Written by: Craig Heimbuch
Who the Hell does Bill Cunningham Think He is?
And other questions you’ve always wanted to ask The Great American
By Greg Hoard
Like it or not, Bill Cunningham is the most influential member of the media in the Tri-State area. Each day, Cunningham takes his 50,000-watt pulpit and brandishes a particular brand of conservative politics and humor to 200,000 listeners. He is the self-proclaimed â€śVoice of the Common Man,â€ť speaking â€śtruth to powerâ€ť and he loves every minute of it.
He is the top-rated radio talk show host in the area in his time slot (12-to-3:00 p.m.) and the only local broadcaster in the country whose ratings top those of nationally syndicated political commentator Rush Limbaugh.
He is an economical goldmine for WLW and has been recognized as one of the most influential people in the entire community.
He is highly sought after for speaking engagements and fund-raising events, known far and wide, from the blue-collar bars of Cheviot to the country clubs of Indian Hill.
Depending on whom you ask, Bill Cunningham is truly â€śa great American,â€ť or a complete, self-serving ass.
In the following interview, we discuss all this and more, including the puzzling, devilish matter ofâ€”â€śWho is Bill Cunningham?â€ť
In the end, weâ€™re not even sure he knows who he is. Sample this interview and draw your conclusions.
Cincinnati Gentlemen: You are a self-proclaimed great American.
Bill Cunningham: I am a great American.
CG: What constitutes recognition as a great American? What are the qualities necessary?
BC: I think the great American term, which was picked up by my buddy Sean Hannity and for which he hasnâ€™t paid me royalty rights, although he said he will. The Great Americanâ€™s I know are from Deer Park and from Independence and from Hamilton. Theyâ€™re just hardworking schleps, blue color guy who cares for his family who doesnâ€™t cheat on wife, pays his taxes and raises good kids. And a great American is seldom a rich person because rich people are so vilified in American society that you canâ€™t recognize them. If you want a job, you canâ€™t go to a poor guy, you go to a rich guy and say hire me. But I think a great American is somebody who plays by the rules, goes to church, keeps a low profile and defends our way of life. And Iâ€™ve known many in my life including my mother, who only had a grade school education. She cleaned toilets, she worked in restaurants a lot of her life and she simply lived her life quietly and humbly and morally, and I consider her to be a great American.
But on the other hand, Carl Linder and Richard and Robert came out of UDF in Norwood. They had this dream of taking fresh milk from the country and selling it in little stores. Carl Lindner and that whole family are great Americans because their kids are good, they are good, they give away lot of money, but I think of a great American, I think of people like John Wayne, I think of John Glenn when he was an astronaut, I think of Ronald Reagan. Great Americans just make the nation better having lived in it.
CG: Are Great Americans becoming a minority?
BC: Absolutely. You know that when you have–across America–about 25 percent of our children are born without fathers in the home. In urban areas you have 70-90 percent are born without fathers in the home. I didnâ€™t have much of a father, but I had a great Mom and great kids come from good families and we have so few family formation is often not required.
In the black community it is called â€śmy baby daddy.â€ť You donâ€™t have fathers raising sons, you donâ€™t have that anymoreâ€¦When I grew up, we didnâ€™t have a car, didnâ€™t have a TV set. We were on party lines on the phone. Kids growing up today, they have what â€“ HDTV? They have to have several cars. They have to have all the bells and whistles, all the Blackberries. So, the expectations are so much different. You pursue the almighty dollar more than the higher values of life.
Right now, the American Dream, I think, is at risk because too many people look toward government to solve their problems, taxes are too high, so you have to have two parents working and its much more difficult to succeed today because of pornography and because of permissiveness, because of the internet and because of influences in a childâ€™s life which are so negative.
CG: What is the state of this country as you see it right now?
BC: Two problems are going to happen which will, eventually, I think destroy this nation. One is the debt crisis that weâ€™re in. We owe about $10 trillion presently around the world in national debt. And according to the control of the currency, we have $55 trillion of unfunded promises coming to American citizens. We canâ€™t afford it. But the politicians donâ€™t tell us we canâ€™t afford it. The politicians promise more things for less cost all the time. Obama is running around saying 95 percent of the American people are going to get tax cuts despite the fact that he has $700 billion more in spending programs. So, the debt crisis is a serious and tractable difficulty and the math will get you in the end.
