The Last Don

Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris

Before he was fired from CBS Radio and MSNBC last week, Don Imus cut his eyes toward America and said that he was a good and decent man who didn’t necessarily feel that he needed a come-to-Jesus moment to atone for his sins against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. And all of it, the drama of anger and damage tangled up in his flinty charisma, seemed so familiar.

I first met him in 1980. Don had returned to New York and WNBC radio the year before, having been exiled to Cleveland for bad behavior and unprofessionalism—“the Mistake by the Lake” he loved to say, and often did say, to Clevelanders first thing in the morning, nearly every morning he was there, hardly endearing himself to anyone. But he was back in New York now, presumably redeemed, back on WNBC, 660 on the dial, back where he felt he belonged, and he and his newsman sidekick, Charles McCord, had come to see me at Simon & Schuster to discuss a mostly unwritten novel that I had inherited from a previous editor. It would eventually be called God’s Other Son: The Life and Times of the Rev. Billy Sol Hargus, one of the “characters” on “Imus in the Morning” who tried, repeatedly, to walk on water. Just as Don, in his rich, complicated mind, probably imagined he could.

Don was smoking and drinking heavily at the time—we would go out to lunch and he would insist on Rolling Rocks being put into a bucket by the table as if they were Champagne—and doing drugs, living hard, barely sleeping, and eating little. I saw him as an American drifter, a loner, who might have been Gary Gilmore had he not found his way to the honeypot of success that he constantly worried he was going to fuck up. He was 40 at the time, divorced, pretty much estranged from his four daughters, and someone who found great comfort in reading voraciously long into the night, when he was coherent enough to do so. If he talked about an author’s book on the air, he didn’t phone it in from the pool. He had read it. That I knew from direct experience. Anyway, I had an editorial assistant at the time who was anorexic (though she insisted she wasn’t), and no sooner had Don met her than he announced, in a voice loud enough for the entire fourteenth floor of Simon and “Shyster” to hear, “Coleman, I want you to order that girl a pizza with everything on it, right away—don’t argue with me.” He could be like that, outlandish and caring at once.

But beneath all the outward bravura and shtick and locker-room noise, I saw someone deeply insecure who was reluctant to make eye contact, awkward, shy, uneasy in his own skin. His father had been an alcoholic, and so was he (though he eventually found sobriety). Don was a former Marine, a miner, a gas-station attendant, a prankster (calling up a McDonald’s in Sacramento once and ordering 1,200 hamburgers from his perch at KXOA), a wannabe rock star with long hair and hooded, bloodshot eyes who favored shiny jackets when he wasn’t in his usual cowboy garb of big hats, denim jackets, and expensive boots. He was all that, and something more—a walking time bomb, completely incorrigible, his own worst enemy, but who, at the same time, would do anything for you, anything he possibly could.

I always thought he was so fortunate to have Charles McCord as his foil, his voice of reason, who could often, though not always, get him to stand down, to back away from whatever precipice the I-Man managed to find, or put, himself on. Charles, the Chuckster, who came in faithfully every day from New Jersey, a family man, churchgoing, even-tempered, rock-steady, but with his own bemused, wry, realistic view of the world and the flawed people who inhabit it.

God’s Other Son was published in 1981 (and republished to much greater success in 1994, when Imus was bigger). I watched as Don’s career loomed ever larger, and I marveled at how he could manage to dodge one proverbial bullet after another. I “got” Imus’s irreverent sense of humor, but I winced when it became cruel, as has been endlessly documented during his trial by punditry—and hypocrisy, in the case of the Reverend Al Sharpton—last week, especially when it was for no good reason. He embarrassed both Bill and Hillary Clinton at the 1996 Washington Correspondents Dinner when he turned to the president and made the oblique sexual reference: “Remember the Astroturf in the pickup?” and, more to the point here, compared the self-consciously diverse Cabinet to “the bar scene out of Star Wars.” That speech seems almost tame now, though at the time everyone was certain it would be the death knell for his career. I saw something else: He understood Bill Clinton as being someone not that different from himself—reckless, self-made, supremely prone to self-destruction.

With money and success often comes a false sense of entitlement, a notion that we can say things, and that those things may not come back to haunt us. Imus knew all too well the power he wielded from his microphone: Presidential aspirants wanted to come before him to be anointed, journalists sought his company to elevate their reputations. Imus dispensed validity, but he also took the powerful down a notch, pointing out their foibles and hypocrisies, the very things that make them human and keep them so. His efforts on behalf of children with cancer and SIDS and autism are amply recorded, but what always made him so engaging—his glib, careless confidence in the moral authority of his own irreverence—was his undoing.

Near the end of the broadcast last Wednesday, Imus played a song by Lucinda Williams, a sweet throwback to his days as a disc jockey, when his life was a lot simpler. Before playing the song, he asked, in a plaintive voice, “Where are you, baby?” As the words to “Are You Alright?” filled the studio at MSNBC, Don put on his sunglasses and sat there, taking in the song before taking his leave.

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The Last Don