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KILLER POLITICSHow Big Money and Bad Politics Are Destroying the Great American Middle Class
By Ed Schultz
HYPERIONCopyright © 2010 Edward A. Schultz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFROM FARGO TO 30 ROCK
The Big Ed Story
PINCH ME. SERIOUSLY. I SEE THE FIRST RAYS OF DAWN RISING OVER the Hudson River, and I am twenty-seven floors up-at the top of the world really-and looking down at New York City. After I shower and shave, Wendy and I will take a short taxi ride to NBC Studios-30 Rock, home of MSNBC, from where the broadcast of The Ed Show originates. The place Saturday Night Live calls home. Legends have walked these halls. Legends still do. Me? I'm still new around here. I still look around with a real sense of wonder and a great appreciation for where I am, how far I've come, and who I've become.
You may know me as that guy from North Dakota because that's where I built my career, first as a television sportscaster and then as a regional radio talk-show host at one of the truly great radio stations in America, KFGO in Fargo. When we launched my national radio show, I took great pride in launching it from North Dakota.
Eric Sevareid, who came from North Dakota, once said the state was "a rectangular-shaped blank spot on the nation's consciousness," and I think North Dakotans are a little sensitive about that. This beautiful state and its beautiful people take tremendous pride in hometown boys and girls like Roger Maris, Peggy Lee, Angle Dickinson, Phil Jackson, Louis L'Amour, Lawrence Welk, and others who "made good."
Like Teddy Roosevelt, who ranched in the spectacular Badlands and fell in love with the place, I did, too, and was molded by the people and my experiences in North Dakota. We have a small getaway in Mott, in the southwestern part of the state, where pheasant and deer are plentiful. It helps me stay in touch with my adopted home.
ECHOES OF MY PAST
I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, in a middle-class household. My dad was an aeronautical engineer for the government-and my mother was an English teacher who might well have been horrified by my occasional abuse of the rules of grammar in this book. They're both gone now, but when I look in the mirror I catch glimpses of them in myself. You know, I think the Lord only gives us two parents because we could never go through the loss of a third. After they were both gone, I felt like an orphan.
I hear their voices in mine from time to time, and I realize that many of my values are things they held dear. When I am faced with a tough decision, I still think about them and what I think they would do. You realize as the years pass how much of them is in you, and it makes you want to do as well for your own children.
Only time and experience can open your eyes to the importance of family as a stabilizing and guiding force in your life. I had terrific parents, and I didn't experience the generational schism so many parents and teens wrestled with in those days. Their values became my values. Their work ethic and sense of patriotism became mine. I grew up with a sense that I was required to make a difference.
Even when he was in his eighties, my father was thinking about and promoting energy independence. He was a patriot-loved his country-and he was so ethically grounded. In the 1980s, when executive pay began spiraling to obscene levels while the workingman was left behind, I remember my father saying, "I wonder how they sleep at night."
The times I grew up in shaped me, too. Like all teenagers in those days, I lived with the cloud of Vietnam hanging over my head, wondering if I would be drafted, wondering about the morality of the war itself.
My little league football coach Bill Bazmore died in Vietnam, and it profoundly affected me. He had always seemed so old to me, but a few years ago when Wendy and I found his name on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., I discovered he was just twenty-one when he died. Not many high school freshmen go to funerals, but I went to that one. It was a sobering experience, and I think that's part of the reason I became such an advocate for veterans. They are true champions for America.
I grew up aware of the civil rights movement and experienced the changes it brought about when I was bused to the slums of Norfolk, to a black school of eighteen hundred students. And that changed my life. While I was a minority there, no one made me feel like one. When I was just the third-string quarterback, my backfield coach, Joe Thornton, put a sign on my locker that still inspires me today: "Hustle is the Key to Survival."
By the time I was a senior in 1972, I was the starting quarterback and a team captain. My friends and teammates were black, but the only color that counted was the color of our jerseys. We trusted and loved one another like brothers. I cherish the memories and friendships from those days.
FROM NORFOLK TO FARGO-MOORHEAD
What I learned in Norfolk allowed me to play college ball for Moorhead State University, in Minnesota, which was just across the river from Fargo.
I led the nation in passing one year, but local sportscasters-one in particular, Jim Adelson-discovered I could talk a pretty good game, too. Adelson was a real showman and loved me because I was brash, and he loved a good controversy! He also took me under his wing and urged me to consider broadcasting as a career.
Of course, I had other dreams ...
