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The Michael Behind the Mike

Yonoson Rosenblum

Famous, multitalented, persuasive, conservative: Those are a few ways to describe Michael Medved, national radio host, author, social commentator, and Orthodox Jew. How does he draw four million listeners a week

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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CHANGEOVER Michael Medved, today talk radio’s most convincing conservative, spent most of his twenties involved in political campaigns on behalf of left-wing candidates. Ironically, the experience helped drive him in the opposite direction politically, but change took time. “I refused to give up on thinking of myself as a liberal because I didn’t want to stop seeing myself as a good person” (Photos: Luci Varon)

"Thanks for sparing me the need to write my autobiography," I quip to national talk-radio host Michael Medved, when we first meet at the Bonneville Radio Building in downtown Seattle on a drizzly day in late February.

I’ve been reading his autobiography, Right Turns, and find the parallels to my own life eerie. We both come from highly identified Jewish families of all boys, all but one of whom became observant Jews. We both have followed a trajectory from left to right both religiously and politically. We even shared a favorite breed of dog: I grew up with two Norwegian Elkhounds, and Michael’s first marital home also included two of the same breed.

Michael was voted “most radical” in his elite high school class; I (regrettably) got the dress code abolished in my suburban high school. Medved went on to become one of the leaders of the Vietnam Moratorium Day, and to address 50,000 protestors on New Haven Green.

We started Yale Law School just a few years apart, though his class included many more illustrious names, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. He still remembers Hillary as “the warmest and most welcoming” of his classmates, though he debunks the myth that she stood out as one of the most “brilliant minds” in the class. It was Hillary who gave him the necessary encouragement to drop out after his freshman year in law school to become the chief speechwriter for Senate candidate Joseph Duffey, in the face of fierce maternal opposition.

John Kerry and George W. Bush were a few years ahead of him at Yale College, which he entered at 16. He would not get to know the future president until decades later, but Kerry was chairman of his party, the Liberals, in the Yale Political Union. Kerry wore cufflinks inscribed with the monogram “JFK,” and jabbed the air with his left hand when he spoke, in imitation of the slain president. He even carefully coiffed his hair in the manner of the Kennedy brothers. Everyone knew that one day he would run for president.

Shortly after an audience with Kerry, in which the future senator and secretary of state droned on about how his young followers in the Political Union could aspire to his eminence one day, Michael and a fellow party whip ran through the quadrangle of their residential college one night, shouting, “We can’t turn out like John Kerry,” and dropped out of the Yale Political Union.

Studio Time

It will be almost four hours before I can really begin my interview with Medved, who is also the author of 13 books and a columnist for USA Today. He is on air in only half an hour, and is fully occupied reviewing the newspapers and news briefings he started reading at 5 a.m., and cutting out op-eds or news items he might use. I try to remain silent and unobtrusive — not the strongest part of my skill set.

At five minutes before noon, I’m ushered into the studio from which The Michael Medved Show is broadcast Monday through Friday at 12 noon PST. Broadcast on the network of the conservative Salem Radio Network, it reaches four million discrete listeners a week, making it one of the most listened-to talk radio shows in the country. Opposite Medved is Jeremy Steiner, who keeps everything running on time, inserts the sound bites for the various news items that will be discussed, and selects the music that leads in and out of breaks. He has already spent much of the morning going over the schedule and the topics with Michael.

Michael Medved’s brothers Harry (his frequent co-author), Ben (a therapist and die-hard liberal), and Jonathan (an Israeli venture capitalist) celebrate Michael’s marriage to Diane

I’m seated at the semicircle counter with microphones and headphones to Michael’s right, and behind me in a glass box is Greg Tomlin, who screens the calls that give talk radio its sizzle, and forwards a short one-line message that appears on a screen in front of Michael, with a single-sentence synopsis of the caller’s name, city, and what he wants to speak about. “We always favor callers who disagree over the ‘Amen chorus,’ ” Medved tells me later.

Jeremy Steiner has been working with Michael ever since he first began broadcasting locally in Seattle in 1996. The rapport between the two is immediately evident. Each day, Jeremy and Greg — who constitute the entire production team — provide Michael with their own lists of possible items, and then they sit together to winnow them down.

Each show begins with an invocation of the United States as “the greatest nation on G-d’s green earth.” That phrase is repeated at the beginning of each segment, and succinctly alludes to Michael’s fierce American patriotism, Seattle’s lush greenery, his ecological concerns, and, most important, alerts listeners to Michael’s “willingness to discuss religious issues.”

