I’m so confused.
You might be, too, if you’d just interviewed Jerry Springer-yes, that Jerry Springer, host of the controversial trash-talkin’ television show that bears his name (and regularly erupts with chants of "Jer-ry! Jer-ry!" from his adoring fans), star of movies like Ringmaster that capitalize on his king-of-the-freak-shows persona, inspiration for the equally controversial Jerry Springer-the Opera, a theatrical smash in London that’s confirmed his iconic status in today’s culture, but which many think is too rough for American stages. Confused because having a conversation with Jerry Springer, a part-time resident of Sarasota who treasures his weekends here as a getaway from all the noise and hype, is nothing like you’d imagine if all you knew about him is the role he plays on TV (tune in weekdays at 4 p.m. on WMOR32, Channel 4 on your Comcast cable dial). In total contrast to the grotesque antics he presides over on the screen, in an interview he comes across as thoughtful, courteous, smart and well informed.
Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. Certainly no one could really be, all the time, like the Jerry Springer who moderates raucous, chair-throwing disputes between "Heartbreaking Homewreckers," delves into sensational issues like "My Man is a Woman!" and "I’m Sleeping with My Stepsister!" and who ends each program with a "Final Thought," an attempt to heal his guests’ deep psychological problems with 30 seconds of upbeat jargon.
And, after all, this is the same Jerry Springer who won several local Emmys for his nightly news and political commentaries during his stint at Cincinnati’s WLWT-TV; served as mayor of that city nearly 30 years ago; was a campaign aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential run; and still talks passionately and with insight about politics today, including during his radio programs on Air America, the liberals’ answer to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.
Add to the contradictions surrounding Springer that this man who regularly broadcasts the most private and salacious details of his TV guests’ personal lives has a firm policy with reporters never, ever to talk about his own. Yep, it sure is confusing.
So what does Jerry Springer want people to know about him?
"I don’t want them to know me," he says. "Being known is just vanity. I know there are people who hate the show, but I don’t think I’m an ogre. When I walk the streets of Sarasota, people are always so nice to me-it’s ‘Hi, Jer’ and can they take a picture. They don’t really know me, but I’m appreciative. If someone really knows me and then doesn’t like me, that would hurt."
To understand at least something about the elusive Springer, it probably helps to know his family background. He was born Gerald Norman Springer in London in 1944 to a family of German Jews escaping the Holocaust. When he was five, they moved to New York, where his mother worked in a bank and his father sold stuffed animals. Young Gerald and sister Evelyn grew up in close quarters in a Queens apartment, but like many immigrants, they were hard-working and determined to climb higher.
Ask Springer what makes him such a liberal Democrat today, and he answers, "In a word, the Holocaust. We lost family in the Holocaust, and one of the things I learned going through that was you should never judge people on what they are [their religion or ethnicity] but on what they do."
Springer left New York for college at Tulane University, where he studied political science before going on to receive a law degree at Northwestern University, followed by his work for the Kennedy campaign. After the younger Kennedy’s assassination, Springer practiced law in Cincinnati before running for city council in 1971 and serving several terms. In 1977, at the age of 33, he was elected mayor with the most votes in the city’s history, despite Cincinnati’s often conservative leanings.
By this time, Springer had also married onetime Procter & Gamble administrative aide Micki Velten. The two are still married and have one daughter, Katie, who was born with several physical disabilities and graduated from Barat College in Illinois. Springer says he’s happy to see more of her now that she lives in Chicago, where he tapes The Jerry Springer Show.
It was Micki who found their Bird Key home. "We wanted to have a place on the water and were thinking of California at first," Springer says. "But the flights between there and Chicago or Cincinnati were too long. We also thought about Hilton Head; we’d vacationed there. But the West Coast of Florida, it seemed more Midwest somehow.
"Micki went down and started looking, in Naples first. When we saw Sarasota, though, we decided in a day. It’s perfect. It’s accessible, it’s beautiful, it’s got diversity, and you feel like it’s a cultural community. It has good restaurants, sports"-Springer is a frequent attendee at Cincinnati Reds games during spring training at Ed Smith Stadium, where he often gets more crowds and autograph requests than the players do-"It’s like an oasis."
Like many Sarasotans, though, Springer worries the city could "lose its uniqueness if it grows too much too fast. I hope whatever happens, they keep at least part of Main Street the way it is now. Let’s not have Sarasota lose its personality." Then he jokes, "That’s it, I’m running for mayor!"
Springer’s reputation and outspoken political opinions certainly haven’t made him persona non grata in largely Republican Sarasota. One acquaintance, Janet Bausch, who regularly plays tennis with Micki, recalls a large party she gave which Springer attended. "There were lots of people he’d never met before, and everybody couldn’t have been nicer," she says. "I think some of them really don’t know anything about his TV show; and anyway, when you talk to him you discover that he’s intelligent, pleasant and down-to-earth. Jerry wants to hear what others have to say."
