budget to be cut and on the other hand, don't cut my stuff. Don't take my homeowner deduction away. My old man is on Medicare--don't take that away. I got an aunt that's on Medicaid, don't take that away. I want to keep Legal Aid. People talk out of both sides of their mouths.

Reason: Are you a registered voter?

Elder: I'm a registered independent.

Reason: How did you come by your beliefs, what were your influences?

Elder: I've been accused of being a late convert to conservatism because it's "hot." It's a marketing edge in radio and as a black conservative, it's man bites dog. I went back and got some of my old high school papers, one of which was a book report on Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. This was in 1968. I set up the term paper by saying that my classmates refer to Booker T. Washington as an Uncle Tom but he was anything but. He used to talk about self help and not relying on government and hard work wins. That philosophy is the core of what I believe right now.

I was born in the Pico-Union area, which is primarily Latino. And then when I was 7 years old, I moved to South Central, not too far from where Reginald Denny was beaten. My father was a school dropout raised in a single-parent household. He was effectively thrown out of his house when he was 13 years old by his mother and her then-boyfriend and began working. He was a cook boy, shoeshine boy, hotel bellhop. He went into the service where he learned how to cook, came out, and went home to the South to get a job as a short-order cook and nobody would hire him. So he moved to California because he thought people were more liberal. Nobody would hire him. For the whole time I was growing up, my father worked two jobs as a janitor, and he cooked for a private family on the weekends, and he went to night school to get his GED. He was a bad ass. He was the hardest working man I've ever known. That was my role model. My father was never home and when he was home he was in a bad mood. He had a work ethic that was beyond belief.

My mother had one year of college, which for a black woman of her age--she's 70 years old--is like having a Ph.D. from Harvard. She was an avid reader and she always worked with me. My mother told me that I was going to go to Stanford when I was in third or fourth grade. I didn't know what it was.

My father is a Republican. He's the only black Republican I ever knew and until I got into practicing law I never met another one. So I always heard another point of view. My mother was a Robert Kennedy/John Lindsay kind of liberal. She has evolved as most people do when they get older. But over the dinner table, I would hear both sides. I think Republicans and Democrats essentially have two very simple philosophies. Republicans believe hard work wins. Democrats believe the system is rigged. And from that premise, I think, their policies flow.

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