If you are a conservative that has paid any attention at all to the likes of Andrew Breitbart, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh, you may have thought that these men were trailblazers – something new under the sun, when it comes to conservative commentary. You would be partially right in that assessment, in that they each have set their own place in the conservative political world. However, before any of them, there was Morton Downey, Jr.
“The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” was an entertainment anomaly in its day, airing in the late eighties for just under a year nationwide. Mort had a cult-like following on college campuses, and can be credited with being the father of shock television. In the beginning, the show focused on political topics, and can be credited with introducing a national audience to the likes of Gloria Allred and the Reverend Al Sharpton. Conservatives today might be tempted to curse him for that, but it can be argued that the interaction between Mort and his guests in general lead to the current tenor of commentary we see everyday from Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity. Today, they are more polite, so if there’s any complaining to do, it probably shouldn’t be about Mort.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the man, and his meteoric rise to fame at the close of the Reagan years, you have the opportunity to learn. Évocateur – The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie is a documentary set for nationwide release on June 7 that explores the history of the show, and the man that made it possible. From the beginning, there was no question about whether or not Mort would attempt to get in the national spotlight – the only question was how he would do it. After failed attempts at following in his father’s footsteps in the music industry, Mort moved to radio. Once he discovered he could use his flamboyant personality to move people on political causes, after speaking on Pro-Life issues, it was only a matter of time before he would parlay that into some form of entertainment.
Based in part on the 1960’s talk show, “The Joe Pyne Show”, “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” in the New York region on WWOR in Seacaucus, NJ in 1987. Under a year later, the show went into national syndication. The show focused on politics from the beginning until shortly after the Reverend Al Sharpton’s pet cause – the case of Tawana Brawley – was found to be false by a grand jury investigation. The Brawley case was an integral part of Mort’s fame, and when it became clear that the girl had lied about being gang raped by white men, the show could no longer book legitimate guests. It became a freak show, with strippers, prostitutes, and Neo-Nazis as regular guests. Part of Brawley’s claims included racist epithets being written on her body by her attackers – something she apparently did to herself. So, when Mort claimed that he had been attacked by Neo-Nazis, and had swastikas drawn on him in an airport restroom, there was more than a little distrust in his claims. “The Morton Downey, Jr.” show was cancelled shortly after that.
“Évocateur” explores all of this, and is a walk down memory lane for anyone that remembers the man, and his show. As for current conservatives, it is important to understand the rise and fall of Mort. While even his close friend, Lloyd Schoonmaker, admits in the film that Mort’s political beliefs were whatever served him best at any given moment, one thing the man did understand was how to turn populism into real entertainment. If the show was aired today, it probably still would appeal to a large audience, because of its off-the-wall flavor, if nothing else. However, Mort would be branded as RINO, because of he would often switch stands on various issues. As shown in a very short clip in the film, it apparently was done to “see how the audience reacts” – he was a showman first, pundit second if at all. His goal was to entertain, then inform. Today, entertaining audiences has either been abandoned entirely, or takes second seat to informing the masses. Conservatives today have been debating for years about how to reach a larger audience, and if Mort can teach us anything, it is that we’re going about it backwards. First entertain the people, and then inform them.
If there is one must-see film out there now for conservatives, it is “Évocateur”. This should be the start point for anyone seeking to spread the conservative message to a larger audience, because it is about a man who did it right, before he got everything absolutely wrong. His failure was highly personal, in that he was obsessed with eclipsing his father’s fame. However, on the tactical end, his other failure was in putting so much faith in one story – the Tawana Brawley story. It is a bitter irony that story didn’t spell the end of Sharpton as well. But, none of it lessens the value of what can be learned from Morton Downey, Jr. – the man that defined the populist conservative movement in the waning days of the Reagan era.
Interview with “Évocateur” director Jeremy Newberger: Listen here