Many people list Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents in American history. Many people list George W. Bush as one of the worst presidents in American history. Both men went against the grain and made unpopular decisions. Both men led the nation into unwanted wars. Both men led administrations that divided the nation to varying degrees. Both men were Republicans. On paper, Lincoln and Bush would appear to have a lot in common. Why then, are they regarded so differently?
Allow me to use Dennis Prager as a microcosm (which, by the way, is a 780 SAT word). For years, Dennis Prager has hosted a radio talk show on one station or another, and even in national syndication. He has appeared as a host and as a commentator on multiple TV shows. He is insightful, quick-witted, a gifted public speaker, and a conservative. Prager’s was one of the few radio shows with a conservative bias that I not only tolerated but enjoyed — until the most recent presidential campaign.
I should point out, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am somewhat of an anachronism (another 780 SAT word) in the sociopolitical climate. I don’t quite fit in, and my point of view is not represented by any current politician or party. I consider myself to be socially conservative but politically progressive, and that combination tends to infuriate Republicans and Democrats in equal measure. The conservative and Christian parts of me are able to laugh at Bill Maher’s “Religulous,” while the liberal and environmentally aware parts of me are able to find Al Gore to be a pompous blowhard. I see no dichotomy (another 780 SAT word) in holding what others might perceive as conflicting points of view. I see a clear distinction between the way I choose to live my life and the way I’d like the government to behave. There are choices that are right for me, but not necessarily ideal in terms of a national standard.
For years, Dennis Prager seemed to be — for lack of a better phrase — with me. At the very least, he was willing to speak about issues of ethics and morality at a time when few others did. The embedded video clip is actually two separate conversations between Tom Snyder and Dennis Prager at a time when Prager and I were on the same page. Prager attempted (unsuccessfully) to translate the topics he discussed on radio to his own television series — not his fault the series didn’t succeed; by and large, the TV talk show landscape wasn’t (and sadly still isn’t) the place for serious debate. But these two segments on “The Late Late Show” proved a delightful exception to that rule, as Snyder and Prager discussed major issues. They did so with great intelligence but also with great humor. There were no hidden agendas — a rarity in any medium.
As stated a few paragraphs ago, Prager and I ceased to be in agreement in mid-2008, as Barack Obama and Sarah Palin took center stage in a, frankly, superficial debate about substantive issues. Words like “hope” and “maverick” were meaninglessly bandied about, and the medium of television proved once again to be horrible as a place for thought-provoking discourse. All that is to be expected, but what got to me was the shift in tone of Prager’s radio show.
I work during the day, but tend to listen to podcasts (usually of radio shows) before I go to sleep. It is a way for me to stay current on events of the day. Prior to “Decision 2008,” “The Dennis Prager Show” was appointment listening for me. I didn’t always agree with everything Prager said, but I respected his opinion, just as he seemed to respect the differing opinions of his guests and callers. But one day, and I wish I had saved the specific podcast for the purpose of accuracy, Prager yelled at me. OK, not at me personally, but he started shouting into his microphone during his radio show. He was up in arms about the liberals and how they were treating him like he was a child. The specific issue that set him off was vehicle emission standards. Prager felt he had the right to drive a gas guzzler if he wanted to (not that he necessarily did want to), and he felt the government had no place interfering with his rights. When a liberal caller phoned in to state that conservatives wanted the government to interfere with the rights of those who wanted to marry certain people, Prager refused to accept the correlation. This, he maintained, was an inherently liberal flaw, and only a conservative in office could prevent the end of civilization as we know it (OK, some hyperbole on my part, but he was indeed adamant).
Had it been that one day or that one topic, I could have written it off as just another point of disagreement, but before I knew it, Prager was shouting at me almost daily about a host of topics, from the death penalty to immigration. Whereas he once (as evidenced in the conversations with Tom Snyder) expressed tolerance and even compassion for others, Prager began to rant (and not a funny Dennis Miller type of rant) about the evils of liberals. He had joined the ranks of other conservative talk show hosts (and politicians) who incited and inflamed listeners. I no longer enjoyed his show, and I ceased to tolerate it.
It is my hope that Dennis Prager has calmed down following the election. I do not know if his change in tone — his lack of compassion — was genuine, a desire to achieve higher ratings, or some combination of the two. But I still have several of his earlier radio shows in podcast form, the regular “Happiness Hour” feature being a longtime favorite of mine. I still listen to those podcasts from time to time, just as I periodically watch the Snyder and Prager conversations.
At his core, I do not believe Dennis Prager’s beliefs changed over the years. I do believe, however, that the way he chose to express his beliefs changed significantly — and for the worse. If the old maxim is true that it is wrong to do the right thing for the wrong reason, it stands to reason that it is wrong to believe the right thing but express it in the wrong way.
The microcosm, in case you missed it, unfolds in the following way: Lincoln’s greatness can be found both in the things he did and the way he was able to articulate himself. Bush’s failures can be found both in the things he did and the way he was unable to articulate himself. Any similarities between the two men are superficial — maybe even coincidental. There is a way to be conservative without seeming uncivil or lacking in compassion. Dennis Prager was, like Lincoln before him, once able to articulate the conservative ideology in a way that generations of Americans would accept and praise. However, like Bush after him, Prager joined the ranks of those who could not effectively communicate to anyone but those who already felt as he did. If he could only reconnect with the Lincoln inside of him, and cast aside the Bush-like tendencies, his radio show would once again be music to my ears. In the meantime, enjoy the Dennis Prager that was, and pray for the Dennis Prager that could be.
Next time: “So long, for a while…” — farewell shows