Virtual Voices

The darndest TV star

Entertainment

The basics of the life and death---on Wednesday at age 97--- of Art Linkletter were widely reported in the mainstream media. That's only fitting, as he did more than just about anyone to shape the form, if not the content, of modern media. His House Party program began on radio in 1944 and moved to television in 1954---where it stayed until 1969.

That program made Linkletter one of the most famous men in America to baby boomers and their parents. But he actually had been on television since the late 1940s. Many families in the post-war era got their first TV sets and could pick up Art Linkletter and little else. Indeed, if the word "television pioneer" can be applied to anyone, it is Linkletter.

But the mainstream media tended to neglect Linkletter's behind-the-scenes role in the rise of the conservative movement. He was an entrepreneur and free-market advocate who made millions in television, and millions more outside of medium, as the author of 20 books, several of which were national bestsellers (Kids Say the Darnedest Things and Old Age Is Not for Sissies), and in business ventures that ranged from commodities trading to hula hoops.

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His public persona, as an affable TV host, was mostly apolitical through the 1940s and '50s. But he was a supporter of Ronald Reagan through the '60s, and his image took on a new dimension when his daughter died of a drug-related suicide in 1970. He spoke out more forcefully against drugs and against what he called the "moral decline" of the country, and President Nixon appointed him to an anti-drug commission. He put his money and his celebrity status to work for conservative causes and the Republican Party. When the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) began to champion liberal political causes, he became a spokesman for a conservative alternative to AARP called USA Next. He also served on the board of Pepperdine University, a Christian college in Malibu, Calif., near his home.

When he gave speeches to conservative groups---which he often did---he was usually introduced to audiences, many of whom were too young to see him in his heyday, by a reel of TV clips showing him with Reagan and other conservative icons. These clips established his conservative "bona fides" and invariably "fired up" the groups. But the speeches themselves were the true "highlight reel." Into his mid-90s, he would speak in a forceful and polished tone, for a half-hour or more, with no notes whatsoever. He reveled crowds with anecdotes of Reagan and the early days of television, but---in true show-biz "leave 'em laughing, leave 'em crying" fashion---he would close with words of appreciation for the group he was speaking to, and he would exhort them to even greater sacrifice and commitment.

Linkletter himself, who was abandoned as an infant and adopted and raised by a preacher, was self-effacing about his accomplishments. He often said his greatest achievement was his 74-year marriage to wife, Lois, who survives him. By Hollywood standards, or any other, it was a rare feat, indeed.

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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