Politics: Stern Message

Radio's bad boy holds a funhouse mirror up to politics.


"For any of you who had doubts about me," Manhattan-based radio personality Howard Stern assured an unsettled convention crowd as he accepted the New York Libertarian Party's nomination for governor, "I am dead serious about running. I'm in this to win." As if to underscore the point, two scantily clad women—one of whom has claimed on Stern's radio show to have had sex with space aliens—danced on the dais in triumph.

Stern's three-plank platform—reinstating the death penalty, staggering tolls to reduce traffic congestion, and doing all road repairs at night—and his promise to step down immediately upon achieving those goals had carried the day.

"As I look out on this shining crowd and see all your beautiful faces," continued Candidate Stern, basking in the glow of his landslide victory, "I have only one thing to say: It's amazing they let you people vote."

Some longtime party members, however, were not amused by Stem's high-profile high jinks, claiming that the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" was disrupting a serious undertaking. It is unlikely, however, that the public perception of the Libertarian Party—often limited to such spectacles as the California branch's decision to run a former prostitute for lieutenant govemor—can be profoundly hurt by the association with Stern.

Disgruntled party members, along with nay-sayers in the general public, are failing to appreciate the ironic genius of Stern's campaign. He is not in any way sullying a pristine process. He is merely injecting intentional parody into an electoral process that has gotten progressively more ridiculous over the years. In a country where the president's underwear is a focus of national discussion and cartoon characters prompt congressional hearings, Stern, who has suggested filling potholes with the corpses of executed murderers, seems a paragon of reason.

It is precisely Stern's flair for undercutting pomposity and satirizing overseriousness that drives his immense popularity: His morning radio show is broadcast nationwide to somewhere between 4 million and 16 million listeners of 15 stations; his "memoir," Private Parts, has sold well over a million copies in hardcover; and his New Year's Eve special was the most successful event ever aired on pay-per-view, generating more than $15 million in revenue.

The best bits of his shtick match an uncanny sense of the absurd with an unbending dedication to irreverence. Highlights of a career known for outrageousness include having his all-too-aptly-named roving correspondent Stuttering John Melendez ask Gennifer Flowers whether Bill Clinton practiced safe sex, appearing at the MTV Music Awards as the flatulent superhero "Fartman" (and managing to disgust a rock-and-roll crowd that prides itself on its own impiety), and hosting the cable-televised Miss Howard Stern Beauty Pageant, a dead-on parody of beauty contests featuring a "talent" segment in which semi-nude contestants ate live bugs, impersonated Al Pacino, and performed "breast-puppet theater" (don't ask). True, Stern is not for all tastes. But then, neither are anchovies.

The parodic elements of Stem's gubernatorial campaign could be fully appreciated at the L.P. convention. Instead of trusting his nominating speech to a silver-tongued orator type, he gave the nod to a profoundly speech-impeded guest on his radio show, Fred "The Elephant Boy" Schreiber, whose mush-mouthed proclamations were unintelligible to the audience. Seconding the nomination fell to Kenneth Keith Kallenbach, best known for once attempting to blow smoke through his eyes on Stern's lamentably short-lived late-night TV show and vomiting instead. Kallenbach seemed less interested in the nominating process per se than in sharing personal thoughts with the crowd. After nominating Stern, he produced a large rubber phallus and repeatedly asked the incredulous audience, "Hey, who wants to see my dildo, who wants to see my dildo?"

The victory celebration was sealed by a rousing rendition of Stern's perfectly tuneless campaign song, "Howard Stern For Governor," which goes something like this: "Howard Stern for Governor, Howard Stern for Governor, for Governor of New York/He wants justice, he's a Libertarian, he is a great American/ Howard Stern can win the election from the Democrats or from the Republicans." Would that this scene could have taken place at a major party convention.

Other elements of Stern's ongoing campaign are perhaps subtler, but no less funny. His campaign slogan, 'A Volt for Every Vote," is as catchy as "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" and as winning as "I Like Ike." After the convention on his radio show, Stern called up his hand-picked candidate for lieutenant governor, former Rockland County legislator Stan Dworkin, to discuss a much-needed makeover. In particular, Stern worried that Dworkin's ill-fitting suit and "helmet of hair" were not particularly photogenic. Besides increasing the political chances of the ticket, Stern figured the makeover would help Dworkin get laid, if only by his wife of 20-plus years.

