On December 1, 1977, the city council of Cincinnati, Ohio, chose Jerry Springer as the city’s new mayor.
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Most of us today know Jerry Springer as the host of a long-running, eponymous TV freak show that specializes in bringing out the very worst in its guests. But before Springer became the “Ringmaster,” as he titled his 1998 autobiography, of a show that he himself has described as, “an hour of escapism [with] no real value," he was a lawyer and political activist, a liberal-Democratic local politician in Cincinnati, and a TV news anchor who won seven local Emmy awards for his thoughtful daily commentary.
Gerald Norman Springer was born on February 13, 1944, in the Highgate tube station in London. During World War II, the station did double duty as a bomb shelter, where his parents, the former Margot Kalmann and Richard Springer, during German air raids on the city. Margot and Richard – she an art teacher, he the owner of a shoe store -- were both Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Both of Jerry’s grandmothers, among other family members, died in the Holocaust.
In January 1949, the family, which also included a younger sister, Evelyn, emigrated to Queens, New York, where Jerry attended Forest Hills High School.
Springer earned a B.A. from Tulane University, in New Orleans, in 1965, and followed that with a law degree from Northwestern three years later. That was followed by a stint working on the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, which came to a tragic end in June of 1968, with Kennedy’s assassination.
It wouldn't be long before Springer himself entered politics. Soon after joining a law firm in Cincinnati, he launched a campaign to unseat the Republican incumbent representing Ohio’s 2nd district in U.S. Congress in 1970, Donald D. Clancy.
Clancy was reelected by a margin of 16 percent, but for a newcomer, Springer’s showing was respectable. And the next year, he was back, running for, and winning election to Cincinnati’s city council.
One of Springer’s first acts as councilman was to introduce a bill that would have abolished the drafting of Cincinnati residents for service in Vietnam, which, had it passed, would have been a purely symbolic act, since it was the federal government that oversaw Selective Service.
Who, me bounce a check?
Springer resigned from the council in 1974, after a police raid of a massage parlor in Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, turned up a check signed by him. Springer publicly acknowledged that he had frequented a prostitute – though he denied reports that the check had bounced – and stepped down.
The public apparently appreciated his honesty. In 1975, it returned him to city council by a landslide. In those years, it was the council, rather than a popular vote, that determined who the mayor would be, and in 1977, the council selected Springer for a one-year term.
A 1982 run for the Democratic nomination for Ohio governor failed and Springer soon retooled as a TV news journalist, first with daily commentary and then as the anchorman of the news for Cincinnati’s TV station WLWT. His presence lifted the newscast’s ratings from last place to the top, and his commentary segment earned him three local Emmy awards.
When Springer began hosting a daily talk show nationally, in 1991, it grappled with serious topics, much like the Phil Donahue Show, on which it was modeled. After three years, however, and a move to Chicago, he and his producers revamped the show into its more familiar format.
Sinking to the occasion
Several times in the interim, he has explored running for the U.S. Senate, but decided against it, and an attempt to return to serious news commentary at one point was not well received by the public.
But as the host of a show once described by Slate magazine as “an endless parade of losers, perverts, and exhibitionists,” who are encouraged to sink, rather than rise, to the occasion, a show whose individual episodes have borne such titles as “Lesbian Threesome with Mom” and “I Married a Horse,” Springer continues to demonstrate that you can’t lose by underestimating the public’s taste for bad taste.