Jerry Springer: King of sleaze TV sets his heart on the Senate

David Usborne
Saturday 19 July 2003 00:00 BST
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It has already spawned a gaudy musical now playing in London, but the life of Jerry Springer, America's most reviled and most successful sleaze-talk host, may yet hold more surprises. Imagine, for instance, if he were to capitalise on his celebrity and run for the US Senate. Give him a committee chairmanship and we might have the likes of Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton brawling on the floor, throwing chairs and pulling each other's hair out, just as on Springer's TV show. Think of the fun. Go on Jerry. Run!

Believe it or not, that is what Mr Springer, who is nothing if not irrepressible, is on the brink of doing. Last Monday, he filed a statement of candidacy in Ohio, formally signaling his interest in becoming the Democrat nominee to challenge the state's incumbent senator, George Voinovich, a Republican, on election day in November 2004. The filing freed him to air political spots on television to raise money and stir support. He will formally to decide on whether to run later this month.

Springer for Senate? Wasn't it bad enough that Jesse Ventura, a one-time professional wrestler who wore feather boas in the ring, managed to persuade his own state of Minnesota to elect him Governor in the mid-nineties? But Springer, surely, is simply beyond the pale. Now in its thirteenth year, his syndicated programme, The Jerry Springer Show, has been widely blamed for taking the dumbing-down of America to the furthest extremes.

When it debuted in 1991 from its base in Chicago, the programme was almost respectable, inviting guests like Colonel Oliver North and Jesse Jackson. But it seemed just an anaemic version of Oprah Winfrey's show, and three years later the decision was taken to turn it a little more crazy. The ratings soared, even, at one point, surpassing Oprah's. Springer now offers a carnival freak show that parades perverts and adulterers who do battle daily before the cameras, throwing curses, furniture and often actual punches. Last Monday's episode went by the name of I'm Pregnant by my Brother, Part 2. Other favourites have included My Boyfriend is a Girl and I Married My Horse.

In truth, Mr Springer, 59, has almost zero chance of making it to Washington. Even before being allowed to challenge Republican Senator George Voinovich, he must persuade Democrat voters in the state to choose him as their nominee over the other contender, State Senator Eric Fingerhut. And then there is the fact that Voinovich, a former state Governor, is highly popular and very well funded, and also that Ohio has for years been a virtual wilderness for Democrats. The state just does not send Democrats to the capital.

Yet, there are reasons to pay attention. No question, a Springer campaign would, if nothing else, be entertaining. Look at the television ads, which will start airing soon in Ohio and in several key markets across the US. It features a short biography of his life, starting with his arrival with his Jewish parents aboard the Queen Mary, from England in 1949 in New York harbour. It goes on to solicit funds, mostly by inviting viewers to buy tacky memorabilia. There are "Run Jerry Run" bumper stickers and T-shirts, and even a CD with Springer belting out such numbers as There Ain't No Trash in my Trailer. No wonder Mr Fingerhut is already complaining that Springer risks making a laughing stock of Ohio .

A run by Springer should also prove intriguing in more serious ways. It would test just how far celebrity can carry a candidate in America. (We may also have another test case in the offing, if Arnold Schwarzenegger carries out his threat to run for Governor of California.) That Springer would have pulling power is beyond question. His show attracts a typical audience of 25 million and is on show in 40 countries. Whether this celebrity would translate into votes is the question.

He would also face a phenomenal challenge in being taken seriously. He can credibly claim - and is doing so at every opportunity - that he can connect with the ordinary folk like no currently serving politician. He does it every day on television. His could be a powerful anti-elitist platform. But the tabloid image will be an undeniable liability. Then there is his life story. On the one hand it features some sex scandals that would warrant mention on his show. But on the other, it is a poignant tale of a Jewish immigrant made very good. And, by the way, he has a significant political record too. Not everyone knows that.

Gerald Norman Springer was born in Hampstead on 13 February 1944. His parents, Richard and Margot, had escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, just days before Hitler invaded Poland, leaving behind other family members who later perished in Auschwitz. In the last months of the war, young Jerry and his sister lived partly away from the dangers of the London blitz in Warwickshire, not far from Stratford-on-Avon. Then, in 1949, when Jerry was not quite five, the family left for the United States. He sailed right by the words on the Statue of Liberty - "Give me your tired, your poor ... the wretched refuse of your teeming shore", which today might aptly describe the mission of his television career, and of his political aspirations.

In a recent interview, Springer recalled asking his mother what the Statute of Liberty signified. She replied, Ein Tag Alles - One day, everything. And indeed, it is fair to describe his life since then as the embodiment of the American dream.

The family settled in Queens, Margot worked as a bank clerk while Richard sold stuffed toys on the street. Jerry excelled at school and went to Tulane University in New Orleans and later, armed with a Bachelors Degree, to the school of law at Northwestern University in Chicago.