Unlike so many politicians currently on the national scene—Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, the senatorial delegations from Illinois and South Carolina, and 100 percent of living and recently deceased former presidents immediately come to mind—Stern is funny on purpose. The current political landscape in America is as picturesque as the upper stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike. Where Abraham Lincoln once pondered a house divided against itself, Bill Clinton muses on the possible uses of Astroturf-lined El Caminos. Any number of recent political happenings are far more pornographic and distasteful than the worst Stern has so far dished up

For instance, the U.S. Senate race in Virginia shaping up between Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb and likely Republican challenger Oliver North may well turn on Robb's incredibly nuanced definition of adultery. Robb has denied having extramarital affairs, but an internal campaign memo published in The Washington Post asserts, "Robb did engage in sexual relations, or oral sex, with at least a half-a-dozen women." When asked by the Post to explain himself, Robb commented, 'I previously said I hadn't slept with anyone" (emphasis added). Oddly, North may be able to claim the moral high ground, since he openly admits he is a liar.

And truth be told, politics in the Empire State were a laff riot long before Stern threw his hat in the ring. When Democratic Rep. Stephen Solarz lost his seat in 1992 due to redistricting, he quickly rechristened himself "Esteban" and unsuccessfully tried to win election in a newly created Hispanic-majority district. It remains to be seen if Solarz, who was almost the U.S. ambassador to India, is contemplating any further name changes.

The 1992 New York race for U.S. Senate was even more of a yuk-fest. One high point of a very nasty Democratic primary between state Attorney General Robert Abrams, Geraldine Ferraro, New York City Comptroller Liz Holtzman, and black activist Al Sharpton came when Holtzman accused Ferraro of abetting a pornographer. Abrams won the right to take on Republican incumbent Alfonse D'Amato, who trumpeted an official rebuke by the Senate Ethics Committee as a sign of high moral standing.

D'Amato summarized the Democratic primary in verse: 'Lizzie Holtzman took an axe / She gave Geraldine 40 whacks / When Bobby Abrams saw what she done / He took the axe and gave her 41." When Abrams denounced D'Amato as a "fascist," D'Amato took it as an anti-Italian slur and ran an ad linking Abrams to Mussolini. (D'Amato, incidentally, is a regular call-in guest on Stern's radio show, often enthusiastically performing what is arguably the worst Dr. Ruth Westheimer impersonation in the Free World).

So even as Stern's campaign is a great running gag, it manages to make a serious point. His platform represents perhaps the only issues on which New Yorkers (especially downstaters) can agree.

Libertarian stalwarts, understandably anxious that their party has been crashed by an unprincipled wild man, can rest easy that Stern is being honest when he insists he's a libertarian. While he might not appreciate the often arcane arguments of hemp enthusiasts or Second Amendment activists, he is a devotee of individual responsibility and supports legalizing drugs, lowering taxes, and shrinking the state.

Perhaps more than any person in the country, Stern knows the value of free speech and the government's capricious defense thereof: The Federal Communications Commission has fined his employer, Infinity Broadcast Corp., over $2 million for "indecency" and, for a while, blocked it from buying new radio stations. Candidate Stern's presence also exposes the absurdity of such "public interest" FCC regulations as the equal-time requirement: Should Mario Cuomo and the as-yet-unnamed Republican nominee be given time slots to engage in phony phone calls, butt-bongo fiesta, and other typical Stern antics?

As much as he goofs on the Libertarians for their chess-club mentality and their geekiness, Stern agrees with most of their ideas. In fact, Stern's intuitive embrace of the Libertarian rebuke of the leviathan state may well indicate broadbased support for the party's general principles. Given New York's bloated state and local governments, its residents—and Stern is nothing if not the embodiment of that once-great state and city—are in a particularly good position to understand the negative effects of big government. Though they chafe under his wisecracks, both the state and national Libertarian parties have gained an exposure for their platforms unimaginable without Stern's candidacy. If Stern manages to garner 50,000 votes, the NYLP will have guaranteed ballot access—something they've never enjoyed—through the 1998 elections. And on the off-chance he wins in November—he's currently around 30 percent in the polls and climbing—he's pledged to put libertarians in high places.

But Stern offers a more general lesson to those outside the L.P., too: If you look at him and merely see a laughingstock, you are forgetting that the joke is already in office.