Looking for Mr. Right

More marginalized than ever, Massachusetts conservatives could really use someone to rally their cause. For now, they’ll have to settle for fringe activists like Brian Camenker and a pair of rival talk-show hosts who, for all their bombast, don’t want the job.

Howie Carr and I are sitting in his office in WRKO’s Brighton studios, a space he shares with his producer, Sandy. Actually, that’s not her real name. She just calls herself that on-air so people won’t accost her on the street (this is a problem for radio producers, apparently). The office is cramped and cluttered, and the door is festooned with bumper stickers: “I’d rather hunt with Dick Cheney than ride with Ted Kennedy,” “This is America. ‘Speak English.’”

Carr has agreed to meet and discuss who’s left to speak for Massachusetts conservatives now that like-minded pols are in shorter supply than ever. He’s been at ’RKO off and on since 1990, and The Howie Carr Show has made him a bigger star than his Herald column ever could; he is, undoubtedly, the area’s best-known right-wing voice. He’s clearly grown comfortable in the post. Swaddled in an old blue sweatshirt and white pants, Carr looks as though he’ll soon be watching a ball game on his couch. His whole appearance belies his public stature, actually—even with snow-white hair, his face is still boyish, like how you’d imagine Ralphie from A Christmas Story might appear as a grownup.

Not that it’s easy to see Carr’s face. Early in our conversation, I mention his archrival, WTKK’s Jay Severin, who’s been closing in on Carr in the ratings since returning to Boston in October following a stint in national syndication. This turns out to be a bad move, akin to asking Britney Spears to discuss her latest album, then immediately broaching K-Fed and those Internet shots of her…uh…well, you’ve seen the photos. Point is, you have to ease into these things. Carr spends the majority of the interview sitting with his back to me. The few times he turns and makes eye contact, it’s brief, and wholly by accident.

Most of Carr’s responses, meanwhile, are single-sentence—it’s like a bad episode of The $100,000 Pyramid. Wisely, I think, I veer away from Severin, and ask the back of Carr’s head whether he thinks conservatives are doomed in Massachusetts (he doesn’t) and if Deval Patrick is good for business because he provides more to rant about (he does). Next, I move on to subjects I know Carr holds dear (illegal immigrants! taxes!), the stuff that provides most of the fodder for his show, but he doesn’t feel like exploring those topics, either.

“This,” he says, “is a silly conversation.”

“He and I don’t agree very much,” not-Sandy tells me later, trying to explain that, deep down, Carr isn’t the Neanderthal some believe he is. “We have disagreements in the office, on the air, on the phone. But I respect him. He’s incredibly smart, and he has a code of ethics. I respect the fact that he really wants to fix things. I’m a liberal Democrat and he’s an archconservative. At first, I thought he was a conservative jackass. But that was shortsighted of me. I was wrong. I jumped to conclusions about him. He really does take things issue by issue. And he makes me laugh.”

If someone of not-Sandy’s opposing views can warm to Carr and keep an open mind, maybe it is possible for him to stoke center-right passions until the GOP can pry open the Democrats’ kung fu grip on state politics. Maybe he’s not solely bombast and shtick—maybe his punch lines are the sugar coating that makes serious ideological debate easier to swallow. For a moment, I entertain that idea.

Then I think back to an afternoon in November, shortly after the general election was over and state Republicans had suffered an abject defeat. I was in the car listening to the radio. Carr was talking to a caller about feeding the homeless in public parks. Not-Sandy may be sure of Carr’s “code of ethics” and his desire to “fix things.” But anyone tuning in to this broadcast would be less certain:

Caller: I’d rather feed the pigeons.
Carr: One of them [the homeless] is on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Newbury.
Caller: Oh yeah, they hold up signs.
Carr: What do the signs say?
Caller: I saw one that said, “I’m a homeless mother.” How many homeless mothers could there possibly be in Massachusetts?
Carr: [Laughs.] Homeless mother.

Despite the picture painted by the most recent electoral returns, Massachusetts is home to a surprising number of right-leaning people. According to Suffolk University pollsters, 25 percent of the state’s registered voters are either Republicans or independents who “most closely” identify with the GOP. There are also plenty of Democrats who are hardly progressive on social issues. And let’s not forget: Massachusetts twice backed Ronald Reagan for president and sent four straight Republican governors to guard Beacon Hill against the charging liberal huns.

