Morton Downey, Jr

The year is 1988.  Probably.  I’m getting older and the past is getting a little hazier. 

All I know is I joined a bunch of excited friends and piled into a car and headed off to New Jersey.  Were we going to a rock concert at the old Brendan Byrne Arena?  A football game at Giants Stadium?

Nope.  We were going to lovely Secaucus to see a taping of The Morton Downey Jr. TV show.  Which was always more wild and loud than any rock concert or football game.

It’s easy to forget what a rock star Morton Downey Jr. was, if only briefly.  We look at trash TV like Springer or Maury, or theatrical political commentators like Glenn Back, and assume this has always been with us.

Nope.  Morton Downey Jr. deserves the credit – or blame.

A new movie is currently opening up across the country entitled Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.  The documentary explores Downey’s coming of age – his father was one of the most famous Irish tenors of his generation – and culminates with the short-lived, hugely-influential syndicated TV talk show that bore his name.

Evocateur offers an opportunity to look back at Downey’s complicated life and legacy.  He had a distinctly Irish struggle with his father, and worked for Irish American political legend Bobby Kennedy.  Downey even tapped into the Reagan-era right-wing populism that was appealing to many working- and middle-class Irish Americans.

Yeah, there’s all of that.  But mainly there’s that talk show.  That unforgettable talk show.
He was born Sean Morton Downey Jr. in New York City in 1932.  His father was a tremendously popular singer in the 1930s and 1940s, often referred to as “The Irish Nightingale.” 

Downey Sr. also appeared on television and in movies.  As a songwriter, one of his many hits was “That’s How I Spell Ireland.”

So, Morton Downey Jr. knew a thing or two about show business.  He himself had an accomplished musical career.  For decades, Downey was a radio and music industry performer, writing songs as well as singing them in a number of genres.

Then there was politics. The Downey family had a home in Hyannis, right next to the estate owned by Joseph P. Kennedy.  In fact, though he became a right-wing icon who despised “pabulum-puking liberals,” Downey Jr. worked on the 1968 Senate campaign of famously liberal Bobby Kennedy.

Downey even wrote a book of poetry entitled Quiet Thoughts Make the Loudest Noise to deal with the grief of Kennedy’s assassination (which, incidentally, occurred on June 6, 1968, 45 years ago last week).

But all was not well in the Downey clan.  Irish fathers and sons have famously difficult relationships and the Downeys were no exception. 

Morton Downey Jr. spent years trying to outdo his accomplished father, who died in 1985.  Around this time, having worked as a musician, radio DJ and political operative, Downey was working at a California radio station when he was fired for using allegedly racist language. (Rush Limbaugh replaced him.)

Downey, in his fifties, decided to head off to New Jersey to do a new kind of TV talk show.
These days we expect to see fights and chair-throwing on daytime TV.  But when The Morton Downey Jr. Show hit the airwaves it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. 

The late 1980s were a politically tense time and Downey dove in.  Always puffing on a cigarette, Downey won all the arguments because he shouted the loudest.  It was vile, offensive, ignorant -- and you could not stop watching!

Though raised a rich kid, Downey liked to come off as the defender of the blue collar common man sick and tired of egghead know-it-all elites. 

Anyone can be a demagogue.  For a year or two, Morton Downey Jr. was the best demagogue in America.

His fall was as swift and spectacular as his rise.  He claimed to have been assaulted by Nazi skinheads at a San Francisco airport in April 1989.  It seemed a ploy for attention. 

Producers of his show feared a backlash from critics and advertisers and the show was cancelled.  Downey went bankrupt in 1990 and died of lung cancer in 2001.

But every time you turn on the TV, Morton Downey Jr. is still with us.  For better or worse.

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