When in Sarasota, Springer says, he and his wife lead a low-key life, often dining out downtown or on St. Armands Circle, maybe taking in a movie or a game of golf. It makes a nice contrast to the "ridiculously active" life he leads on the road between Chicago, Cincinnati, where he does his radio show, Springer on the Radio ("That’s my brain food"), and London, where he typically goes once a month to tape talk shows for British network ITV.
Of all his jobs, he says, the radio show is the most work. "I’m on air two to three hours a day, with two to three hours of preparation beforehand," he says. "But I really enjoy it, because I get to use my mind." The television show that made him most famous, which he was asked to do by his WLWT-TV employers back in 1991, initially presenting him as the next Phil Donahue, he admits freely, "is mindless."
In fact, he says, if you really want to know Jerry Springer, you should listen to his radio show. (It airs on WSRQ 1450 AM every weekday morning from 9 a.m. to noon.) "If anyone is interested in the real me, it is on the radio," he says. "Everything I say there I totally believe. Whether I’m joking around or expressing my point of view, it’s me. I’m not trying to create a persona there."
Among the issues he’s likely to address: the war in Iraq ("That’s so crippled us, made us so vulnerable. We’ve created a worldwide movement against us"), the failures of government officials ("[Hurricane] Katrina showed us there is no Homeland Security. The people running things are absolutely incompetent"), and right-wing Republicans ("If I were a conservative, my God, how could I vote Republican now? The party has been hijacked by almost every fringe group there is, bringing religion into everything. God isn’t a bumper sticker").
Springer adds that he considers himself a religious man, and he’s been seen attending temple services here in Sarasota. "I’m Jewish, and I take it seriously," he says. "I believe in God, but I’m not here to tell people that the Jewish religion is the only one. I simply use Jewish traditions to thank God for a wonderful life."
Part of that thanks, he says, does include "giving back," although more, he adds, on a national or international level than locally. "I’m involved with projects in Africa that have to do with poverty-related issues, a little bit of AIDS work, and I’m involved in an organization called Southern Mutual Help," which works with distressed rural communities in Louisiana. "But in Sarasota, it’s more about giving contributions. I can’t be asked to speak for a fund raiser every Saturday night while I’m here."
When he thinks about retiring, Springer says, he thinks about spending more time here. But at 61, he’s not really thinking about it very much. For one thing, re-entering politics is, he says, "always in the back of my mind. Every day I’m asked about that." He briefly considered a U.S. Senate run against Sen. George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, in 2003, and has also hinted at a possible run for Ohio governor. "If I ran for office, I suspect I would win. But the bigger issue is, would it make a difference? What I’m grappling with is how do I make the maximum impact-with three hours on-air nationally, or as an elected officer in one state?"
And what about the baggage of his outrageous TV persona?
"When you’re running for office, people in the end care about their own lives," he says. "The last thing they care about is a TV show. They want to know where you stand on Iraq or schools. Sure, the reporters would write about [the TV show]. But if I ran and I had good answers to people’s questions, why would they vote against their own interests? TV is only chewing gum."
Highly profitable chewing gum, in the case of The Jerry Springer Show, of course. According to the Toledo Blade newspaper, which ran a piece on Springer in 2004 when he made Ohio his official residence in case he decided to run for office there, Springer’s yearly income likely rests comfortably somewhere between $6.5 million and $7 million.
"The show could run forever, just because it has a niche and the company [NBC Universal Television syndicates the show] is making a lot of money," Springer says. "That doesn’t mean I couldn’t wake up tomorrow and say, ‘Dammit, I’m going [to quit the show and run for office].’ I don’t make decisions I don’t have to. I only make them when I’m forced."
It’s hard to imagine Springer, at this point in his life, being forced to do anything. But Sarasotans who run into him on one of his weekend strolls around town and engage him in one-on-one conversation just may be forced to re-examine their foregone conclusions on who Jerry Springer really is.
Final thought: There’s more to a person than meets the camera’s eye-and that’s as deep as I’m going to go.
"I haven’t met Katherine Harris [the Republican congresswoman from Longboat Key who is running for the U.S. Senate]. I think I’ve seen her once. She met my sister and they got along famously. Her politics are way off the charts for me. If there was a Springer-Harris race, people would be taking their lives."
"I saw Jerry Springer-the Opera in England. It’s really good-the storyline, the music, the dance. When you consider a traditional Broadway crowd, though, it may not make it here." (When the BBC aired the show, one angry viewer claimed it contained more than 8,000 obscenities, although producers say that’s an exaggeration.)
"In elections we vote according to [candidates'] stands, not their competence. Then all of a sudden they have to govern. They may be nice people, they may go to church and the right schools. That doesn’t mean they’re competent."
"In half of the country my radio show leads into Al Franken; in the other half into Rush Limbaugh. The people in conservative talk radio, they’re very good at it. I just don’t agree with their positions."