Secondly, the southern border. When we cannot control our borders and we have 12-20 million illegals running around America, that number is going to become 30-40 million. The children of illegalsâ€¦grew up with a different viewpoint of America. Itâ€™s not â€śFather Knows Bestâ€ť or its not the â€śBill Cosby Show.â€ť Itâ€™s something entirely different.
CG: Iâ€™m a little surprised you didnâ€™t mention the oil crisis.
BC: I think its temporary. Americans will find a way out of this. The oil is a crisis, everything is a crisis in the viewpoint of the media. But I think ultimately the market will find its way whether its hybrids or whether its plug-ins, or whether its alternatives. We will find our way out of the energy crisis, we always do. The media attaches the word â€ścrisisâ€ť to problems in order to make it sound more shrill, and I donâ€™t think the oil crisis long term is that big of a deal.
CG: So, who is going to win the presidential election?
BC: I say (John) McCain, unless something dramatic happens at the end. I donâ€™t think America wants a Bolshevik or a socialist as president. Of course, I could be sadly mistaken.
CG: What about the City?
BC: Well, Cincinnati is at a breaking point of either becoming Indianapolis or Detroit. The City of Cincinnati in the 80â€™s and 90â€™s was more like Detroit. I have more hope for the city now than I have for the last five or 10 years because of whatâ€™s happening on Fountain Square. Many of my friends want to live in the city because of the amenities. Many people in their 50â€™s and 60â€™s who retire want to retire in the City of Cincinnati because of all the culture, the arts, the sport teams, the restaurantsâ€¦and what may happen at the Banks project. And so I have more hope that Cincinnati is going to become Indianapolis and not Detroit than I have had, unless, racial politics continue to take away the forward momentum. One of the worse things going on now is that Chris Smitherman, of the NAACP, sees America thru a racial prism. When you listen to Chris Smitherman, he compares Cincinnati to South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Heâ€™s a clown and a joke. If more people pay attention to him, weâ€™re in trouble. To his credit, (Mayor) Mark Mallory has kept the Smithermans at a distance.
If the city cares about business, I thinkâ€”long termâ€”we are in good shape now. Under Mark Mallory I have hope for the city I didnâ€™t have 20 years ago.
CG: Do you think a Uni-Gov system will ever be adopted here?
BC: The reason why it wonâ€™t be is (Hamilton County Sheriff) Simon Leis, (Auditor) Dusty Rhodes, (Prosecutor) Joe Detersâ€”the Republican leadersâ€”think that the city is a cancerous tumor and (it) is going to make the whole county sick. So the good residents of Sycamore Township, Anderson Township and Green Township are never going to vote to take on the city problems. Part of its racial, but mainly, itâ€™s the behavior of city residents. The great majority of crime is in the city. The great majority of (our) bad schools (are) in the city. Why would you want to partner up with something like that? So, thatâ€™ll never happen. Although I think it should, it would make a lot of sense.
CG: Youâ€™ve been recognized as one of the top-10 most influential people in the city. Whatâ€™s your reaction to that?
BC: Oh, Iâ€™m probably among the top 3 or 4. Itâ€™s because I have 200,000 listeners. They listen to me, and sometimes they pay attention. Iâ€™d rather have them laugh than be informed. I think talk radio ought to make people laugh and have fun. But every now and then it has a role of educating or informing. And, so I like to think I do both, but mainly the best thing someone can say about me is that I am a great entertainerâ€¦ But Iâ€™m only there if the listeners each day say Iâ€™m there. Because unlike other forms of communication, its interactive. I talk, you listenâ€¦I have to entertain. I have to have a character. The Bill Cunningham on the air is not the Bill Cunningham in private. I donâ€™t like crowds, I donâ€™t like going to parties. I donâ€™t like being the life of this or the life of that.
CG: Iâ€™ve seen you uncomfortable in your own restaurant (Willyâ€™s).
BC: I donâ€™t like that. In a sense, I donâ€™t like meeting new people, but on radio when I have on a representative of NOW (National Organization for Women), I can be that other person. But in private, I like being home, right here, watching TV and spending time with my family.
CG: Is being that other person sometimes exhausting?
BC: Absolutely. I donâ€™t like it going into a mall or going to an eventâ€¦I like the fame but Iâ€™d rather not (be recognized). Iâ€™d like to put on a hat and walk aroundâ€¦because I donâ€™t want (people) to know me. I donâ€™t want thatâ€¦You may not know, but there are lots of people in this town that hate me. They really hate me. Its personalâ€¦Iâ€™ve been in situations where I feel like Iâ€™m going to get punched, or Iâ€™m going to get kicked, and I donâ€™t want that.
