Housewife makes waves as the nation's on-air shrink

Local Heroes No 18: Laura Schlessinger
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The Independent Online
Maybe there's hope for American radio after all. Last month the Washington news and talk station WWRC took the born-again Christian, rabidly right-wing Ollie North out of its late afternoon prime-time slot and replaced him with Laura Schlessinger.

The former hero of IranContra is said to be not best pleased by the demotion, but legions of listeners in the capital region were delighted. "Doctor Laura" these days is the hottest thing on talk radio, a hectoring personal therapist to a nation confused.

Such is the peculiar destiny of a 49-year-old New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles, who really is a doctor in physiology, with a licence to practise marriage- and family-counselling.

Her radio career began in 1979, when she called a show to answer an on- air question: would she rather be a divorcee or a widow? A widow, she replied.

The host loved it and kept her on the air for 20 minutes. By 1990 she had her own show. But fame and fortune notwithstanding, the woman who introduces herself on air as "My kid's mom" is in one sense like much of her audience: a slightly frazzled suburban housewife with a 10-year- old son, who is trying to cope with life's problems.

She will not discuss her political sympathies, on air or off. But Schlessinger admits that on a liberal-conservative scale of 1 to 10, her views on social issues rate "six to 10" - pro-life, pro-premarital chastity and against divorce. But that hardly makes her a paid-up member of the Rush Limbaugh/Ollie North/ Gordon C Liddy school of broadcasting, in which a sentence that does not revile the Clintons is a sentence wasted.

Ultimately she may have more staying power than any of them. Already she is reckoned to command a national weekly audience of 10 million and growing on 250 stations across the country.

Only Limbaugh does better, and Schlessinger is pulling ahead of him in some markets. The Republican revolution in Congress may be coming apart at the seams, but if anything, Schlessinger's family-value themes and her mantra that personal responsibility is all, are gaining ground. Slightly tenderised at the edges, they are now mainstream Clintonism, embraced by a White House which knows a good election idea when it sees one.

No sin is greater than to bemoan your own problems. Not Doctor Laura that whining, blame-anyone-but-yourself men- tality that infests modern American culture, the national proneness to wallow in self-pity.

"Nothing is considered wrong any more," she says. "We need to reestablish the concept of shame."

By coincidence or otherwise, it is exactly the stricture of Colin Powell, before he become the most popular non-candidate for the US presidency in history.

Any lingering doubts about her philosophy are banished by the titles of two books she has spun off from the radio show, Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, and How Could You Do That?! The Abdication of Character, Courage and Conscience.

But she is less polemical than many of her colleagues: "Hosts need to be more personal; there's too much yelling and screaming. It's boring, I don't want to feel angry."

But she very often sounds like it, scolding with a venom uncommon for an agony aunt. A woman complains about an errant husband: Doctor Laura's response is usually, why did you pick him in the first place?

The formula works. It's part showbiz, but leavened with the impression that she really wants to help. Rarely is she attacked for hypocrisy, although her own private life is less than picture perfect (Schlessinger is on her second marriage, and reportedly estranged from her mother).

The greater risk is a lapse into endless, self-righteous moralising that sooner or later would drive away her audiences. But at the moment there's no sign of it. In America these days, true love is tough love.