Medved describes the experience of hosting a talk-radio show — the feeling of being intimately connected to a large audience — as “addictive.” In 2015, he had to take off 11 weeks from the show due to throat cancer. Literally tens of thousands of listeners of all faiths contacted him to say that they were praying for him. Those letters and e-mails “soothed my spirit,” he shares.

Conservative talk radio has a reputation as an angry medium, in which many of the “stars” deliberately rile up the base. Medved adduces a wealth of statistics exploding some of the stereotypes of talk radio listeners as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. In fact, they are better educated, earn more, and are generally happier than the general population. And they tend to vote in much higher percentages.

Still, Michael does not deny that some hosts deliberately try to stir anger to capture a fixed market share. He has, however, deliberately headed in the other direction, and has styled his show as “Radio’s Foremost Forum for Substantive and Civilized Debate.” “One thing I have taken away from my Gemara learning,” he tells me, “is the importance of preserving both sides of the debate.” 

“One thing I have taken away from my Gemara learning,” he tells me, is the importance of preserving both sides of the debate.” As an American history major in college, he read both the Federalist Papers and the works of the anti-Federalists.

His tone is invariably persuasive, not dismissive. Listeners will not miss how smart he is — very. He was a member of championship quiz bowl teams in both high school and college, and has the ability to bring a wide array of interesting facts instantly to the debate — e.g., the number of Republican congressmen from districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 is only one less than the Democrats would need to capture to flip the House. But he does not speak down to his listeners. He employs few sesquipedalian words, esoteric references, or citations to famous philosophers. His “proofs” tend to come from history, his personal life experience, and sharp apercus.

As an example of the latter, I asked him why people in Hollywood are so overwhelmingly progressive.  He offered that most people in Hollywood know that they are fabulously rich largely due to luck, i.e., there are five equally talented actors waiting on tables for every one who gets a break and makes it. Therefore they conclude that all wealth in a capitalist system reflects nothing but unearned luck.

 

Happy Conservative 

Both on air and in his 13 books, most of them best sellers, Medved is determinedly middle-brow. “I’d like to be able to write a packed, philosophical best seller, like The Closing of the American Mind [by University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom], but the truth is,” he confesses, “I could not finish it.”

Perhaps due to his early experience as a political speechwriter, he knows how to speak to many different groups of people at the same time.

The show’s preference for contrarian callers, provided that they are coherent and passionate, is not just because debate makes for more interesting listening, Michael explains. “They give me the opportunity to convince others of my position, or at the very least, to provide arguments to be used by others who share that position.”

The idea of changing the minds of three or four listeners a day fits in well with Medved’s philosophy of Do-It-Yourself-Conservatism: If there is something that you want to change, don’t look to the government to solve it; figure out what you personally can do on the individual level. If you don’t like your children’s school, then homeschool (as the Medveds did at various times); if you see too much garbage lying around, get out of your car and throw it away. Michael admits to having embarrassed all his children regularly by stopping his car to pick up refuse lying by the side of the road.

“What is your overall goal for the show?” I ask. He answers: “to change the ubiquitous misrepresentations of two groups — conservatives and religious people — in the media, as ‘legalistic, joyless, and nasty.’ ” Donald Trump, he adds, is the liberals’ vision of a conservative, which is why the media provided him with so much free coverage.

Medved was one of the few conservative talk-radio hosts not enamored by President Trump in the primaries or the general-election campaign. Judging by a recent question to presidential press secretary Sean Spicer, where Medved asked by long-distance hook-up, why the administration keeps losing its policy focus by shooting itself in the foot with needless distractions, he still is not. When I ask what it’s like in “talk-radio land,” to be outside of the Trump camp, he replies that he’d rather discuss his throat cancer.

Michael himself is determined to be a conservative in the mold of President Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “I’m a conservative but I’m not angry about it.” In Right Turns, his 2004 autobiography, he cites a great deal of social science data showing that conservatives tend to be happier people. I ask Michael for his explanation of that phenomenon. For one thing, he tells me, conservatives and religious people tend to be less materialistic. Progressives think that money is the solution to every problem.

He also refers me to his first blockbuster best seller What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? (with David Wallechinsky) a retrospective look ten years later at the graduates of affluent Palisades High, who were featured in Time Magazine the year of their graduation. In that book, he described his generation as “paralyzed by possibilities, with every individual constantly engaged in a process of self-creation, with no norms from an honored past for guidance.” It is much easier to live one’s life to “do your duty,” according to clear commandments, than to be constantly told, “follow your heart, wherever it may lead.”

