Dr. Laura doesn't want to talk about the past. After a year of almost constant controversy over her recently canceled television talk show, she's ready to put it behind her. Her three-page resumé lists her eight books, four academic degrees, seven national awards, and more than a dozen guest TV appearances-but nothing on her own short-lived show or the furor that surrounded it.
Ask a couple of questions about that tumultuous time, and her PR assistant breaks in: "Moooving on."
Try to sneak in another question, and the publicist gets blunt. "The whole homosexuality issue-I think she's pretty much addressed it. There are so many other things to talk about …"
The luxury suite at the Four Seasons goes quiet. Dr. Laura perches on the edge of a deeply upholstered chair, saying nothing, waiting for a new line of questioning. In a tailored pink jacket and gray slacks, she looks like the sort of well-bred society wife who spends her time doing lunch and getting her hair done. But her body language signals that there's much more to her than that. The set to her jaw, the creases around her eyes, the way her wide smile fades quickly into a grim horizontal line-clearly this is a woman who has endured a lot and emerged on the other side.
No wonder she wants to move on.
Laura Schlessinger, as she's officially known, is still the maven of conservative talk radio, with some 18 million listeners tuning in on 440 stations. She says her ratings have actually increased 15 percent despite the TV imbroglio, and she believes her listeners are more loyal than ever. "I think the good news is, people got to see the mettle of my character," she says, somewhat wistfully. "If there were ever a question of my character, there isn't anymore. I guess in every pile of poop, there is a flower that grows."
With liberals attacking almost daily from the moment her show was announced, that pile got plenty deep. Under pressure from gay-rights groups, Proctor & Gamble withdrew as a sponsor before the show even hit the airwaves. "It was a preemptive strike," she says of the "Stop Dr. Laura" campaign that spawned a website, rallies in 31 cities, boycott threats, and hundreds of negative articles in the mainstream press. "I have the largest family audience of any talk show host in America, and I guess there was concern that having yet another venue to talk about traditional values was too threatening. So they attacked."
Once the cameras finally began rolling, Dr. Laura tried hard to avoid confirming her public caricature. In 130 outings, each covering an average of seven different topics, her television show never once dealt with homosexuality, the subject for which she had taken the most heat. But the critics, she says, refused to judge the show on its merits. "Typically speaking, you would attack a show for its content. They attacked the show for its host. This was an attempt to search and destroy and censor a point of view, which is what the Left does. They don't debate; they destroy."
Stung by the criticism and wary of low ratings, station managers in many markets relegated Dr. Laura to the dismal, post-midnight time slots once reserved for test patterns. Yet despite her fading blip on TV's radar screen, liberals continued their personal campaign against her. One website called the petite blonde crusader "public enemy number one to the gay community, the women's community, and their many allies." A San Francisco city supervisor accused her of "ignorance, heartlessness, and inhumanity." Slate magazine said she was a hypocrite, "full of the weakness and venality she condemns in her callers." And former Rep. Pat Schroeder weighed in by asking: "The pledge of allegiance says, 'With liberty and justice for all.' What part of 'all' is unclear?"
What was unclear to Dr. Laura was the substance of the accusations against her. "It was all lies, taking little soundbites and dramatizing them, re-labeling anything I said as 'hate.' The most horrible part was realizing the media was complicit. That's what gives these fringe groups their power. The media is the megaphone for the Left, so their small point of view became a big issue."
Such a big issue, in fact, that Paramount, the distributor of the Dr. Laura show, announced on March 30 it was pulling the plug after a seven-month run. "On the one hand I'm relieved, because taping a one-hour show for television and then doing three live hours of radio every day was exhausting," she said in a statement at the time. "On the other hand I'm very proud of the show and sad we won't continue."
Two months later, though the sadness still haunts her eyes, she prefers to focus on the positive. "I like my life so much better now. I get my kidlet off to school at 6 a.m., and I don't go on the air until noon, so I've got plenty of time. I write books. I got a new bicycle made out of titanium, so I can do hills more easily. I make jewelry.... I always have stuff to do, but I sort of like having my mornings back.
"I really didn't like doing a taped show," she insists. "It took 4 H hours to do an hour-long show. It takes three hours to do a three-hour radio show. I like that much better."
With some of her free time, Dr. Laura is redoubling her efforts on behalf of the charitable foundation she started in 1998. It was then, while working with Childhelp USA, that she learned of some 100,000 abused and neglected children each year who enter shelters and foster care agencies, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. "These kids who are rescued from abuse and neglect at home, they have nothing. So we give them these things we call 'My Stuff' bags, because everyone should have their own 'stuff.'
"We've got toys and clothes and blankets and toiletries and all sorts of wonderful things that people donate or even make themselves. That's what's been wonderful about it-there's been so much personal effort so that when the kids get these bags they know that somebody cared. It isn't just some machine that made a thing to give to them. The bag is put together, it's stuffed by volunteers, by people who care."
To fund the effort to distribute approximately 30,000 My Stuff bags a year, Dr. Laura donates all of her speaking fees to the foundation that bears her name. She solicits donations on the air, and listeners respond to the tune of $5,000 to $10,000 a month. And she hand-crafts necklaces from bits and pieces picked up in her travels, then sells the finished product at charity auctions. So far this year, the jewelry business alone has raised $60,000 for the My Stuff program.
Yet for all the good it does, the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Foundation can sometimes get spattered with the mud thrown at its founder. "At the height of our controversy, there were actually some shelters that refused-refused-the bags because of their personal animus towards me," she says, leaning forward in her chair at the memory of the slight. "They actually would begrudge children these bags for their little social statement. I thought that was egregious."
The story comes out of nowhere, completely unsolicited. Dr. Laura wants to talk about the future, but it's obvious that the past still stings. "It had nothing to do with the content of the bags," she continues. "The Left personalizes things. They go after people. We go after ideas, they go after people. They were willing to hurt the children [in order to] make a statement about rejecting anything that had to do with me. How sick is that?"
The moment passes and she's back on message, talking about her love of radio. "I'm influencing a lot of people to do the right things in their lives, and that is very rewarding. No matter how I'm feeling or what mood I'm in, when I turn on the microphone, I'm in heaven. I'm doing what I believe I was meant to be doing. And I don't believe any one of us has the right or the luxury to cast that aside when God gives us the direction."
Every day, she says, she gets multiple letters from listeners whose lives she has touched. "I'm staying home with my kids now because of you. I didn't have an abortion because of you. I got married because of you. So yeah, it's working."
She's on a roll, counting her blessings. Then the smile fades for a moment and her jaw sets. Though she isn't supposed to be talking about it-though a reporter wouldn't dare ask about it-the ugliness of the past impinges once again on the present. "I guess if I had any delusions of wanting it to come easy, they're gone," she says with a hollow laugh. "They're way gone."
One day, the pain of the public flogging she endured may itself be "way gone." But not yet. For all her emphasis on putting principles over feelings, Dr. Laura does have the latter, and they've been hurt.
Even if she doesn't want to talk about it.