One on One: Broadcast views

Michael Medved on why Obama isn't a shoo-in, and why Gibson got bad rap.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
Michael Medved is hardly a fence-sitter when it comes to airing his views, no matter how controversial. Indeed, the syndicated talk-show host - whose call-in radio broadcasts boast millions of listeners across the United States - is as clear-cut about his convictions as he is a proud conservative. Or perhaps Orthodox would be a better label for the kippa-wearing American Jew, whose journey to religious observance coincided with his shift from the liberal-Democratic Left to the Republican Right - a transition that is the subject of his best-selling book, Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life (2005), the most recent of 10. Still, on the issue of Israel's disengagement from Gaza, the 60-year-old Seattle resident, whose father and one of his three brothers live in Jerusalem, put a lid on publicly criticizing the Israeli government. This might seem odd to anyone familiar with Medved's outspokenness on subjects ranging from euthanasia to evolution (he's against both) - which he expresses as unapologetically in his widely read movie reviews as he does in his op-eds and books. But the married father-of-three does not see a contradiction here. Nor does he come off as eccentric or extremist - in his writing or in person. This is in spite of his openly defending Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and of his being a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, the hub of the Intelligent Design movement. On the contrary, during an hour-long interview at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel - where he was staying late last month as part of his fourth annual "Michael Medved Tour" - the staunch John McCain supporter has only harsh words for "fanatics." He refers to those he claims have "manipulated" the "phony issue" of immigration that is reported to be dividing Republicans as "fringe neo-Nazi creeps, losers and demagogues." His manner, though, is easy-going - not laced with the "fire and brimstone" attributed to many of the Christian groups with whom he is associated. This may have something to do with the fact that Medved is as much ensconced in pop-culture as he is in world affairs. Not that the two are unrelated in his case, mind you, as his analyses of films go way beyond the ranking of scripts and rating of cinematography. So much so, for example, that he virtually spilled the beans about the ending of boxing block-buster Million Dollar Baby by taking a punch at mercy killing. This is in keeping with his philosophy that "your religion is connected to everything you do - certainly to everything that's important to you." What is the purpose of the Michael Medved Israel tour? People who have a visceral connection to Israel will feel more strongly about the place and be better equipped to make arguments on Israel's behalf. This is so important, because in the United States, the other side - the side that seems to rule in academia and most of the media - is much better informed than many of the people out there whose support for Israel is emotional or religious. So, this is the fourth year we've given a group a very intense exposure to the country, with an unapologetic pro-Israeli and pro-American point of view. And participants come out of it as strong ambassadors with a frankly nationalistic point of view. Aren't you really knocking on an open door? Do you ever bring people here who are anti-Israel to begin with, and are swayed by the visit? I doubt that someone who is anti-Israel would pay the money to come on my tour [he laughs]. There are 3.7 million people who listen to my radio show every week. They hear me talk about these issues on the air, and they know where I stand. So the people who come on these trips are those who would be sympathetic to my point of view. What's interesting is when we asked participants what surprised them most after coming here, one said he was mainly surprised how normal a country it is - that it seems like a nice, happy place. Are these participants Jews and Christians? These tours have generally been between 60-70 percent Christian. We've never had a Jewish majority. Given your political and religious history - of moving to the Right in your positions, and becoming Orthodox in your practices - clearly you see a connection between your Judaism and your ideology. What is that connection? If you're serious about your religion, as I try to be, then your religion is connected to everything you do - certainly to everything that's important to you. You are the ultimate religious hypocrite if you say, "This is my religion, but I'm not going to apply it to politics, or to my business, or to my family life." That's a way of negating or reducing it. One of the things Israelis should know is that the main reason American Christians are so sympathetic to Israel is that they understand there is such a thing in the world as good and evil. This, to a great extent, is the big political and moral struggle underlying everything. Liberals - who make up the vociferous majority of American Jewry - would argue that they're always on the side of good. They promote social welfare, champion the downtrodden and care about the environment. How do you answer them in terms of good and evil? One of the things I've tried to do when talking to Jews is to detach questions