The candidate has landed: Howard Stern, America's top shock-jock, is seeking the dignity of high office . . . and his campaign to be elected governor of New York is proving to be more than just a bad joke. Kevin Jackson reports

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One gubernatorial candidate for New York state has firm views on the caning of Michael Fay in Singapore. He thinks it was a thoroughly good thing and would like the United States to follow Singapore's example, adopting flogging for a wide range of offences. His other policies include the restoration of capital punishment (bringing back the death penalty is the main plank in his campaign); filling in the potholes in New York's roads (all such repairs to be carried out in the middle of the night); and a system for staggering the collection of tolls into and out of New York City, so easing its traffic congestion. He also boasts of having an exceptionally small penis.

Despite his tough line on law and order, the aspiring Governor Howard Stern - who now rates a more than respectable 20 per cent in unofficial opinion polls - is not the kind of politician who would normally go down well in Middle America. For one thing, there's his appearance, closer to a pensioned-off bassist for Aerosmith or Bon Jovi than a dark-suited pillar of the Right. Stern is six foot five and lanky, with an unruly swathe of black hair disappearing over his shoulders, and his sartorial tastes run to black leather, black shades, bare chest and assorted hippie trinkets.

For another, there's his mouth, and the unsavoury things that come tumbling out of it. When Stern isn't fulminating about the birch or lamenting the underdevelopment of his virile member, he'll usually be fantasising about lesbian sex scenes, dwelling on bodily functions, bragging about his talents, denigrating the latest celebrity to have won his disfavour, making incendiary cracks about racial issues ('Rodney King? He wasn't hurt by that beating - he looks better . . . ') and generally offending against good taste.

To pile insult on insult, Stern actually gets paid for spewing out this stream of invective, masturbatory reverie and scatology, and paid handsomely, too - dollars 9m a year, according to one recent estimate. He owes both his fortune and his place in the competition for the governorship to the Howard Stern Show, a daily five-hour ramble through the murkier passages of his mind which originates from the New York FM station K-Rock and is syndicated throughout the United States to an audience of more than 10 million listeners, most of them male, white, 25 to 54 years old, and some of them highly intelligent.

Honesty compels the admission that Stern can also be funny, if less riotously and much less frequently than he believes. He has good comic timing, a cruel eye for the pomposity and conceit of others, a team of sharp writers who keep him well fed with material on air, and a supporting cast of weirdos and idiots - the 'Wack Pack' - who provide him with an ideal foil. One of them, the grievously speech-impaired 'Stuttering John', is sent off to interview unsuspecting celebrities, who have to keep fixed smiles while he stammers his way through such exchanges as:

Stuttering John: What did you do with the money?

Ringo Starr: What money?

Stuttering John: The money your mom gave you for singing lessons.

It was Stuttering John who asked Gennifer Flowers whether the Governor of Arkansas had used a condom.

Stern is King of the Shock Jocks, and the growing success of his radio show over the past 10 years has made him famous in other arenas. Though he doesn't play much music on the programme, it has an evident appeal to rock fans. In February, he even achieved the ultimate rock 'n' roll accolade, the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Plenty of rock musicians and even rappers - Hammer was a recent guest - turn up to be interviewed or abused, and Stern was invited to be one of the hosts of MTV's music awards in 1992.

He made his appearance by swooping down from the flies on wires, dressed in the costume of his superhero alter ego, Fartman. (MTV, nervous about the fact that this costume displayed Stern's naked buttocks, tactfully blurred all rear shots.) Fartman, incidentally, was a character created by Stern to come to the rescue of democracy when martial law was introduced to Poland. In the middle of his broadcast, Stern called up the Polish embassy, managed to get the ambassador on the air, and broke wind into the phone.

The superhero has since intervened in a number of major international incidents, though his aim is sometimes a little wide of the mark. When the Ayatollah pronounced his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Stern/Fartman called up Iran, declaimed passages from The Satanic Verses and then let fly into the speaker several times. Unfortunately, Stern's researcher had put him through to the Tripoli Hilton by mistake. The Libyan receptionist was understandably confused.

Back in the realm of money-spinning, there are Stern's cable TV shows, such as his pay-per-view special the Miss Howard Stern New Year's Eve Pageant, in which John Wayne Bobbitt was asked to re-enact the severing of his penis and a fame-crazed woman put live maggots into her panties; and the videos included the self-explanatory Butt Bongo Fiesta. There is the book, Private Parts - other projected titles for this opus included Mein Kampf and Howard Stern Has a Small Penis - a weirdly readable autohagiography-cum-rag magazine, dressed up with lots of snapshots from the Stern family album and even more pictures of scantily clad women. It has sold more copies than any other book in Simon & Schuster's history - netting dollars 1.2m in its first few weeks alone - and crowds of up to 10,000 fans turned up to his signing sessions. His New York signing blocked Fifth Avenue for hours.

