Radio Legend Don Imus Passes Away at 79, Dared Roast Clintons and Media in Controversial 1996 Speech

Radio legend Don Imus passed away on Friday at the age of 79. He had retired earlier this year after over a half a century in radio. He became a New York City radio icon before being syndicated nationally and on cable TV, first on MSNBC then on the Fox Business Network.

Imus had many iconic moments in his long career, one of his bravest was his roast of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton–seated just feet away–as well as the media at the March 21, 1996 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Imus skewered Republicans and Democrats alike, and took nasty swipes at Rush Limbaugh. No one was off limits, but it was the jokes about the Clintons that truly offended tout le D.C, beginning with Imus’ opening remarks referencing Hillary’s Whitewater files that mysteriously turned up in the White House residence after being claimed missing while under subpoena.

The Clintons were not amused. Bill looked stunned at the effrontery, sitting slack-jawed, while Hillary could be seen staring daggers at Imus. Afterward White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry called on C-SPAN to not re-air the speech. C-SPAN rejected the demand and re-aired Imus’ speech.

Excerpt from People Magazine’s write-up of the then shocking night in D.C.:

SOMEWHERE IN HIS OWN DYSPEPTIC”] gut, radio shock jock Don Imus knew he was about to cause others a bit of indigestion. At a cocktail party before the annual gala of the Radio and Television Correspondent’s Association on March 21 in Washington, where he was to be a featured speaker, Imus found himself bantering with President Clinton. Imus recalls the Chief Executive asking, “How’s your speech?” “Well, it’s a little tough,” Imus said. “Oh, it’ll be fine,” Clinton reassured him. Imus replied, “The only people who will probably talk to me afterwards are you and my wife.”

As it turned out, Imus, 54, was only partly right: his wife was still speaking to him at the end of the evening. Before an audience dense with Washington heavies, Imus launched into a scathing, 25-minute monologue that poured invective over everyone from George Will (“Anyone that buttoned up…is spending part of his weekend wearing clothes that make him feel pretty”) to Elizabeth Taylor (“How do you get that fat that fast and not live in a trailer?”).

But what really had the crowd nervously chuckling and quietly cringing were the swipes he took at the Clintons, seated just a few feet away. In a clear reference to allegations of the President’s womanizing, Imus recalled hearing Clinton use the phrase “Go, baby!” when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record and then wondered about other times Clinton might have uttered those words. His followup: a leering reference to AstroTurf in the back of Clinton’s pickup years ago. As for Hillary and her involvement in Whitewater, Imus remarked, “If we were to have speculated on which member of the First Family would be the first to be indicted…everybody in this room would have picked [the President’s brother] Roger.” On the dais, the Clintons reacted at first with game, good-natured smiles, then with leaden stares. “I’ve seen that look before,” says CNN White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer. “If you could kill, that’s the look you would give.”

There the matter might have rested had not indignant White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry disclosed the next day that he had asked C-SPAN, the cable public-affairs channel that had aired the proceedings live, to think twice about its scheduled plans to rebroadcast the speech. (It did so anyway.) ABC correspondent Cokie-Roberts, a frequent guest on Imus’s syndicated radio show, said he “went way, way, way over the line.” Suddenly the buzz inside the Beltway was all about l’affaire Imus…

End excerpt. Please read the complete People article at this link.

Time’s Margaret Carlson reported an NPR reporter offered to walk out with Hillary Clinton over Imus’s speech:

…ABC’s Cokie Roberts, an Imus regular, said, “He always separates his raunchiness from the political part of his show. I thought he would have sense enough to do the same here. Now none of us can go on his show again.”

Roberts was one of the few who would go on record; the others fear reprisals. “Imus can trash you for a solid week,” a network correspondent said. Imus says he followed his only instructions, which were to make fun of everybody and tell no organ jokes. “Did they expect me to say one thing on the radio and then go to Washington and be a weasel? When the First Lady laughed at my opening, I thought I was home free.” He didn’t know that a few sex jokes later, NPR’s Elizabeth Arnold whispered to Mrs. Clinton that she would join her if Hillary wanted to leave. The First Lady hung in: she’s heard worse.

Video:


Excerpt from transcript of Imus’ speech:

Thank you very much …um… this is kind of interesting, these don’t
appear to be my notes….(you still have the folder I gave you? where did
this come from? Well, nobody just leaves stuff like this just layin’
around….

Heh, heh, heh .. let me see if I can see what it says: “S. McDougall
called again …says bank needs check and statement; told her both were
in mail, ha ha ha. Jesus, she looks stupid in those tank tops. ” I
think I’ll just hang on to these.

Ah, here we go. Good evening Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, honored guests,
ladies and gentlemen, radio and TV scum.

You know I think it would be fair to say, back when the Clintons first
took office, if we had placed them all in a lineup — well, not a lineup
— if we were to have speculated about which member of the First Family
would be the first to be indicted… I don’t mean indicted — I meant to
receive a subpoena — everybody would have picked Roger. I mean, been
there done that. Well, in the past 3 years, Socks the cat has been in
more jams than Roger. Roger has been a saint. The cat has peed on
national treasures. Roger hasn’t. Socks has thrown up hairballs. Roger
hasn’t. Socks got his girlfriend pregnant and hasn’t… oh no, that was
Roger. And as you know, nearly every incident in the lives of the first
family has been made worse by each and every person in this room of radio
and television correspondents — even innocuous incidents. For example,
when Cal Ripkin broke Lou Gherig’s consecutive game record, the President
was at Camden Yards doin’ play by play in the radio with John Miller.
Bobby Bonilla hit a double, we all heard the President in his obvious
excitement holler “Go Baby!” I remember commenting at the time, I bet
that’s not the first time he’s said that. Remember
the Astroturf in the pickup? And my point is, there is an innocent event,
made sinister by some creep in the media.

In some cases, the Clintons have not exactly helped themselves. Imagine
if back in 1978 Mrs. Clinton had NOT said to Mr. Clinton, “Honey, Jim and
Susan are here and they’ve got some river front land for these great
vacation homes, maybe we can make some serious money. And he said “God I
love this Reaganomics!” Or later, she’d said, “Bill, I talked to Web and
he said ‘put down 600 hours’ and he’d said, “well, that’s a lot,” and
she’d said, “yes, I think 60 makes more sense.” And recently somebody
said, “I don’t know, I left them on the table in the book room.”…

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