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Candidate Jerry? He's more than talk

Springer still finds show business fun, but will his starring role be in politics?

November 1, 2007

BY ROBERT FEDER Sun-Times Columnist

Day in and day out, millions of loyal fans tune in to "The Jerry Springer Show," the Chicago-based syndicated gabfest once dubbed the worst program in television history by TV Guide.

Millions more also embraced Springer on "Dancing With the Stars" and as host of "America's Got Talent."

But the question on his mind is: How many people would vote for him if he ran for political office?

Rich and famous as he's become as a pop culture icon, Springer's passion has always been politics. Ever since he worked for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968 and ran for Congress in 1970, he has thought of himself first and foremost as a political activist.

Terms as a city councilman and mayor of Cincinnati as well as a bid for governor of Ohio solidified his Democratic resume. But then his unplanned (and unlikely) television career intervened.

In 2004, Springer came close to a senate run from Ohio, but backed down in part because of baggage from his talk show. Since then -- whether intentionally or not -- he's been softening the edges around his controversial public image.

In an interview at his NBC Tower office the other day, Springer, 61, ruled out nothing -- just like a consummate politician:

Q: With all that you have going on in television lately, have you turned away from politics?

A: No, I have not for one second made a decision not to do politics. When it happens, it will happen. Ambition is too strong a word, but it would be dishonest for me to say that I will never run for political office. If I ran, I would turn it on like that [snaps finger].

Every day I have at least one call regarding politics. Every single day of my life.

Q: OK, what is your strategy?

A: I'm not Machiavellian. There's no plan. I never wanted to make a living out of politics, because that's when you become intellectually corrupt. You will say anything to get elected because that's how you put food on your table. So I treat my politics like I treat my religion. It's personal, it's uncompromising, but I don't do it to make money.

I make money doing show business. I have a great time, but I never take it seriously. I'll get into an argument with someone over the war, for example. But if it's about the show, I'll make fun. I did it when I went before the [Chicago] City Council. I mean, you know, I try to be respectful, but I'm not taking that seriously.

I still do political moments all the time. I've given speeches all over -- except here in Illinois. Even though I contribute to Hillary [Clinton], I stay out of politics here because my show business persona is here. And it just mixes everything up.

The truth is, someone else could argue I've never been in better shape [politically] than I am now. With "Dancing With the Stars" and "America's Got Talent," all of a sudden I'm mainstream! I'm on "The View" all the time. I mean, think about it. This was unthinkable a few years ago. So if I were really Machiavellian, oh boy, this would make me suddenly mainstream.

Q: You spent two years hosting a progressive talk radio show, which some people thought might be your entree back into politics. Why did you give it up?

A: Frankly, I miss doing it, but it would have been impossible to commit for another year or two and still keep my other jobs. I thought there was a real cause [the 2006 midterm elections] last time, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I really believed at every level that we had to change; we had to get America back on the right course. The truth is, everything helped. We didn't win by much, but at least we put the brakes on [President] Bush.

But I love radio. One day when I finish television and when I finish politics, that would be the job I would love to have.

Q: Handicap the presidential race.

A: If it's today, it's Hillary against Rudy [Giuliani]. So you've got a New York election, and the rest of the country will participate as they choose. If the election's today, Hillary wins. But the election isn't today, so who knows?

Q: Can any Republican beat Hillary?

A: Right now, I don't think so. And it's a convergence of forces: America wants a change, and the Republicans are acting like Democrats. They're not at all united.

When I study the map, there's not one state that John Kerry won that Hillary wouldn't. So you start out by saying Hillary will win California, New York, Illinois. OK? So Hillary will win all the states that John Kerry won, which means she only has to win one more.

What you can't measure now in polls is that women, particularly young women, will go to the polls and say, "Oh my God, from Texas macho to the United States of America having a woman as president." The impact of that jettisons all other political considerations. We don't fully understand it yet, but I think that will carry the day.

Q: What do you think of Hillary as president?

A: I love it. The truth is, perhaps no one goes to the presidency knowing more about the job than she does. And it's not just because she was first lady. This woman was more of a political wonk in college than Bill was. She is smart. I don't just mean clever. I mean smart. There's no issue you talk to her about that she doesn't get it.

The fact that she's so political is probably an advantage. Because we got in trouble with Bush because he thought God told him what to do. Therefore there was no flexibility. Once we realized that Iraq was a debacle killing America, he wasn't able to change because his Texas macho ego said, "I'm not going to change because God told me." With Hillary, she'll change in a second if something goes wrong.

Q: I take it you don't like Bush?

A: This is not disrespect to the president because he may be the nicest guy in the world. I don't know. But when I talk to business folks, I ask them the question: "Would you hire George to be the CEO of your corporation?" No one says yes. They all suddenly start chuckling. Because they know. If we're just really honest, we know he's not qualified. We think we're electing a talk show host, not a president. We think we're electing a celebrity for People magazine.

Q: What made you decide not to run for the Senate from Ohio?

A: In the end, you have to pull the trigger. And two things became clear: Lots of people could have won the nomination, and was I ready to make a decision to give everything up for that when I couldn't make the moral argument that I was needed? And I couldn't.

The moment of maturity comes when you realize that a decision you make really affects the people around you in significant ways.

But that is not a permanent no.

Q: Was there any remorse after you decided not to run?

A: Of course there was! It was horrible. It ate away at me. But when you make a good decision, it doesn't mean it doesn't have consequences. You have to make choices in life. And the truth was, I wasn't ready to pull the trigger.

Q: It's your show's 17th season. How do you still stay engaged?

A: This is the most fun we've had in years. There've been a bunch of changes -- from female security guards to my opening the show coming down the pole. It's just flat-out tongue-in-cheek comedy now. So we are just having fun, going over the top with outrageousness.

How do I stay engaged? That's the showman. You walk out there, and there's a live audience. If this were a scripted show, I couldn't do it. But there's always an audience out there. You're working a crowd.

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