And now there is the proposed move into politics. Is this just another Stern gag, a petulant stunt like the 1987 'Freedom Rally' he held in Dag Hammarskjld Plaza when the Federal Communications Commission was giving him a hard time? (To date, the FCC has fined local radio stations more than dollars 1.5m for broadcasting Stern's riper moments. He says he is convinced that they are out to get him, and that he would be even bigger than he is were it not for FCC harassment.) Or is Stern for real?

Well, he claims that he's for real, and so does his agent, Don Buchwald: 'The man says he's going to be governor, then he's going to be governor.' And the Libertarian Party has certainly been obliged to take him seriously. Until six weeks ago, when Stern first began to declare his ambitions on the airwaves, the Libertarians were such an obscure little band of idealists that they had barely heard of themselves. At this time, when party membership stood at about 400, the odds-on favourite for the Libertarian candidacy was one James Ostrowski, an attorney from Buffalo.

But then Stern started urging his listeners to stump up the dollars 15 party registration fee and turn up at the Libertarian Convention in Albany on 23 April. They complied in their hundreds, and the day turned into a media circus, with television crews and reporters swarming and Stern himself in his element: 'Look at all the media I brought you]' As the New Yorker reported, it was fairly easy to distinguish the Stern crowd from the party faithful: the latter were wearing suits, ties and frowns, the former were drinking beer and yelling 'Show us your tits]' whenever a woman passed.

Still, the Libertarian Party's old guard had every reason to be tolerant of Stern's yahoo contingent. Thanks to the shock jock, they were just three hurdles away from becoming a real political force in the state. The first was jumped that same day: Stern won 287 votes; Ostrowski took just 34. Cue riotous applause, beer drinking and suchlike. Now, if Stern's fans manage to raise the 15,000 valid signatures (for reasons relating to legal challenges they will need more like 40,000 signatures) required to win him a place on the ballot, and if Stern then wins at least 50,000 votes

(4 to 5 million New Yorkers are expected to vote), then the Libertarian Party will have its line on every New York ballot paper for the next four years, alongside such minor but influential parties as the Liberals and the Conservatives.

And if Stern's 20 per cent rating continues to grow, and if he were actually to win the election . . ? True, this is an extremely remote prospect, since it isn't just Stern's undiplomatic tongue or the popularity of the most likely winner, the Democratic candidate, Mario Cuomo, which stand between him and the governorship. There are any number of ways in which the Stern campaign might come unstuck, and one of them is in the hands of his old enemies, the Federal Communications Commission. Under FCC regulations ensuring equal air time for candidates, Stern's daily show would have to go off the air between the primary on 13 September and the election on 8 November, a requirement neither Stern and his employers, Infinity Broadcasting, would be prepared to accept.

Then there is the possibility that James Ostrowski's election lawyer will raise procedural objections to the Stern candidacy, or that other long-standing Libertarians will make legal challenges to his right to stand for the party. Yet Stern remains bullish, and his campaign is winning support in unlikely quarters. The left-wing Village Voice, for example, no friend to Stern's cracks about ethnic minorities or his butt bongoing, has none the less welcomed the Libertarian candidacy as a means of shaking up an electoral machine which keeps anyone but mainstream Democrats and Republicans out of office.

As its political commentator, Michael Tomasky, put it in an article entitled 'Fartman for Governor', 'If he can convince millions of people that the FCC commissioners are a bunch of gasbag bureaucrats who ought to have better things to do than bug him, then maybe he can convince them that the election process in New York is fundamentally corrupt. And so what if it takes a radio loudmouth to do that?'

Even if New York were to succumb to a bout of collective rage against the machine and vote him in, Stern has hinted that he would stand down in favour of another Libertarian as soon as he had enacted his three-point death penalty/potholes/toll queues programme. And for all his rabid egomania, Stern is clearly more than bright enough to know exactly what he's doing. In the preface to Private Parts, he claims that he has only ever read three books, but on air the boorish mask occasionally drops and a different Stern blinks in the unfamiliar sunlight. Just a couple of weeks ago, he broke off from ranting about Johnny Rotten's arrogance and went into a lengthy and approving digression about - of all things - AS Neill's book Summerhill.

Moreover, his involvement with the Libertarian Party is more than a passing fad: he started reading its literature a decade ago, when he was contacted by a Libertarian academic, Robert Goodman. Could it be just conceivable that inside this unholy hybrid of Screaming Lord Sutch and Bernard Manning there lurks a statesman in embryo?

If so, then the person doing most to discredit that possibility is Stern himself, as he relentlessly continues to devote his daily radio marathon to lampooning Rodney King, snarling about his competitors ('They say I'm not funny - they don't hear it 'cause they suck') and treading the narrowest of lines between just-permissible bad taste and an FCC ruling. Just a couple of days ago, he came up with a gag that managed to combine two of his policies and offend hundreds of listeners at a single stroke. Once the convicted criminals have started to fry in the electric chair, Stern said, he will use their ashes to fill in all those potholes in the New York streets.

(Photograph omitted)

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