My senior year, NFL scouts began to show enough interest to give me hope. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Zeke Bratkowski put me through a pretty good workout and was impressed. I could throw the ball. The Packers hinted that I might be taken in the third or fourth round of the 1978 draft, but it didn't happen that way. They poured salt into the wound by calling me during the eighth round to tell me that they wouldn't be drafting me and that no one else would be either, but they did want to sign me as a free agent. It was business, I realized later. Nothing personal.
But I was young and my pride was hurt, so I told them to kiss off. How many people get the chance to sign with the Green Bay Packers even as a free agent? Yeah, I probably made a mistake. Pride goeth before a fall. No shit-eth! I was devastated, but that was just one of the hard knocks and setbacks anyone experiences in life. My coach Ross Fortier kindly pulled a few strings and got me a tryout with John Madden and the Oakland Raiders, but I wasn't a good fit, and I got cut without playing a down. I was always grateful, though, for what Ross did for me.
Ross Fortier has been more than my coach. He has been like a father to me, especially alter my own father died in 1992. Time and time again, the best advice I ever got was from Ross. What is it about guys who spend some time in life sweating together for a common goal? I guess that residual of hard work and effort never leaves you.
I think about my lost sports career from time to time. I would have been a good fit for the Packers, and I think I was as good as the guys they had that year, and maybe better, but that's life, isn't it? How can I regret the decisions I've made when I see all the wonderful places they have taken me?
I built a solid career in Fargo both in sportscasting and in conservative talk radio. Yes, I said conservative. I don't think I realized it then, but in some ways I had blinders on.
WENDY CHANGES MY LIFE
After I met Wendy, my blinders began to fall away. Man, she was something and still is. She's beautiful, super smart, and the kindest person I know. She's also a trained psychiatric nurse, which has its obvious advantages! For our first date, Wendy asked me to meet her at a homeless shelter where she volunteered. A homeless shelter? It hadn't really dawned on me that homelessness could exist in Fargo.
In my mind, a homeless person was a slacker, someone who just wasn't trying hard enough, and I said these self-righteous things on the air. I didn't know then that one in four homeless people is a Vietnam veteran.
At the shelter, some of the homeless welcomed me like a hero, a long-lost brother, and I began to feel ashamed of the things I had said. They patted me on the back, shook my hand. "You're the man, Big Ed," they said. Yeah, but why did I suddenly feel so small?
I fell in love with Wendy over a baloney sandwich on dry bread. She sparked an awakening, a new awareness in me that I didn't see coming. You don't know how narrow your vision has been until something or someone opens your eyes. I like to think she raised up the better angels within me. I don't think I was a bad person before and I don't presume to have become Mother Teresa since, but I'm a better person who thinks every day about being a better man. It's not like I was bathed in a heavenly light with the angels singing. I evolved. I guess I'm a Darwinian. I'm still a hard-driving competitor, but I think Wendy's influence helped me channel that energy in more positive ways. I can't imagine how much patience and understanding it took for Wendy to understand the "inner Ed."
THINKING FOR MYSELF
After I "came out" as a progressive, conservatives scoffed and branded me an opportunist. An opportunist in a nation where conservative voices dominated radio nine to one? I guess I was an opportunist with a poor grasp of the odds. Meanwhile, some liberals viewed me with suspicion because on some issues I just wasn't liberal enough. Here's the deal with me. I don't march in lockstep with any party line quite simply because I don't believe in everything each party stands for. I'll take my politics à la carte, please. I'm about the truth. It's just not in me to support something I don't believe in.
About the time I met Wendy, there was an epidemic of farm foreclosures across the Midwest, and as I spoke with those good people who were being run off the land after generations, it became clear to me that as a Republican, I had been on the wrong side of some issues. I just could not live in a sink-or-swim world, especially when it became clear that the game had been so egregiously fixed, that many hardworking Americans were being driven into poverty through no fault of their own. Maybe it was a combination of a rigged game and a little bad luck-a hailstorm or a drought-that did them in, but I knew unfairness when I saw it.
As an enthusiastic capitalist, I have worked hard to succeed. But I also realize that I caught a few breaks along the way. And I recognized over time that some people were being left behind. Capitalism allows innovators to innovate, and it works-with rules in place-but we ought not to get too enamored of the "purity" of any one system. Socialism, in the right measure, has some advantages, too. A blend of the two is what works best. Getting the balance right-that's what the big fight in the halls of commerce, er ... Congress is all about.
I travel more than any talk-show host out there because I want to see for myself the way things are. Otherwise, it's easy to paint with a broad brush. And I take my shows on the road to address the issues from the places impacted by them.
