Inside the Savage Nation

He adored beatniks, trolled the streets of North Beach in a beret, and was once Timothy Leary's gatekeeper, and now he packs a gun.

Michael Savage is angry. He's angry at the President of the United States. He's angry at Time magazine. He's angry at CNN. And he's super-angry at Congressman Jack Murtha.

The object of the San Francisco-based radio talker's wrath is a fresh report out of Iraq about the U.S. military's detention of several Marines suspected of massacring Iraqi civilians last October. A caller to his nationally syndicated show who purports to be the father of one of the soldiers is convinced his son is being railroaded and claims that he is being held in "shackles" in a U.S. military jail near Baghdad without formal charges brought against him.

Savage is ballistic.

He contemptuously replays a sound bite in which President Bush, after weeks of silence on the issue, can be heard saying that if crimes were committed, those responsible will be brought to justice. To Savage, Bush is "pandering" and "selling out our boys." Tim McGirk, the Timejournalist who first reported the story, "should be arrested," he declares. The same goes for CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who has also covered it, and for Murtha, the "despicable" Pennsylvania Democrat and war critic, who has decried the incident.

"If I were running things, [McGirk] would be in shackles; Wolf Blitzer would be in shackles; Jack Murtha would be in shackles," he bellows. "I'd make them prove that they're not working for the enemy, taking the enemy's word for everything and putting our poor boys behind bars."

As the frenzied monologue nears a close — after all, it's time for a commercial — Savage concludes that the "traitor" Murtha, a decorated ex-Marine whom he has previously likened to human excrement, is "either a communist or insane, or both."

It's the opening salvo of The Savage Nation, which may be the only radio show in America that comes with a disclaimer: "Warning: This show contains adult language, adult content, psychological nudity. Listener discretion is advised."

No kidding.

Those who dare disagree with Savage on-air are apt to be dismissed as "vermin" and get the treatment reserved for the caller with a Brooklyn accent who — rather mildly — suggests that maybe the host is being too harsh on Murtha. For that, he's berated as "street slime from the gutters of Brooklyn." Then there is Dejon from San Francisco, whose infraction is having broached a subject that the moody Savage isn't in the mood to talk about. "Dejon Mustard, go put yourself on a hot dog and devour yourself and leave me alone," he intones.

Three years ago, after he was canned by MSNBC for telling a caller to his fledgling cable TV show to "get AIDS and die, you pig," some people were saying that the combative, arch-conservative talk-show host and author of red-meat political diatribes was washed up. But that was four New York Times best-sellers ago. His latest book, The Political Zoo, a kind of walk through the jungle of mostly liberal political animals that this unlikeliest of San Francisco provocateurs loves to hate, hits bookstore shelves in the spring.

Having just re-upped as pontificator-in-chief at KNEW (910 AM), the retooled talk station owned by Clear Channel Communications — and his radio home base — Savage and his anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Democrat, anti-liberal-media message appear never to have enjoyed more street cred among the faithful.

His syndicated show, which has nudged past 400 stations coast-to-coast and claims 8 million listeners, places him in the vanguard of an increasingly crowded field of conservative talkers, behind only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (or, in Savage-speak, Hush Bimbo and Sean Vanity).

Unlike them and other "Bushbots," as he calls them, whose stars have dimmed along with Bush's fading poll numbers, Savage can never be accused of toeing the administration line. For one thing, Bush is too liberal for him. Although Limbaugh and Hannity command larger national audiences, Savage cleans their clocks in his hometown market, making him by far the most listened-to — not to mention acerbic — radio talker in the Bay Area.

It's a neat trick for a once mild-mannered botanist and North Beach hipster who counted none other than Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the late Allen Ginsberg among his pals when he was still using his real name: Michael Weiner.

Few things about Savage's pre-radio past could have presaged his rise as perhaps the far right's most vocal on-air ambassador. Not his adulation of Ginsberg. Not the fact that he once trolled the streets of Greenwich Village and, later, North Beach, in a beret. Or that the staunch anti-abortionist's first wife had two abortions during their marriage. And certainly not the fact that he was once Timothy Leary's gatekeeper at the LSD experimenter's farm.

"Love him or hate him, Michael is absolutely at the top of his game," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkersmagazine, which chronicles the radio talk-show world.

His daily three-hour program has added dozens of new stations in the last 18 months. His screeds continue to fly off bookstore shelves. Sources say that his unique syndication deal through Talk Radio Network — the Oregon outfit that also produces talker Laura Ingraham and a bevy of lesser-known conservatives — enables Savage to rake in several millions of dollars annually from the radio show alone.

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