Starr: Don Imus Is Us

There's another hot story in morning radio: African-American comedian Steve Harvey. In 17 months, his show has rocketed to prominence in top-50 markets. He's based on urban stations, but exhibits strong crossover appeal. He and his studio gang talk about race, to be sure, but with nonabrasive humor and upbeat music. They dispense advice on subjects ranging from love (be faithful) to barbecuing in the front yard (don't). "He's not a shock jock," says his syndicator, Martin Melius of Premiere Radio Networks. "He wants to be inspirational and positive, not divisive."

Winning by division has long been the reigning theory of radio—not to mention politics and, in the age of George W. Bush, international relations. Democrats and Republicans compete to see who can be more convincingly apocalyptic about the other side. No sense addressing the entire country, let alone the world. You stick with your crowd. You target and narrowcast. To combat terrorism, you identify an Axis of Evil, and threaten its destruction. In the doctrine of Us vs. Them, "Them" are not just wrong. Often they are filthy, corrupt, evil or not fully human. They are the "war criminals," "evildoers"—or "nappy-headed hos."

But the weather is changing. Poll numbers show weariness with shock-jock politics. Neither the Republican president nor the Democratic Congress wins points for petulant posturing over whether to hold a meeting on Iraq spending. Voters deeply doubt the efficacy of Bush's Us-vs.-Them thinking on terrorism. Four years into the invasion of Iraq, we are despised by much of the planet; voters reject Bush's claim that the war has made us safer. The accusatory double helix of Bushes and Clintons, which has lasted for nearly 20 years, feels like a stranglehold to many voters. The rumor among network suits is that numbers are softening for the O'Reillys of the world.

Experts I talk to say that independent voters—the 10 percent who effectively decide the outcome of elections—have had it up to here with the fumes and the fury. "Independents were watching passively," said Matthew Dowd, who used to advise Bush until he became dismayed at the very approach he once implemented. "Now they are disgusted. They want some sense of dignity in our public discussion. I would even say, for want of a better word, some gentleness."

Now, let's not kid ourselves. America was built on argument. Arguing is what we are. Even if Don Imus retreats to his ranch, the Rev. Al Sharpton will still be around to grab air time by working the race divide. Phone lines at Imus's home base, WFAN radio in New York, are burning with the words of his passionate defenders. We are defined by diversity, which means disagreement, often candid and brutal. "Americans like a good fight, if it's over important issues," said Mark Penn, Sen. Hillary Clinton's senior adviser.

And Bush has a point about Islamist terrorists: it's dangerously naive to think they will listen to reason. They will stop at nothing, which is a working definition of evil.

Still, something new is in (and on) the American air. It is the only way—so far—I can explain the rise of Sen. Barack Obama. "The whole theory of our campaign is a desire to cobble the American community back together," said David Axelrod, his top adviser. Obama's challenge may be an impossible one: to master the Zen of staying positive as things get nasty. In typically cautious fashion, he didn't call for Imus's ouster until last Wednesday afternoon, a week after the offending radio broadcast. As a Democratic presidential candidate (and an African-American), he had come to a conclusion: Imus was a Them.