 

Turning Right

 In hindsight, it’s easy to see how even in the days of Michael Medved’s most fervent left-wing political activism, the seeds for a gradual shift of political viewpoint were present. Despite being voted most “radical” in his high school class, he was never radical in either disposition or politics. He has always been “ferociously frustrated by arrogant ideologues who prefer gestures and poses to practical progress,” and always worked within the two-party system. He was in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, with other campaign workers, the night of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.

The seeds for Medved’s political journey are family history, temperament, and experience. Long before he was sure about his belief in G-d, he had no doubt of a “Special Providence for my country.” At the age of 20, he writes in Right Turns, “I felt unshakably out of step with the common contempt for nationalism and its symbolism.” He points out that when he led the walkout on McGeorge Bundy, one of the early architects of the Vietnam War, at his Yale Senior Day dinner, “I was wrapped in the American flag and singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Michael knew well from an early age that America had been a land of refuge and opportunity for his grandparents and parents. His paternal grandfather, Hershel Medved, a barrel maker, arrived before World War I, leaving behind a wife and six children in the Ukraine. By the time his wife, Sarah, arrived in America 14 years later, all but one of those children had died. The one surviving child, Moish, would have a tremendous influence on Michael’s political and religious development.

Two years later, Sarah went to the doctor thinking she had stomach cancer, only to learn that at age 45, she was pregnant with Michael’s father, David. Though Hershel Medved never climbed out of the working class, his “miracle child” would attend Philadelphia’s prestigious Central High and the University of Pennsylvania, from which he eventually earned his PhD in physics, on full scholarship.

Michael’s maternal grandfather owned a candy factory in Bad Homburg. But in 1934, when the labor union in his factory demanded that he fly a flag in honor of Hitler’s birthday, he immediately started planning to leave Germany. Over the next five years, he helped another 40 relatives escape Germany for the United States or Switzerland. When he died, before Michael’s birth, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed his ethical will, which instructed his survivors to “honor my memory by endeavoring to be decent, upright people and to help other people.”

When the drug culture hit the Yale campus in full force in 1966, Michael tells me, “I experienced my first ever self-consciously conservative impulses.” The self-destructive, mind-altering behavior of many of his classmates left him feeling alienated from them. The year before, as a freshman, he told an interviewer for the Yale Alumni Magazine, “I don’t like the widespread and indiscriminate drinking that goes on around here. This just isn’t my idea of a pleasant way to spend an evening.”

Instead of drinking or getting high, Michael spent his weekends hitchhiking around the country. That too gave him a very different perspective on his fellow Americans from that of his fellow political activists, who were often filled with contempt for the residents of “Flyover country.” One night, at a truck stop in Ohio, he was picked up by a tattooed truck driver, who proceeded to put on a tape of Schubert’s Symphony in C Major. Michael spent the next two hours discussing the relative merits of Beethoven and Schubert with the trucker, who saved his money to purchase season tickets to the Cleveland Symphony.

For most of his 20s, Medved was involved in political campaigns on behalf of left-wing candidates. Ironically, the experience helped drive him in the opposite direction politically: “A general rule I discovered while working in politics,” he tells me, “the more a boss identified as an ‘idealist’ the more likely he would be to behave like a monster in interpersonal dealings.”

Already, at the age of 11, Uncle Moish had taken his nephew aside and warned him against the “Scarlet Plague,” otherwise known as Communism. He was worried that if his intellectually precocious nephew was not prepared for it, he too “may get infected” in his youthful idealism. “It’s Scarlet because they call themselves Reds, and also that is the color of blood. And there’s blood everywhere with the Communists, of the people they kill, that they torture and they cripple. I know because I saw it myself — I saw it in Russia before we got out in 1924,” Uncle Moish inveighed.

Irving Kristol once described a conservative as “a liberal mugged by reality.” Medved had such a mugging while living in Berkeley. A burglar broke into his house. The burglar in question had already been arrested in 15 previous break-ins. In the burgular’s defense, the public defender tearfully invited the judge to return 24 years to a cabin in Georgia, in a destitute area, and contemplate the sound of a baby crying. “It’s a cry of bitterness, of pain, of despair, because it’s the cry of a black baby, left alone in his cradle, with no one to dry his tears…. [B]ut this little boy is also crying for his whole people, for a history of slavery, tragedy, abuse, and oppression.” So moved was the judge that he let the defendant, a hardened criminal, off with a suspended sentence. Michael was left to try to deal with his outrage.

