POLITICS MARCH 17, 2010
It’s roughly two weeks shy of the September 12 march on Washington, and Glenn Beck is distraught. Behind him on the cavernous Fox News set is Beck’s familiar dry-erase board, upon which various insults are written in Beck’s looping print. “This is what people have said about me just this week ... the blogs and everything else,” Beck says, before proceeding to tick off a few: hysterical, cult leader, shameless opportunist. There’s a quaver in Beck’s voice and a familiar dewiness in his eyes when the host finally sits down next to Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and Fox News contributor with a gleaming Lex Luthor pate. How, Beck asks Ablow, should he respond to ravings like these?
Ablow’s answer to Beck is immediate and emphatic, delivered with crisp hand gestures and a faint but noticeable New England accent. Think of your critics as drug addicts, Ablow suggests, before changing gears and exhorting Beck to be strong. “We need leaders to be willing to say, ‘You know what, I’ll take the pain.’” Ablow’s arms briefly go cruciform. Beck nods. “And you gotta know who your friends are,” Ablow continues before adding, softly, “and I’m one of your friends.” Beck’s murmured, emotional “thank you” arrives moments later.
Beck then pivots toward the camera, bright of eye and apparently rejuvenated. He proclaims that “some things are worth standing up for” before thanking Ablow and charging into the commercial break. For Ablow, the in-house psychiatrist at Fox News, it has been another successful session.
Fox News is awash in experts like Ablow: retired judges, generals, or CIA agents willing to serve as well-credentialed sidekicks for the network’s roster of demagogues. But what makes Ablow so valuable to the network are those two little letters after his name, M.D. He can stamp his medical imprimatur--he’s “America’s psychiatrist,” according to himself--on just about any right-wing political narrative.
Need someone to racialize the president’s insufficient display of emotion after the Fort Hood killings? Here’s Ablow on Beck’s program: “The things that apparently move him and lead to his core really being tapped are when people he feels are being wronged and there is either a minority group or disadvantaged group that he feels should be elevated. ... This was a big, big window on the man’s soul.” Need a prescription for a strike on Iran? Here’s Ablow on his Fox News health blog comparing Ahmadinejad to people in the locked ward of Massachusetts’s Lemuel Shattuck Hospital: “Psychiatric patients at the brink of violence are not comforted by nor dissuaded from that violence, by quiet speech or bargaining. They are comforted by a show of force.” Or how about a board-certified bit of advice on the administration’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York? “[T]he entire population of Manhattan and the cities immediately surrounding it can be expected to experience symptoms consistent with the reawakening of the terror of September 11. … They may experience low mood, insomnia, flashbacks, or nightmares.”
In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before Ablow and Fox found each other. Though he mostly played it straight early in his career--a degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, a grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, bylines in The Washington Post and Newsweek--there were always signs that he was a different kind of psychiatrist. In a profession that has valued gray areas since Sigmund Freud defined neurosis as “the inability to tolerate ambiguity,” Ablow--like any good conservative culture warrior--believes in the Truth, capital T. For Ablow, Truth is both his singular objective and the center of his personal brand. His 2007 self-help book is titled Living the Truth, as is the website for the online self-help community he created around it, and he uses the word with a frequency most people reserve for personal pronouns.
“People who think there is no such thing as objective Truth are just running from it,” Ablow says. It’s a line pulled straight out of Bill Bennett’s anti-relativist playbook. It’s also a TV producer’s dream. Ablow’s supreme confidence in his ability to ascertain the Truth in matters big and small, and on a timetable owing more to the 24-hour news cycle than psychoanalysis, allows him to riff on just about any subject quickly and confidently. Take his explanation of Octomom to Bill O’Reilly (“I think what she wants is unlimited love”) or his analysis of reality starlet Heidi Montag’s freaky plastic surgery overhaul (“She’s really suffering--that’s also the breeding ground for heroin, for alcohol and every other addiction”).
“If I seem to say things with certainty, it comes from being able to register underlying truths that I feel very clearly about,” he says. “I don’t accept that these ideas have to be relegated to analysts’ couches or therapists’ basement offices. That’s the stuff of stigma.”
In response, what he’s seemingly chosen to do is insta-diagnose everyone, one high-profile media hit at a time. He’s been known to appear on Tyra Banks’s talk show, Howard Stern’s radio show, and the pages of Good Housekeeping. He’s also a contributing editor to Men’s Fitness, a frequent expert witness at splashy criminal trials, and the author of six thrillers starring forensic psychiatrist Frank Clevenger.