I broadcast from Cuba during a trade mission. When the western Dakotas were in the midst of drought, we went on the road with truckloads of food and reported the sad fact that the proud farmers and ranchers could not afford to feed themselves. After Hurricane Katrina, The Ed Schultz Show went to New Orleans and helped relocate a couple of families to North Dakota to get back on their feet again. And I was in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, in support of the nation's farmers who were lobbying for a better farm bill. Yes, I was in North Dakota senator Kent Conrad's office when the World Trade Center and then the Pentagon were hit, and I remember Laurie Boeder, the senator's communications director, saying, "This changes everything." My, how it did. Can you imagine being evacuated from the Hart Senate Building in Washington, D.C., in the United States of America? America lost her innocence that day.
Like most Americans, I supported President Bush during the crisis. I wanted very badly for him to succeed. In time, though, like so many other Americans, I lost faith in him and his administration. It became clear to me that they were leveraging the events of 9/11 for political gain. They were manipulating public fear to advance a private agenda and expand their political power. What they did was blatant, arrogant, and had nothing to do with democracy. With W in charge, the country was careening away from its ideals. The world that supported us on September 12, 2001, soon became disenchanted and frightened by the Bush administration's hubris and soon began to see George W. Bush as the most dangerous man on the planet. Sadly, so did many Americans. But publicly spoken opposition was too soft and came too late.
Even as I embraced the progressive movement in this country, I became frustrated by a lack of aggressiveness against an administration that seemed willing to shred the Constitution. The propaganda of right wing radio and Fox News was steering the country in the wrong direction. The docile mainstream media was letting them do it. And it was costing the Democrats elections.
I shared my opinions on this with the Democratic Caucus in Washington three times-once in 2002 and twice in 2003-and I told them point-blank, "You are not going to win unless you challenge the Right Wing Sound Machine."
DREAMING BIG: THE SHOW GOES NATIONAL
After I spoke to the Democratic Caucus in the fall of 2003, I received encouragement from my North Dakota senators, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, as well as from Tom Daschle (D-SD), Harry Reid (D-NV), Deb Stabenow (D-MI), and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) to go ahead and fight back on the airwaves myself-with my own progressive radio program. And I had pretty much decided to do it.
"Ed, do you really think you can do this?" Hillary asked, and when I told her I thought it was possible, she said, "I'd like to help-I'll do anything to help."
"Well, you could be a guest on the show ..."
And true to her word, she was. She's a great lady and a tremendous secretary of state.
As soon as Wendy and I started planning, the wheels began to turn, and a group called Democracy Radio, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), invested $1.8 million in seed money to launch the show. We had two years to make or break it, and the conventional wisdom in the business was that progressive radio didn't stand a chance.
When we launched with just two stations and me spouting blood from my nostrils, I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. There were days that the shows seemed endless because there were so few callers, and unlike other shows where the talkers pontificate and like to hear themselves talk, The Ed Schultz Show has always been caller driven. I go easy on the sermons. The callers make the show.
We needed advertisers even more. Again, the critics and the know-it-alls didn't believe we would find the support to survive. If pride has caused me to burn a few bridges in my time, it has also served me well at times like this. I got pissed at the very idea of failure. And when I was done being pissed, I got more resolute than I had ever been. If there is one thing I want to leave the kids, it's the memory that their dad never backed down, never gave up.
The number of callers increased and so did my audience. Advertisers soon discovered our show was an effective marketing tool. Because I know what it is like to build a business, I have a real admiration for small businesspersons. On Fridays for an hour, we do some "recession busting" by opening the lines to let entrepreneurs promote their businesses on nationwide radio. No charge. It started out as just something to do on a slow Friday, but it has grown into something I am quite proud of. We have helped businesses grow.
By the end of the first year of the national show, we had seventy stations. It was an incredible accomplishment for Team Fargo. But we were out of money. So I took out $600,000 in loans to keep the dream alive. Skin in the game, they call it.
By 2006, we had one hundred stations, and we were beginning to have an effect on the national discourse. You could feel the change in the air. Air America Radio, which launched shortly after I did, was out there, too, and my show was carried on many Air America stations. Suddenly, there were voices from the left being heard! Finally, someone was questioning the misinformation and propaganda coming from the Bush administration and their media supporters. I know we made a difference.
Excerpted from KILLER POLITICS by Ed Schultz Copyright © 2010 by Edward A. Schultz. Excerpted by permission.
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