of the war on terror from those of domestic policy, because where the latter is concerned, you're never going to win [he laughs]. It's so deeply ingrained that it's a losing proposition even to go there. However, I do think there is room to talk to American Jews on the basis of the fact that there are a lot of people in the world who would like to slaughter every single Jew, and probably every single American - which means that American Jews have a "double-whammy." I wish there were more of an open mind where domestic policy is concerned. I mean, it's shocking that there's not a moral outcry against this massive national service program that [presumptive Democratic presidential nominee] Barack Obama wants to create - which really does sound like Hitler Jugend [Hitler Youth]. It's interesting, because the other night someone called in to the radio show, and responded to my comments on this by saying, "Well, Israel does that." So I said, "First of all, Israel needs it, and wouldn't have to set up a bunch of new jobs just to enable it. Secondly, I think that if Obama said that everyone should be required to serve in the military, it would be a lot more popular than saying that everyone should be social workers helping homeless people." I mean, Obama wants to quadruple the Peace Corps. And do you know what a scam the Peace Corps is? It's essentially for rich kids who get to go abroad after college and say they've been helping the needy. But leaving Obama aside for a moment - which has been a pleasure to do in the days that I've been here - on the issue of defending the United States and Israel, one necessary element is getting American Jews to come to Israel. It's astounding that more than 80% of them have never even been here. While on the subject of Obama, there is a sense here that he will win by a landslide, yet some conservative pundits still assert that the American voters on the whole are not that radical. What is your assessment of his chances? This is going to be an epochally close election. [Syndicated columnist] Michael Barone wrote a very good piece ["Ghosts of '76 in Today's Campaign," The Washington Times, July 22] comparing this election with that of the race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. It's an OK analogy in one sense, except that [Republican presidential nominee John] McCain is a vastly better candidate than Ford was. And Obama's never come close to the lead that Carter had. The one thing the polls indicate right now is that, viscerally, before they've even focused on issues, people are split. They have been for a range of elections. In a piece I published in USA Today - which looks at the last 16 presidential elections - I argue that the only examples of anyone winning a majority of the popular vote were very popular presidents running for re-election: Lyndon Johnson in 1964; Richard Nixon in 1972; Ronald Reagan in 1984; and then Bush Senior, when he ran in 1988 for "Reagan's Third Term." This election is very complicated, and those who say that Obama is a sure thing are not really paying attention to the mechanics of the race. Furthermore, for months, the press has been saying that conservatives are unhappy with McCain, which is the stupidest thing in the world. Isn't there truth to that, which caused fear among mainstream conservatives that the purists were going to harm the Republican candidate by focusing on issues like abortion and immigration? Well, on abortion, McCain has a 100% pro-life record. And immigration is the fool's gold of American politics. It's a phony issue. And I say this as the only nationally syndicated talk-show host, of 30, who endorsed the immigration reform bill, and the only one who endorsed McCain for president before he won the nomination. But now everyone is falling in line, because people recognize that as much as they may want to "crack down on immigration," their chances of getting meaningful control of the border are much better under McCain than they are under Obama. McCain is very smart to talk about border security, rather than immigration. Immigration is an issue that has been manipulated by fringe neo-Nazi creeps, losers and demagogues. Those people do not speak for a broad majority of republicans or conservatives. As a conservative, don't you find that it's actually easier to be in the opposition than defend a government whose policies or performance you often oppose? In that sense, wouldn't it be somewhat of a relief for you if Obama were to become president? I know there are a lot of people in the talk radio world who feel that way. But I don't. I don't look back fondly on the [Bill] Clinton years [he laughs]. One of the reasons for this is that many of us terribly mishandled the impeachment crisis, and we're still paying the price for it. If there's one thing that shattered what appeared to be a building Republican majority, it was the failed attempt to impeach the president. Though I understand why I and others took the position we did at the time, in retrospect, we should have gone for the [1999] Feinstein compromise - a resolution to censure the president - which could have been nearly unanimous in the Senate and the House. We conservatives had every reason to go for that compromise, because had we succeeded in impeaching Bill Clinton, Al Gore would automatically have become president, and he would easily have been re-elected. I mean, can you imagine? Another reason I don't think