His first stop after his studies - and his introduction to politics - was as a campaign aide to Robert Kennedy. But after the Senator's assassination at a Los Angeles rally, Springer moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and took a job in a law office. But politics soon drew him back. In 1969, aged just 23, he run for Congress from Ohio, losing, but only by a modest margin. The city establishment was shocked.

For more than a decade, Springer was a political fixture in Cincinnati. He won a seat on the City Council in 1971 and became Vice Mayor until things went wrong in 1974. He was recently married to Micki, from whom he has now been separated for several years, when he was busted for having sex with a prostitute in a massage parlour across the state line in Kentucky. He had unwisely paid with a cheque, leaving police an easy paper trail. Springer made a press conference confession and resigned his Council seat. It was only a year before he was back on the Council. Then in 1977, he was elected Mayor of Cincinnati with the biggest plurality of votes ever recorded. He served four years before running for Governor in 1982. But he was trounced. And so he turned to television, eventually becoming the news anchor on one of the network stations in Cincinnati, for which, over the years, he won multiple awards. It was the owners of the station who, in 1991, came up with the idea for The Jerry Springer Show.

While Springer makes his living persuading ordinary people to air their dirty laundry, he has always been relatively coy about his own life, including the 1994 break-up with his wife and where, if anywhere, he has found romance since. He has, however, spoken about the defining moment of Micki delivering their daughter, Katie. She was born legally blind, deaf in one ear and without any nasal cavity. Now an adult, she has largely overcome the disabilities.

Though he has yet finally to decide to run, Springer has been behaving like a candidate for months, appearing on political talk shows and speaking at party events. He has described himself a pinko liberal and it remains essentially true today. (One of his first acts on the Cincinnati Council was to steer a bill through, making it illegal for the government to draft young people from the city to serve in Vietnam.)

If elected, he would be on the left fringe of his party. In his speeches, he rails against President Bush's tax cuts for the rich and the war on Iraq. His beats the populist, anti-elite, drum whenever he can.

"There is no politician who is my boss. There is no industry that is my boss. I'm never going to fit in. I've lived 59 years on the outside. I always was a little outside the mainstream," he said recently. His promise is to give voice to the millions of blue-collar Americans - many who worship his show - who usually don't even vote. I see a lot of people being ignored, masses of people being snubbed by a government that doesn't pay attention to them .

Springer acknowledges he has baggage. There was the prostitute incident and also the occasion when he was caught on camera in a ménage a trois with a porn star and her mother. But as he weighs up whether to take the plunge with a formal declaration, it is the show that concerns him the most. He knows what is coming: allegations that the programme abuses and exploits the very people he says he wants to represent in Washington.

In the past, he has been accused, most notably in a 1998 Rolling Stone article, of staging the fights. He flatly denies it, pointing out that guests are intensely vetted before being allowed in the studio and asked to sign a contract that obliges them to pay all production costs if it turns out they are fakes. Most damaging perhaps was the fallout from a 2000 episode featuring a love triangle of a Florida man, his new lover and his estranged wife. The wife was humiliated on the show after being told it would be a venue for a reconciliation. Weeks later, on the day the segment aired, she was found murdered in her apartment and her husband has since been found guilty of the murder.

"I've got to get through the clutter of my show," he said last month. "I don't know if I can do that. If I can get people to think about something other than my silly show, I'll run." Stay tuned.

LIFE STORY

Born

Gerald N Springer, in London, 1944, to parents fleeing Nazi Germany. In 1949, his parents emigrated to Queens, New York, where his mother worked as a bank clerk and his father as a street vendor selling stuffed animals.

Family

Separated, 1 child.

Education

Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisana, BA in Political Science, 1965; Northwestern University, Evanston Illinois, Degree in Law, 1968.

Political career

Began practicing law in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1968; Member of Cincinnati City Council, 1971-77 (resigned in 1974 after he was found to have paid a prostitute; re-elected 1975); Mayor, 1977-81; failed attempted to win Democratic nomination for Governor of Ohio, 1982; announced intention to run for US Senate from Ohio, in July, 2003.

Broadcasting career

Reporter, commentator and news anchor for WLWT-TV, Cincinnati, 1982-1983; host of The Jerry Springer Show, since September 1991.

Other interests

Country and western singer/songwriter, has opened for Billy Ray Cyrus on concert tours.

He says

"If all they know about me is my show, I'm surprised it isn't at zero per cent." (on a poll which said that just 29 per cent of voters thought he would be a good senator).

They say

"Once a fairly respected TV anchor and commentator, Springer decided to become a million-dollar pimp to seduce the worst of American culture." - Dick Feagler, columnist, Cleveland Plain Dealer

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