Of course, none of that really matters now. Being a conservative around here these days is a bit like playing for the Celtics: If you’re thought of at all, it’s with pity. Today, we have a Dem governor and a legislature that, at 88 percent Democratic, is the most lopsided in the country. It’s left Republicans without much pull, essentially rendering them furniture. Meanwhile, Kerry Healey, the last of the state’s “name” Republicans, has been banished to some wonkish committee, and the anemic state party has tapped former U.S. Congressman Peter Torkildsen to be its chairman. Anyone who knew that, or even remembers Torkildsen, gets a gold star.

People rely on politicians not only to promote their interests, but also to help them justify and even shape their own political thinking. What Massachusetts conservatives are missing is that leadership, that grounding. Isolated in a liberal stronghold, conservatives have hunkered down, withdrawn into a kind of intellectual Ruby Ridge, taking cheap potshots at the lefty establishment whenever an opportunity arises. Given the sorry condition of the GOP here, the role of lending voice to ideology now falls to the people who still have a forum and an audience. It falls, for better or worse, to guys like Carr and Severin. It falls to political activists like Brian Camenker. It falls to the only people who are—with apologies—still left.

Not that they agree on how to best steward conservatives. On the contrary, the vacuum created by an absence of leadership has led to a free-for-all. Pols are generally slimy and self-serving, but at least they answer to voters. Those still speaking to conservative issues answer only to themselves. It’s become a muddled mess dominated by opportunists and those desperate for attention, where individual agendas often supersede any commitment to the movement.

So you’ve been warned: Go searching for high-minded conservative discourse in Massachusetts, and all you’re likely to find is its further dissolution.

“If I want to snort coke and be with three Asian hookers, it’s no one’s business,” Jay Severin says, sitting in a cube in WTKK’s Dorchester studio. “Being hypothetical, of course.” Severin offers this sort of hypothetical a lot. The first time we talked, he immediately launched into an evaluation of Katie Couric’s breasts (he’s a fan). “Faith conservatives,” he says, “they’re good people. I’m an orgy person. That’s where I run into trouble. I wonder, if they knew how many Asian hookers I’ve been with, if [conservatives] would still shake my hand. I doubt it.”

In 2005, Severin tried his hand at TV, doing a stint with Tucker Carlson on MSNBC. It didn’t last. Radio is simply a better medium for Severin—for a number of reasons. He’s a slight man, with an elongated face and spiky hair. And when his show comes back from breaks and the music bumpers play, he likes to rock an air guitar. Badly. I witnessed a performance to the Scorpions that mirrored Elaine’s dancing from Seinfeld. At first, I thought he was having a seizure. I was worried about having to keep him from swallowing his tongue.

This is Severin the showman, or as he describes it, “Cocktail Party Jay.” The guy knows how to fill a reporter’s notebook. What’s interesting, though, is the way he makes his outrageous, often offensive comments: in a slow, measured cadence, as if custom-picking each word. He’s been infamously less selective with his résumé—in 2005 the Globe debunked his claims that he’d graduated from Harvard Law School and won a Pulitzer, neither of which is true. It’s a testament to his popularity that the controversy didn’t cost him his career. Where former ’RKO host John DePetro was fired for calling gubernatorial candidate Grace Ross a “fat lesbian,” Severin remains employed despite having labeled New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks a “house negro.” (Brooks, like Severin, is white.)

During one show, Severin pushes the boundaries of good taste even further. “Together We Can raise my taxes,” Severin says, playing off a favorite Patrick campaign slogan. A lot of people (including me) have made fun of the governor by twisting his catch phrases. None, though, would dare go quite as far as Severin. He continues, “Together We Can parole people who rape your daughter. And Together We Will.”

The principal reason for Severin’s survival, frankly, is his madcap energy—listening to him is never dull. Severin could have been an amazing salesman or, had he been born 250 years earlier, a fantastic town crier. When pitching for leather furniture or 1-800-Mattres (“Leave off the last ‘s’ for savings!”), he’s manic. He really gets into it—gesticulating with pointed fingers and aggressive head bobs—as though he’s at a rally, trying to start a revolution. Our conversation, much like his show, skips randomly and rapidly across the topical spectrum. We move on from Asian hookers to discuss how he’s “to the far right of Attila” on foreign policy (he’s in favor of nuking our enemies, which is encouraging). Then, just as suddenly, we’re talking about former Governor Romney and how they’ve been “friends, or friendly” for years. Severin is quick to add that he thinks Romney could make a “Mount Rushmore–ian” president. Regardless of subject matter, his enthusiasm never dwindles, and it’s always spiked with his special brand of burlesque.

