I can't believe Bill Cunningham is for real. The problem is he isn't, which anyone who's met him under normal circumstances (i.e., away from his role as over-the-top radio talk show host or public personality) knows pretty well. He's actually a nice, smart, thoughtful guy.
When I was a student at Colerain High School, I used to listen to Cunningham's WLW (700 AM) talk show when it was on from 9 p.m.-midnight. I laughed right along — not always proudly, in retrospect — as he interviewed a man who practiced bestiality, got drunk on the air to demonstrate how many drinks it would take to become legally impaired to drive and gave out legal advice to hapless callers with a variety of sometimes bizarre legal entanglements.
In 1996, after Marge Schott made disparaging remarks about blacks and positive comments about Adolf Hitler, Cunningham was one of her biggest supporters, orchestrating a banner drive at Riverfront Stadium.
I also loved the short quips, like when discussions about placing condoms on cucumbers as part of a state sex education program became news. Cunningham suggested that then-Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste should get into a human-sized condom and jump out of an airplane so he could do to Ohio symbolically what he'd been doing politically for years. "Dick Celeste before he dicks you" is how I remember Cunningham phrasing it.
As any Daily Show watcher and political pundit can tell you, a little humor blended with political rhetoric can have a profound effect on an audience.
Politics can be boring, but cut-ups like Cunningham make it much more bearable.
Our little joke, however, became a national embarrassment last week. On Feb. 26, Cunningham repeatedly used Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein, during a warm-up speech at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine before a rally for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The intention was clear.
McCain later apologized for Cunningham's remarks, though some have theorized the whole thing was an arranged stunt to make McCain look the politically-correct hero. I doubt that was the case.
Sure, loads of fellow locals came to Cunningham's defense. They said his antics were exactly what any Cincinnatian would expect from the Deer Park native, a former Democrat.
They're exactly right. He's kind of like that eccentric relative with whom you'd never associate if he weren't your relative. But because he is, you make excuses: "He's just like his father/mother/uncle." It makes it sort of OK.
Cunningham is always saying that he loves America, and I imagine he loves Cincinnati as well. But he's sure put us in a precarious position.
The whole world was reminded again that we Cincinnatians kind of like it a little on the racist side. That might be OK for us locally — though it's really not — but lots of us are trying to change our reputation and Cunningham ain't helping.
Last week a local tourism official — whose job is to attract conventions and convention attendees to this region to help drive our economy — told me Cincinnati generally has a neutral reputation nationally. When asked, outsiders usually don't consider Cincinnati too racist, too dull, too conservative or too behind the times.
The good news is we aren't all bad. But, as this tourism official pointed out, the neutral reputation can also hurt because outsiders often fill in their own notions about us.
When people like Cunningham make national news — his anti-Obama rant was lampooned on The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live and covered on major national newscasts — outsiders make assumptions. Cunningham gave Cincinnati a whopper of a blow that even the best Chamber of Commerce press conference, filled with the happiest of news, can't undo.
While we laugh at our whacky relative who says and does outrageous things, Cunningham is one of us. No matter Republican or Democrat, something else or nothing at all, this type of behavior hurts Cincinnati.
We need to continue to move forward. This city and region have so much to offer and so much untapped potential it's maddening.
Those who aren't here every day will never get a chance to realize that as long as Cunningham and people who support him think it's OK to embarrass us all.
CONTACT JOE WESSELS: [email protected]