Republican Like Him

Ken Stern is the former CEO of National Public Radio. His 2008 ouster from NPR was reported here. Having moved on from NPR, Stern took time out to spend a year among nonlisteners in flyover country. Let’s call it country music America. He explains:

Spurred by a fear that red and blue America were drifting irrevocably apart, I decided to venture out from my overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood and engage Republicans where they live, work and pray. For an entire year, I embedded myself with the other side, standing in pit row at a NASCAR race, hanging out at Tea Party meetings and sitting in on Steve Bannon’s radio show. I found an America far different from the one depicted in the press and imagined by presidents (“cling to guns or religion”) and presidential candidates (“basket of deplorables”) alike.

Stern calls the people he met during his year inside country music America “his new friends.” He has summarized his findings in the misleadingly headlined New York Post column “Former NPR CEO opens up about liberal media bias.”

Stern’s column provides a preview of his new book about his exploration of country music America. The new book is to be published tomorrow with the title Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.

I love the title. It is witty and audacious. It alludes of course to John Howard Griffin’s classic Black Like Me, originally published in 1960. An enterprising southern journalist in the era of Jim Crow, Griffin worked with a dermatologist to darken his skin so that he might answer the question that possessed him: “What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?” Griffin answered with a rhetorical question: “How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?” To “bridge the gap,” Griffin decided he would “become a Negro.”

It’s an unforgettable book. It remains imprinted on my mind more than 50 years after reading it and it seems still actually to be in print. In a look back at the book for Smithsonian in 2010, Bruce Watson reported that it is assigned in many high schools. More recently, Tim Stanley recalled Griffin’s book in the Telegraph column “The white man who pretended to be black.”

I take it that Stern required no pretense to conduct his research; he simply needed basic journalistic curiosity. He had to turn up with an open mind and an open heart. With its allusion to Griffin, the title is misleading to that extent and moreover seems likely to turn off those among the NPR crowd who are unfamiliar with Griffin’s book. Will they discern the implication that the author is not in fact Republican?

Perhaps the book is aimed more at readers like me. I certainly wonder how country music America looks to one of the cognoscenti venturing into country music America with an open mind.


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