But in terms of being a spokesman for Massachusetts conservatives, Severin is, by his own admission, ill qualified. (Asian hookers for everyone!) “To be an ally, their confederate beyond reasonable doubt? That’s not going to happen,” says Severin, who calls Bob Jones conservatives “icky.” He acknowledges that he at times punches up his on-air energy but rejects the assertion that his libertinism is an act. “Now, could I agree with them on 51 percent of the issues? I think I go well over the 51 percent threshold with most conservative groups,” he says. “I hit the preponderance of confederacy.”

Which is fine by his listeners, but, as Severin notes, traditional conservatives are looking for something more from him. Or at least something different. Asks activist Brian Camenker: “Does he always have to talk about boobs?”

At a little deli down the street from the State House, Camenker and I are having a delightful discussion. Some people talk about the Sox over lunch. Or the weather. We’re talking about people peeing on each other for kicks.

“This isn’t going to make me come off like I’m crazy, is it?” he asks. Camenker runs MassResistance, a conservative-values outfit based in Waltham. He’s wearing a dark green jacket over a blue button-down shirt, both of which clash with his squiggly-patterned tie. A puff of black hair sits high atop his head, and a pair of glasses perch on his nose. The overall effect makes him look like a hybrid of Egon from Ghostbusters and Bert from Sesame Street.

Camenker, in fact, is not crazy. Zealous, certainly, but not crazy. He’s just not a professional, not in the mold of Carr and Severin, anyway. He doesn’t get paid lots of money to say outlandish things. And therefore he can’t insulate himself from the fallout by hiding behind an on-air alter ego or by employing the radio host’s favorite defense: “It’s just a show!” What Camenker says, he truly believes. And he wants people to hear what he’s saying, because he understands he needs the publicity in order to convince people that his kind of conservatism is best. But he also knows the publicity may not be so kind, and that worries him. Camenker’s been lampooned on The Daily Show and the recipient of less-than-flattering coverage in the Herald and the Globe. While I was writing this story, he called me (and my editor) several times to check its progress and inquire about how he’d be perceived. It’s an odd dichotomy, but that’s Camenker.

The day I meet him, he’s been on Beacon Hill, lobbying anyone who will listen in an attempt to find a sponsor for his proposed Parental Notification Act. The measure, as he’s worded it, would ensure that sex ed be “nonmandatory.” It also would guarantee that parents receive a written description of any content teaching “alternative sexual behavior,” defined in his document as anything ranging from homosexuality to transsexuality to transgenderism to pansexuality (I have no idea what this is) to pederasty to “bondage and discipline” (his quotes, not mine) to…anyway, it goes on for a while.

For many conservatives, particularly those turned off by the one-downmanship of talk radio, grassroots activists represent the best hope for the genuine expression of right-wing principles in this state. They look to people like Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, who has made a career out of being a thorn in the liberal establishment’s side. They look to Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who was instrumental in getting the legislature to finally vote on the gay-marriage ban. And they look to Aaron and Matt Margolis, creators of the websites Hub Politics and Deval Patrick Watch—authors of such unambiguous headlines as “Patrick to legislature: Screw the constitution.”

According to Anderson, though, none of them is reaching a wide enough audience. “I just wonder, is anyone paying attention?” she asks. “Or is it just the people who are always paying attention who are paying attention?”

People are certainly paying attention to Camenker. “The Mitt Romney Deception,” a 10,000-word opus he published on his website, made sure of that. Where other conservatives might laud Romney, Camenker’s piece eviscerates him. It calls Romney a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and takes him apart for flip-flopping on abortion, for saying he’d support stem-cell research, and for promoting a “homosexual agenda.” It is a painfully detailed attack, and well aimed, too: It’s caused enough damage that Romney’s staff distributed a press release in an effort to discredit him.

