- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

RIGHT TURNS

By Michael Medved

Crown Forum, $26.95, 435 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

Many of us have followed a similar political path to that of writer, film critic, and polemicist Michael Medved: Tacking from port to starboard over the years as we’ve learned that the world just doesn’t work the way our liberal professors told us it did in college. Not even close.

But few of us have accomplished our journey with such style, been present at as many important political junctures, and met as many of the central players in American politics along the way as Mr. Medved has. “Right Turns” is the story of Mr. Medved’s pilgrimage — cultural and religious as well as political — and it’s a trip well worth going on with him.

“Right Turns” is intelligent, funny, and occasionally poignant. In it Mr. Medved gives us a quick history of a great country going through a really daffy patch, and gives us reason to believe the future may be more sensible than our immediate past. He shows us, chapter and verse, how the right is right on the great political and cultural issues of the day, and how the ideas of the left are, without exception, intellectually and morally out to lunch.

As a youngster, Mr. Medved was a generic left weenie, his earliest distinction coming when he was voted “most radical” by his senior class of 1965 at Palisades High School in Los Angeles. And he must have had to really work to get to the left of this crowd — the future Seinfeld clones of Brentwood, Crestwood Hills, Pacific Palisades, and other pampered precincts.

This peculiar lot later became the subject of his first book, “What Really Happened to the Class of 65.” And what really happened is a lot more depressing than the almost uniformly adoring press the “best and the brightest” got during the 1960s, and even later when there was absolutely no reason not to know better.

After high school it was off to Yale and Berkeley, a leadership role in Viet Nam protests, anti-draft protests (one in the same, Mr. Medved finally figured out — after the draft was discontinued the “best and the “brightest” no longer seemed to care that a war was still going on), a role in the Robert Kennedy for president campaign which put him in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night RFK was assassinated, and even a short tour on the staff of Congressman Ron Dellums of San Francisco, one of the most radical leftists ever to be inflicted on the U.S. House.

Mr. Medved skipped the drugs. But even with this last omission it appeared that the mid-20s Mr. Medved was well on his way to a career as a radical lawyer — in between protesting this and that he occasionally completed a course at Yale Law School (but he was ultimately smart enough not to graduate from there) — or perhaps as a faculty member at a tony university, there to perpetuate the ambient nonsense to successive groups of tuition-paying inmates (OK, their parents pay the tuition — but you get the idea).

But it was in Mr. Medved’s mid-20s that reason began to seep in around the edges. Mr. Medved plays off W.H. Auden’s comment in his eulogy of William Butler Yeats — “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Mr. Medved says mad Berkeley hurt him into conservatism. Of course, Mr. Medved had more help than just mad Berkeley, but it’s a clever parallel.

The help came from — in addition to Mr. Medved’s considerable intellect — such sources as his shopkeeper grandmother, “Oma,” and Uncle Moish, two great Americans who helped improve everything around them, including Michael through various reality checks that he was eventually able to benefit from.

Life’s little lessons for Mr. Medved included being burglarized in Berkeley, and then at the trial being treated as though he was the bad guy and the burglar the victim by a radical public defender. He took a public relations job which put him in contact with cops in Oakland, who he found to be — contrary to what the “off the pigs” crowd had prepared him for — hardworking, competent, brave and decent. This job, where he was the token front white who did all the work for a “minority” firm, helped demonstrate to him what a hustle affirmative action is.

Readers can get a shorthand look at some of the things the older and wiser man learned just by reading Mr. Medved’s clever and provocative chapter titles: “America Isn’t Normal” (it’s blessed, we learn), “The Gift of America Isn’t Just the Absence of Oppression but the Presence of Generosity,” “Business isn’t Exploitative — It’s Heroic,” “Liberals love Losing Because it Makes Them Feel Virtuous,” “The 1960s Counterculture Promoted Stupidity and Self-destruction” and “For the Most Part, Conservatives Are Nicer and Happier Than Liberals.”

At college and through his public career, Mr. Medved has known many of the nation’s cultural and political household names. At Yale Law he was a classmate of Hillary Rodham, who he found to be smart, warm, and charming. The future Boy President was also there, and rated by Mr. Medved as a bit of a flake even then.

Some of the funniest lines in a frequently funny book come in Mr. Medved’s description of the ambitious but socially clueless John Kerry, who apparently was the same pathetic, man-like creature in college that he was during the recent presidential campaign.

“Right Turns” includes brushes with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Mel Gibson. He brings up these people not to drop names, but to demonstrate through his work with them some aspect of his personal journey.

Mr. Medved’s journey hasn’t been all politics and social issues. The most important part of his pilgrimage has been religious, and his description of how he turned from his mostly secular upbringing to become an observant Orthodox Jew is both instructive and moving.

By the 1990s, Mr. Medved was well known as the co-host, with Jeffrey Lyons, of the PBS show “Sneak Previews,” where he beat up on Hollywood’s intellectually and morally shoddy products with such vigor that he earned the nickname “The Abominable No-Man.”

He understood and tried to teach the rest of us that the stories we tell each other are really important. The “message” in movies — the principal form of storytelling in America today — is what’s important and what will stick with viewers far after the plot and the details of the movie have disappeared from memory. And the messages in so many of Hollywood’s products today are anti-American and nihilistic. He made this point effectively in his important 1992 book, “Hollywood vs. America.”

Mr. Medved now hosts a radio program where he gets to comment on matters cultural and political, including movies, and is heard by millions daily. He’s probably still best known as that conservative movie critic who popped up on PBS from time to time.

Those who read “Right Turns” will also know him as a solid thinker and a morally serious man who is always worth listening to. The only downside for readers is that they may — like me — come to regret that they never met Oma or Uncle Moish, and that it’s too late for that now.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.

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