Around the same time, he began riding police patrol cars with the Oakland police department. An affirmative-action hustler had won the advertising contract for minority recruitment, and the decidedly white Michael was his one-man staff. The police officers with whom he drove around in some of Oakland’s most dangerous neighborhoods had an unerring sense of who was a “citizen” and who was a “jerk” — the latter being those who had already violated an important public norm or were about to do so. Far from being “pigs,” as it was fashionable for campus radicals to call police at the time, the black police officers struck Medved as among “the most admirable human beings I had ever encountered.”

Though on issue after issue he had moved far from his McGovernite roots, and had even experienced perfectly pleasant social engagements suddenly turning tense when he expressed his more conservative views, it was still hard for him to stop thinking of himself as a liberal.

“I refused to give up on thinking of myself as a liberal because I didn’t want to stop seeing myself as a good person.” Only the end of the Vietnam War and witnessing the suffering of desperate Vietnamese boat people eager to escape their new Communist overlords forced him to contemplate the real-world consequences of the policies he had advocated and realize that they were not “good.”

 

Some Things Never Change 

“I always had a deep conviction that Michael Medved was meant to be Jewish,” Michael tells me. “Since I knew my Yiddish-speaking grandparents well, and spent my early years enjoying Shabbos meals every Friday night at my Bobba’s house in South Philly, it always seemed important to me to link with that — the warmth, the familiarity, the idea of something bigger, older, more important.”

He adds other elements of his youthful Jewish identity: His parents were always appalled by Jews so weak in their identity as to buy Xmas trees or change their Jewish names. And his Uncle Moish spoke passionately against Jewish writers or comics who trafficked in negative Jewish stereotypes.

And finally, there were the Sedorim. When the Medveds lived in San Diego, where there were relatively few Jews, his father used to go down to the local Navy base to invite Jewish sailors to Sedorim. After moving to Los Angeles, his mother several times served Sedorim for over 100 guests.

One of those Sedorim proved to be a crucial turning point in his religious development. Michael brought his non-Jewish girlfriend, Carolyn, whom he was contemplating marrying, back to Los Angeles for the Seder. His mother’s approach was frontal: She burst into tears in Carolyn’s presence and kept muttering about how unendurable it would be to listen to grandchildren talk about Christianity.

But it was his calm, intellectual father who had the more lasting impact. He and Michael went out for a drive down to the beach, in the midst of pre-Seder preparations. There his father enunciated his position without wiggle room: He would never attend a marriage of one of his sons to a non-Jew, and he would never associate in any way with the offspring of such a destructive, inappropriate union.

Michael was stunned. How could his parents, who observed so little, make such a big deal of his choice of a non-Jewish girl to marry? She fit into their family better than a Jewish Republican would, he argued. His father batted away that objection: “You’re suggesting that Jewish identity is less important than politics …. But in politics nothing stays the same. The whole idea of Jewish identity is that some things never change. We’ve been around a long time.”

Michael and his girlfriend left for the airport as the Seder meal was being served. When he returned to New Haven, Michael received a letter from Uncle Moish, informing him that Judaism valued truth over comfort, long-term survival over short-term comfort. To provide himself with better arguments in his correspondence with Uncle Moish, Michael began reading: Max Dimont’s Jews, God and History; Herman Wouk’s This is My God; and, most important, an annotated Pirkei Avos sent by Uncle Moish.

Six weeks later the relationship was over.

On Michael’s next visit to Los Angeles, Uncle Moish decided to take him to a Chabad farbregen. “When I was a boy in Russia, these people were everywhere — chassidic Jews, religious people who spent every minute trying to get closer to G-d,” he recalled. Though appalled that Uncle Moish would draw a connection between his recent study of Judaism and those whom he then viewed as “simple-minded, rule-obsessed automatons,” Michael could never resist his uncle.

At the event, a red-headed, energetic chassid, Rabbi Shalom (Schwartzie) Schwartz, the long-time Chabad emissary on the UCLA campus, beckoned him and urged him to put on tefillin for the security of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael (where Uncle Moish’s two daughters lived with their families). Doing so for the first time, Michael made a shehecheyanu, and found himself inexplicably filled with “an irrational sense of satisfaction and solidarity.”

When Uncle Moish gave Michael his old, unused pair of tefillin the next day, tefillin became the first mitzvah that he performed regularly. Tefillin also became the key metaphor for his religious development. “Judaism,” Michael writes to me in response to a series of follow-up questions, “emphasizes that changing your actions will change your heart. That’s why we put on the tefillin shel yad before the tefillin shel rosh.”

By the time Michael married for the first time at 23, his new bride and he committed to kashrus and Shabbos. He was attracted to Jewish practice because “it made me feel good — made me happier, more fulfilled, more focused. But it was only after I was already shomer Shabbos that I fully embraced the idea that this brilliant system of self-help was designed by a source more authoritative than clever rabbis.”

