THE POWER OF BABBLE

At five o'clock last Tuesday morning, Michael Reagan's voice came in loud and clear--even if his message was a mess.

Reagan has parlayed his position as son--albeit estranged, adopted son--of the former president into a slot as a conservative talk-radio host; his show airs twice daily in Denver on KTLK-AM. During this particular show, recorded the night before in Reagan's California studio, he was chatting it up with a woman from Seattle. She'd called in to find out why the mainstream (read: liberal) media wasn't reporting the latest scandal: Huge quantities of marijuana had been found on Air Force One in the luggage of a Clinton aide.

Drugs on the presidential plane! Under forfeiture laws, couldn't the feds actually seize Air Force One? Reagan thought so, and promised to check into the incident. It was a scandal, his caller crowed.

There was just one problem with the story: It wasn't true.
But once the hot air blows out through talk radio, you can't call it back.
Reagan's show, the top-rated nighttime offering, airs on about eighty stations and is heard by millions (including me early that morning). And within a few hours of the Seattle woman's call, the White House--occupied, at least for now, by He Who Never Inhaled--was deluged by dialers demanding to know what was going to be done about that ounce, that pound, that ton of marijuana on Air Force One.

The volume of calls was so great that the White House actually addressed the rumor that very afternoon. (Ever since Clinton took off after Rush Limbaugh, his staff has been very aware of the power of this extremely peculiar branch of the press.) Spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers told reporters that although marijuana had indeed been found, it had never been aboard Air Force One. And it was in the luggage of not a Clinton aide, she insisted, but a person working with the Democratic National Committee, doing advance work for Bill Clinton's recent visit to Minnesota.

Enter the Colorado connection.
The dope--thirteen grams in two small plastic bags--had actually been found Election Eve in a carry-on bag belonging to Will Dupree, a political consultant who's president of Public Decisions Inc. That's the Denver firm chaired by Mike Stratton, who masterminded Roy Romer's last campaign and has already signed on to run Wellington Webb's re-election bid.

Dupree had been in Minnesota doing prep work for a presidential appearance at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, where Clinton was to appear on behalf of some of the few candidates willing to be associated with him. Security was tight, and a dog had sniffed out the marijuana in an unguarded shoulder bag near the door Clinton would use. It was Dupree's bag, but he told officers he didn't know how the marijuana had gotten inside.

"In this particular case, there was no citation issued, because the bag was separated from the alleged owner," Brooklyn Park cop Dave Johnson told the Associated Press. "Therefore, we had no possession case."

And even if they had, the amount was barely enough to net a petty misdemeanor charge for Dupree--although it was certainly more than sufficient to put a major roadblock in his career path. ("It's the dope, stupid," is unlikely to be adopted as the rallying cry for Democrats fighting to regain Congress.)

And it was certainly enough to light a fire underneath conspiracy theorists: Look for the great Air Force One bongathon to inspire a new chapter in the Clinton Chronicles, .the bible of right-wing wing nuts. No one had covered up the original story, but it took talk radio to blow it up.And now a White House denial isn't going to stop the inflated story from spreading. What goes up--and out--rarely comes back down to earth.

On the very day that Dee Dee Myers was defending the honor of Air Force One, Colorado Springs talk-show host Chuck Baker was retiring--at least temporarily--from his six-year-old show On the Carpet, broadcast on KVOR-FM. "I'm leaving," he told his listeners. "I'm going away for a while. I'm sure this will make all of you left-wing liberals out there happy."

One of the hyper-reactionary Baker's purported fans wasn't able to tune into his hero's long goodbye, however. Francisco Duran, who left his home outside Colorado Springs at the end of September and showed up, semiautomatic rifle in hand, in front of the White House last month, is currently locked inside a Washington, D.C., cell. Duran has already been charged with four felony counts, to which attempted assassination may be added--and he owes it all to Baker. Or so rumor has it. It was reportedly after listening to Baker blather about the God-fearing right of every 'Murrican to brandish a gun that Duran called Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell's staff and said, "I will go to Washington and take someone out."

So far, though, the only person Duran has taken out is Baker. Saying he was sick and tired of being blamed for the twenty-round shooting spree, Baker quit his show last Tuesday. But the next day he was back on the air, in a half-hour-long call-in with substitute host Jim Arthur. "So what if the jerk, the wacko, the creep, this piece of crap that shot the White House said that?" he told his listeners. "If this man thinks I or Rush Limbaugh are the reason he went out there, he needs psychiatric counseling in the first degree."

And if you don't think Baker's posturing is one big publicity stunt, you need counseling, too. Because in the increasingly powerful world of talk radio, talk is cheap. It's the truth that comes dear.

 
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