Lately it seems as if every syndicated TV or radio talk host is automatically given a book contract, regardless of whether he actually has anything in particular to say. After all, publishers calculate, even a small audience for broadcast is a bigger than the average fan base of an author, so why not tap in?
So, we get Bill O'Reilly's intellectually inconsistent populism, partisan hack Sean Hannity's ravings about fields in which he has no expertise and Jon Stewart's attempts to appear intellectual and hip by using phony cynicism.
Michael Medved, however, is a whole other story in that he was a best-selling and highly regarded author long before turning to broadcast media. In "Right Turns," Medved reveals that he became a prominent critic of pop culture largely by accident.
After the huge success of his first book, "Whatever Happened to the Class of 1965," and his contributions to the popular "People's Almanac," Medved was working on three book projects.
The least of them - or so he thought -was "The 50 Worst Films of All Time," which became a runaway bestseller. That led him to "The Golden Turkey Awards" and, ultimately, his long stint on "Sneak Previews."
The other big difference between Medved's book and the others is its tone. "Right Turns" is no harsh polemic - if anything, Medved resists too many great opportunities to ridicule people on the other side of the political fence.
For example: Barbra Streisand, who was rediscovering her Jewish roots period while making "Yentl," asked Medved to be technical adviser on the movie and, in effect, her son's bar mitzvah.
"Yentl," of course, became notorious as a vanity project, and most of Medved's advice was ignored. While he could have taken some really funny and personal shots at Streisand here, you have to read between the lines for the self-satire that the diva falls into.
Like a few other commentators, such as David Horowitz, Medved started out on the political left as a young man. Even then, however, he stayed out of the gutter, such as at a Streisand dinner party where he refused to accept the Hollywood elite's characterization of Gerald Ford as "semi-retarded."
At times, however, political types incur Medved's wrath, more over their hypocrisy than their views. Most notably, he once worked for Ron Dellums, a radical congressman from California, which almost beat his enthusiasm for politics out of him. He found Dellums to be a phony and an America-hater to an extent that was unusual even for the 1960s and '70s.
At Yale, Medved was very involved in student politics, organizing anti-war rallies. Early on, though, he cautioned his organizations not to belittle the troops or engage in anti-American rhetoric. He even went so far as to organize alternative rallies to the nastier radical groups. One of his allies in this effort was none other than Hillary Clinton, whom he describes as a genuine and generous person who was like a den mother to many.
However, he almost quit campus politics after a meeting with the pompous John Kerry, whose obvious John F. Kennedy affectations were a bit of a campus joke. Medved and a friend worried that gaining a leadership role might turn them into similarly arrogant snobs.
One of the most gripping chapters in the book details Medved's role in Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign in California that culminated in a front row seat for the assassination. Both the joy of Kennedy's victory and tragedy of his murder are exhilarating reading.
If "Right Turns" has a fault, it's that Medved too often self-consciously answers questions that begin, "How did a nice Jewish boy like you …?"
This is especially intrusive in the first few chapters, when I nearly tossed the book. Medved tells the story of his family's emigration from Eastern Europe, stopping on nearly every page to deliver homilies on how this relates to the American experience. While I agreed with every point, I couldn't imagine going through 400 pages of this Fortunately, he soon finds a readable rhythm.
Medved's experience is more one of evolution than conversion. Like a growing number of Americans, he became more conservative because of two things: He began to take his religion seriously, and the deal was clinched by fatherhood.
"Right Turns" is not as dramatic as the stories, say, of Horowitz or Whitaker Chambers. He was not a communist who had been trying to overthrow the government or even flirted with totally radical politics.
However, that also makes his experience easier to relate to. Medved is engaging throughout and is a welcome, thoughtful presence in today's political writing, which too often lapses into shrill pamphleteering.