But, befitting someone who wants psychiatry to reach as many people as possible, he knows television is where he needs to be. His first attempt to break into the medium didn’t take: “Expert Witness,” a 2003 dramatic pilot Ablow wrote that would’ve been a vehicle for Matthew Modine, wasn’t picked up by CBS. He tried again with “The Dr. Keith Ablow Show,” which premiered in 2006 and featured him speed-analyzing guests before a studio audience of 150. The syndicated show was canceled after one season, but Ablow’s on-camera skills made an influential fan in Fox News chief Roger Ailes. “All I can say is [he] never asked me whether I was a conservative or liberal before hiring me,” Ablow tells me. “No one at Fox has ever suggested I advance one political philosophy or another on psychological grounds.”
Was Ailes in danger of hiring a liberal, then? “My politics are basically the politics of reality,” Ablow says.
In Glenn Beck, Ablow has found the perfect benefactor and a remarkably compelling patient, too. Glenn Beck’s show, despite its apocalyptic trappings, is as touchy-feely a show as there is. Nobody on cable news cries as much, emotes as extravagantly, or leans as heavily on the vocabulary of personal betterment. In fact, it’s hard to imagine another talk-show host more in need of a resident mental-health professional. But Ablow needs Beck, too. He can appear off-kilter, leaden even, around Fox’s other hosts, particularly O’Reilly, whose ostentatiously working-class shtick demands that he approach psychiatric evaluation as something for over-educated sissies.
Beck, on the other hand, welcomes it. He refers to Ablow as “a friend of mine ... a world-renowned psychiatrist, a reasonable, reasonable man.” Ablow returns the favor by appearing congenitally unable to disagree with Beck, his affirming coos of “that’s exactly right, Glenn” often overlapping with the end of Beck’s questions.
Take a representative exchange from last summer, around the time of Obama’s beer summit with Sergeant James Crowley and Henry Louis Gates. Beck, plaintive as can be, asks Ablow a question like, “Keith, am--am I jumping the gun here? I just see this ACORN thing and also the thing at the White House as a sign [Obama] has real issues with race, real issues.” Ablow pooh-poohs Beck’s concerns before offering his medical opinion, “Unfortunately--and I really mean it, Glenn--unfortunately, I have to agree with you. I don’t think you’re jumping the gun.” They then go back and forth a couple times, each exchange growing increasingly manic, until stuff like this starts coming out of Ablow’s mouth: “The president needs to look at himself and say, ‘Do I have prejudice that I wasn’t even aware of, perhaps, towards white people?’” And then, later: “And another thing, Glenn, the president who has an overweight woman as his candidate for surgeon general shouldn’t be having people over for beers if he’s still smoking. Because there we got a triad of the most dangerous health effects in the world, and he’s putting forward a national health care agenda.”
If Ablow tends to second Beck’s opinions--and gloss over real medical evaluation in favor of hyper-partisanship--perhaps it’s because there’s a strong commercial incentive for obsequiousness: Beck’s shows make a terrific marketing platform. Ablow’s Living the Truth sold well, but, considering that Beck was able to catapult comparatively obscure thriller writers to the top of the best-seller list with just a few on-air plugs, Ablow’s upcoming projects--“Right now I am writing a proposal for a nonfiction book about our culture and collective psychology,” Ablow says, “I’m also working up a proposal for a companion novel to address the same subject matter”--should benefit mightily from Beck’s approval.
Of course, Beck’s endorsement might also do Ablow some good were he to choose another career path. In late January, the New York Post’s Page Six reported that Ablow had dinner with Republican svengali Roger Stone in New York and that Stone has begun pumping Ablow as a challenger for John Kerry’s Senate seat in 2014. “‘Doc,’ as we would call him, would be the first doctor and first psychiatrist in the Senate,” Stone told Ablow’s hometown paper in Newburyport, Massachusetts, the Daily News. “He can talk on television and radio, and politics largely today is communication.”
An Ablow campaign might be complicated somewhat by the fact that he donated money to Kerry back in 1998 and later attended a fundraiser at the home of the senator, but the doctor allows that his “ideas have evolved a little bit since then.”
“All that’s developed is that people call the office to volunteer and donate money,” Ablow explains. “I learned a long time ago that to talk about things four years from now was folly.” He’s right, of course, but, when the time comes to make up his mind, Ablow probably won’t keep his audience waiting long for an answer.
David Roth is a writer in New York.