Uncle Moish had one more lesson to impart. On a long Shabbos afternoon in August, Michael’s younger brother Jon began lobbying for an “early Havdalah” so that the brothers and their father could all go to the park to play a nostalgic game of family basketball. But Uncle Moish, who lived with Michael’s parents the last decade of his life, was indignant: One either made Havdalah at the proper time or it was meaningless. As usual, Uncle Moish prevailed. But immediately after Havdalah, he felt ill and collapsed, and died of a massive heart attack.

Uncle Moish’s final lesson — that Jewish practice cannot be manipulated — left its impact on the larger Medved family. Michael’s younger brothers Jon and Harry both became religious, and Jon lives today with his family in Jerusalem, where he is a major venture capitalist. Michael’s father eventually sold his fiber-optics business and moved to Israel, where he founded a new company and began studying Torah avidly, even publishing a book on the relationship between the principles of physics and Torah.

Before he passed away, Uncle Moish had become intensely involved with a community of Jewish seniors in Venice Beach. That involvement led Michael to purchase a home there, and ultimately to found the Pacific Jewish Center (“The Shul by the Beach”) of which he was president for more than a dozen years. In an area better known for its hippies and surfers, the shul community eventually grew to 400 regulars, created its own school system until sixth grade, and purchased eight apartment buildings to facilitate young Orthodox families moving into the area. Michael estimates that over 1,000 young Jews experienced their first taste of Shabbos in his home during that period.

Through the shul, Michael also gained in his primary religious mentors, in the person of the volunteer rabbi, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his father, the late Rabbi Avraham Chaim Lapin, a nephew of Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian. The relationship with Rabbi Lapin, begun in Venice Beach and continued in Mercer Island, a residential area that lies across a bridge from Seattle, is nearing its 40th anniversary, but it did not get off to a good start.

Rabbi Lapin arrived for his try-out just before Shabbos, carrying a stack of pages of Gemara to pass out. Michael reminded him that many of the congregants were newcomers and did not even know how to read Hebrew. Nor was he reassured when Rabbi Lapin insisted in his plummy British accent: “I believe that I can find the means to make the material intriguing and enlightening to everyone.” But he proved correct.

Michael’s own Gemara learning began with a “brilliant shiur” in Sotah from Rabbi Hessel Mandelberg, the first principal of the PJC day school, and continued thrice-weekly with Rabbi Daniel Lapin and in a three-hour Sunday shiur with the senior Rabbi Lapin. He regrets today that he did not have the opportunity to gain a mastery of Aramaic and Lashon Kodesh when younger, and that the magnitude of his commitments — his daily radio show, multiple book projects, and steady stream of articles — do not leave him more time for learning. (Much of the slack has been picked up by his wife of 32 years, Dr. Diane Medved, herself a best-selling author and occasional collaborator, who keeps up a regular daily seder, plus numerous on-line shiurim, and has maintained a weekly phone chavrusa with Rabbi Hanoch Teller for 25 years.)

Though he wishes he had more time for concentrated Torah learning, Michael is proud that his high public profile has enabled him to serve as an ambassador for Torah Judaism to a large audience, including leading, together with Diane, 12 tours involving over 2,000 people, to Israel, and has enabled him to be a major supporter of his Mercer Island shul and the outreach activities of the Seattle Kollel.

And he is profoundly grateful for his three children with Diane; Sarah, 30; Shayna, 28, and Daniel, 24, who, together with his wife Rachael Leah, just presented the Medveds with their first grandchild, Yael Shoshana.

 

Fusing the Strands  

Michael describes himself as a theocon. When I press him on how the religious and political strands fit together, he responds: “The Torah emphasizes that human nature is not inherently good or pristine, but must be tamed and shaped by law. That’s also a key building block in a conservative worldview. Also, the essence of Torah commitment is replicating in your own life the same behaviour as your ancestors. That is conservative in its very essence.”

During a year spent in a creative-writing program in his mid-20s, all his short stories reflected the relationship between religion and conservatism: “They highlighted the hollowness and loneliness of leftist agitators, bohemians and adolescent romantics while depicting the greater satisfaction, manliness and decency of practical, traditionally observant Jews who built families and businesses.”

Finally, in his insistence that all meaningful change starts at the level of the individual and community, not from above, I hear the Lapin family’s roots in the Beis HaTalmud of Kelm, where the Alter of Kelm told talmidim, “When I was a young man, my ambition was to change the entire world. As I got older, I hoped to change my city. Now, that I’m an old man, I would be content to just be able to change myself.” —

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 655)

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