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BOLD “SOMEWHERE IN HIS OWN DYSPEPTIC”] gut, radio shock jock Don Imus knew he was about to cause others a bit of indigestion. At a cocktail party before the annual gala of the Radio and Television Correspondent’s Association on March 21 in Washington, where he was to be a featured speaker, Imus found himself bantering with President Clinton. Imus recalls the Chief Executive asking, “How’s your speech?” “Well, it’s a little tough,” Imus said. “Oh, it’ll be fine,” Clinton reassured him. Imus replied, “The only people who will probably talk to me afterwards are you and my wife.”

As it turned out, Imus, 54, was only partly right: his wife was still speaking to him at the end of the evening. Before an audience dense with Washington heavies, Imus launched into a scathing, 25-minute monologue that poured invective over everyone from George Will (“Anyone that buttoned up…is spending part of his weekend wearing clothes that make him feel pretty”) to Elizabeth Taylor (“How do you get that fat that fast and not live in a trailer?”).

But what really had the crowd nervously chuckling and quietly cringing were the swipes he took at the Clintons, seated just a few feet away. In a clear reference to allegations of the President’s womanizing, Imus recalled hearing Clinton use the phrase “Go, baby!” when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record and then wondered about other times Clinton might have uttered those words. His followup: a leering reference to AstroTurf in the back of Clinton’s pickup years ago. As for Hillary and her involvement in Whitewater, Imus remarked, “If we were to have speculated on which member of the First Family would be the first to be indicted…everybody in this room would have picked [the President’s brother] Roger.” On the dais, the Clintons reacted at first with game, good-natured smiles, then with leaden stares. “I’ve seen that look before,” says CNN White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer. “If you could kill, that’s the look you would give.”

There the matter might have rested had not indignant White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry disclosed the next day that he had asked C-SPAN, the cable public-affairs channel that had aired the proceedings live, to think twice about its scheduled plans to rebroadcast the speech. (It did so anyway.) ABC correspondent Cokie-Roberts, a frequent guest on Imus’s syndicated radio show, said he “went way, way, way over the line.” Suddenly the buzz inside the Beltway was all about l’affaire Imus.

Why that was so probably had as much to do with the mores of the capital village as anything else. For the truth is that aside from a couple of tasteless remarks about ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and his marital woes of a few years back, Imus’s material seemed mostly within the bounds of roasting etiquette, which is to say by turns raunchy, lame and obnoxious—but hardly scandalous. “They didn’t want any penis jokes,” Imus says. “They didn’t want any swear words, which was fine.”

To some journalists present, the criticism of Imus seemed to ring hypocritical. They argued that when dinner organizers invited the often off-color radio personality, who is heard on 68 stations in the U.S. five days a week, they should have known what they were getting. “Let’s say I buy a pet alligator, put it in my swimming pool, invite you over for a swim, and it bites off your leg,” says ABC’s Sam Donaldson, whose toupee was the butt of one Imus crack (“Something Strom Thurmond threw out”). “The alligator is doing what alligators do. Don Imus did what Don Imus does.”

And, in fact, shattering the decorum of Washington functions is a time-honored tradition. At a 1985 Washington Press Club dinner, an extremely relaxed John Riggins, then the star running back of the Washington Redskins, told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up. You’re too tight.” More recently, the comedian Sinbad poked fun at Barbara Bush, seated on the dais near him at a 1991 black-tie affair, for her grandmotherly appearance. And last year, at another capital affair, comic Bill Maher delivered an obscenity-laced monologue.

It’s probably fair to say that many of the attendees would have been disappointed if Imus had not roughed up the crowd. That was probably why the “I-Man,” as he calls himself, had no regrets about his performance and certainly no plans to mend any fences with the President, who has appeared on his show several times. Asked if he would apologize to the First Couple, Imus yelped, “I don’t think so! I let ’em off the hook! What the President needs to do is get a sense of humor, and so does she.”

SARAH SKOLNIK, MARY ESSELMAN in Washington and ANNE LONGLEY in Connecticut