You’d think Camenker is the kind of person who’d be attracted to Carr and Severin. You’d think he’d be a lifelong listener, a disciple who’d spread the good words of Howie and Jay. Not quite (though he does see Carr as the lesser evil). Camenker is a faithful follower of conservative ideology, but not of those who distort it in the name of ratings. Because they aren’t saying the things he wants to hear, he’s decided to say them himself. Still, he acknowledges that they’ve been able to do something that other area conservatives haven’t: command an audience. That’s something Camenker desires—even if at times he’s paranoid about what it will entail.

“Nobody is gay,” Camenker says as he eats. “They’re heterosexuals with homosexual issues. Are they bisexual? Transgender? S&M?…I know people who have left the homosexual lifestyle, who got married and had kids and moved on.”

He pauses, searching for someone who fits the description, then says: “Anne Heche.”

We let that hang between us for a moment while Camenker picks at his salad. This is how we start talking about peeing. Peeing on people. “Who else is writing or talking about this?” he asks, asserting that it’s solely the domain of homosexuals.

“If you’re going to be serious with this stuff, part of the natural process in effecting change is being called ‘fringe,’” Camenker says. “Martin Luther King was called an extremist by his own people, by his fellow pastors. They thought George Washington was out of his mind—‘You want to use a bunch of farmers with guns to throw out the best-trained army in the world?’” He keeps going, and works his way to talking about the “Adams family” (the political clan, not the TV show) before stopping. Suddenly, he’s worried again about how this will sound.

“Look,” he says, “I’m not necessarily putting myself in a class with them, but the principle is the same.”

“What I’m trying to do is entertain people on their drive home,” Howie Carr says, still not looking at me. This is when I realize the interview is over. He rises from his chair and makes his way toward the door. He doesn’t raise his voice, but it’s obvious he’s had enough. “I’m not trying to offend somebody or not offend somebody. I’m trying to keep people listening to the show. It’s as simple as that.”

It’s the kind of thing you learn on your first day at Conservative Talk-Show Host University (also on the curriculum: “The War on Christmas—Why Everyone Hates Jesus”). I’m just an entertainer. You’re making too much of this. I should have expected a hatchet job from the liberal media. And if that’s the only goal, if the only barometer for success is whether you keep people listening, then Carr and Severin are succeeding. During the latest ratings period, their shows were ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in the 3-to-7 p.m. slot. Considering that the shows ahead of theirs were on juggernaut WEEI and three FM music stations, it’s hard to argue people don’t love to buy what they’re selling. Because they do.

The day that Senator John Kerry announces he won’t seek the presidency in 2008 is proof enough. It’s like an impromptu conservative holiday, and Carr and Severin serve as the parade marshals. Their phone lines quickly clog with delighted right-wingers. The comments on Severin’s show are a little more measured (“He couldn’t have won”), while those who speak with Carr add some flair (a guy named Bill pretends to be Senator Kerry by employing a voice that sounds like Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island: “Lovey, this will be a disgrace down at the country club”). People just can’t wait to discuss the situation with them.

And maybe that’s why there’s something unseemly about all of this. It’s just so easy for Carr and Severin. There’s something wrong when all they have to do is bring up illegal immigrants in order to coast for the rest of the day—as though they’ve engaged their talk show autopilot. Compare that with Camenker, who clearly believes what he’s saying and who goes to the trouble of turning out a lengthy dossier (however kooky or cringe-worthy). At the least, conservatives know where Camenker stands. But when Carr agrees with a caller that John Odgren (the 16-year-old Lincoln-Sudbury sophomore who is accused of murder) is an “animal” and should be executed, or Severin says President Bush is an “amiable dunce,” it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not.

That’s the thing. It’s tough to pinpoint where Jay Severin (or Howie Carr) ends and JAY SEVERIN (or HOWIE CARR) begins. Severin says he’s not necessarily for gay marriage, then says he’s in favor of orgies and pot. He tells me off-air that Howie has a good show, then goes on-air and bashes him mercilessly. He brags about his many female listeners, then informs me that Icelandic women have “cuffs and collars” that match. It all adds up to what Severin calls a high EQ—Entertainment Quotient. The same could be said for Carr.

Since Carr isn’t speaking to me anymore, I ask Severin if he has a greater responsibility here, whether he ought to spend less time thinking about EQ and more time pointing the right wing in the right direction. He recoils. There’s a pause as he considers the possibility. His expression is serious. And for the first time I know where Severin stands.

“Look, if anyone is looking for me to lead the way,” he says finally, “they’re screwed.”