it's better to be in opposition is that there are a number of issues over which the conservative movement in opposition really could self-destruct. Immigration is the most obvious example. But there's also health care. Americans are disgusted with the health-care system, and Republicans need to do more than just say no. But it's more than a question of what's better for the conservatives. Since I've been in Israel, I don't know how much the McCain campaign has made of Obama's speech in Berlin recently, in which he said that he is speaking not only as an American citizen and candidate, but as a citizen of the world. Now, I don't want a president who considers himself a citizen of the world. I want a president who represents only the United States! That's what we're voting for! Speaking of your desire for this kind of particularity, you are a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute that studies and believes in Intelligent Design. How do you, as an Orthodox Jew, reconcile with this kind of generality - with the view of their being a hierarchy with a chief "designer" - while believing in and praying to a very specific God? The important thing about Intelligent Design is that it is not a theory - which is something I think they need to make more clear. Nor is Intelligent Design an explanation. Intelligent Design is a challenge. It's a challenge to evolution. It does not replace evolution with something else. The question is not whether it replaces evolution, but whether it replaces God. No, you see, Intelligent Design doesn't tell you what is true; it tells you what is not true. It tells you that it cannot be that this whole process was random. How do you answer critics, who accuse you of being a member of a cult-like group, due to your involvement with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, seen by many as a guru figure? This is actually kind of fun for me, because questions about Rabbi Lapin as a cult leader are about 20 years old. Rabbi Lapin isn't involved with the synagogue any more. He left the congregational rabbinate in 1991. And there's no davening [praying] in his home. Part of what happened is that we had a successful synagogue, the Pacific Jewish Center [that Medved co-founded with Lapin in Venice, California, to help attract unaffiliated young Jews to a traditional Jewish lifestyle]. It's still hanging on, though it's smaller than it was when Rabbi Lapin was there - and people tend to talk about rabbis as either "nothings" or cult leaders. And Rabbi Lapin is certainly not nothing. He is a very strong figure. He's a wonderful teacher and person. He's my friend and neighbor, that's all. What about his brother David's close connection with businessman and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now serving a jail sentence for fraud and corruption? Unfortunately, he was both a friend of Rabbi Lapin's and on the board of Rabbi David Lapin's organization. I, fortunately, had better instincts about Jack. He's a complicated figure, because he was genuinely a big ba'al tzedaka [giver of charity]. A lot of the money he gave away was for good causes. Couldn't one could say that about Morris Talansky, for example? I know! I know! It's a terrible thing, and a huge problem in contemporary Orthodoxy - the belief that if you're Orthodox and charitable, everything is permitted. You know, Dostoevsky said, "Without God, all is permitted." For too many contemporary Orthodox, it's: "With tzedaka, all is permitted." But it's not [he laughs and shakes his head]. It's still a question of respecting the law. Another controversial figure your name is associated with is Mel Gibson. You were a defender of The Passion of the Christ. Why? There are very few issues surrounding which it's very clear that one side is wrong and the other side is right. I would submit that my very unpopular position in the Jewish community on The Passion of the Christ was shown definitively and without any equivocation to be correct - because there is not a single anti-Semitic incident in the world attributable to that movie. Not one. Oh, there was an instance of a neo-Nazi in Sweden who saw the movie and then confessed to police that he had burned down a synagogue 14 years earlier. People who hadn't seen the film were talking as though it was going to lead to pogroms in Pittsburgh. But, actually, people came out of that movie with more interest in Israel and more support of Jews. The stupidity of it all! The point about The Passion is that it was a very powerful - by far the most interesting - cinematic portrayal of the Gospels. But it was of the Gospels. And none of the quote-unquote anti-Semitic elements that people perceived in it were Mel Gibson's imagination. In fact, if anything, he toned it down. I tell the story in my book of the scene in the movie when the crowd shouts out: "Let his blood be upon us until the latest generations," which is a line from Matthew 25. It's the worst line in the Gospels. Originally, that line was in the film, and I wrote Gibson a letter about it. It was too late at that point to re-cut the movie, but he agreed to remove the subtitles translating it from the Aramaic. Look, what we can and should expect of Christians is that they be good neighbors; that they leave us alone and not to try to convert us; certainly, God forbid, that they not kill us or burn down our businesses. But we cannot expect of Christians that they change their faith.