I want to be left alone. I want to express my opinion. I want to walk out of the (radio station) at three oâ€™clock, and I want to come home. I want to go with my buddies and play golf. I want to be with my wife, my child, my grandkids. I want to be alone. In this business you cannot. People will be yelling and screaming at you in an airport. I donâ€™t like it. I like to be alone.
CG: Have you ever walked in your house and your wife says to you â€śwhat that hell was that all about?â€ť
BC: All the timeâ€¦My wife (Penny) is an appellate judge. Sheâ€™s one of the judges in the state of Ohio that determines what the law is. Penny has a legitimate life. I donâ€™t. Sheâ€™s been a lawyer, a magistrate, a prosecutor and now an appellate judge and a Common Pleas Court Judge. She has real life issues of life and death. I donâ€™t. She doesnâ€™t listen to me. She refuses to listen to me. (Editorâ€™s Note: Penny listens to National Public Radio.) She doesnâ€™t want to know what I doâ€¦She comes home with a foot stack of briefs. She has to read these briefs from lawyers from the biggest law firms in the Midwest and then decide who wins. So, for me to talk about silliness that I do, makes her feel as if Iâ€™m involved in irrelevant activities, which I am. Sheâ€™s relevant, Iâ€™m irrelevant.
Iâ€™ll tell you what happened on the bench with her one time when she was sentencing somebody to prison. Just before she put down the hammer and said youâ€™re going to jail, this defendant said, â€śJudge Cunningham, one other thing before you sentence me.â€ť Penny looked up and said, â€śWhat is it?â€ť He said, â€śCan you get me your husbandâ€™s signature?â€ť And the whole courtroom started laughing. Penny didnâ€™t miss a beat. She looked at him and said, â€śLet me tell what. Youâ€™re going to need my signature a lot more than youâ€™re going to need his.â€ť And she sentenced him to jail.
CG: For every fan you have there are probably one or two people who think you are an ass.
BC: Complete jerk. They think Iâ€™m a buffoon. Iâ€™m harmful, Iâ€™m corrosive, I bring down American culture. I hear it all the time. I get nasty, filthy e-mails from people calling me everything but a white man. You know what I say? The hell with them.
CG: Is that because of your conviction in your purpose?
BC: I really believe certain things very firmly about pro-life, pro-gun, the country, low taxes, less government, illegal alien immigration from the third world, government incompetence, whether its bridges and dikes, bridges in Minnesota, levies and dikes in New Orleans, the government wasting of $10 billion a month in Iraq, building bridges there when we canâ€™t build bridges here.
So, if youâ€™re on the other side of one of my arrows, it hurts and you want to throw it back. So instead of calling me on the air engaging in a battle of wits in which the callers are often unarmed, well, what they will do is send me nasty e-mails, send (WLW Programming Director) Daryl Parks filthy e-mails, or otherwise try to hurt me personally for my political viewpoints. And that is un-American, because I ought to be able to express my viewpoints and you can express yours, but many mean, nasty leftist and some on the right, mainly on the left, donâ€™t want that. They want to shut you up. Which is the fairness doctrine. They want to shut people up they disagree with.
CG: So I take it you are not an ass?
BC: Iâ€™m a God fearing American. Iâ€™m a nice guy. Iâ€™m really a nice guy. But the listeners who have lost political arguments, donâ€™t think so. And so, if youâ€™re a left wing radical extremist, if youâ€™re a Democrat, if youâ€™re a tree hugger, if you think abortion is a sacrament, if you think guns ought to be seized, if you think we donâ€™t have enough illegal aliens in America, Iâ€™m your worst nightmare, so they try to smear you. So, I get that. I just wish we had more civil discourse.
CG: One other allegation thatâ€™s often lobbed your way is that you are racist. How do you respond to that?
BC: Well, its like calling me a Martian. If someone says Iâ€™m a Martian, do I respond to it? If someone says I was born on Saturn? Generally, I donâ€™t respond to that because it is a false charge and those who say it, know itâ€™s falseâ€¦By labeling people a certain way, you diminish their standing and might result in fewer listeners. Political correctness has run amuck and Iâ€™m not a racist, never have been one. Mainly those saying that are the real racists. In other words, itâ€™s a boomerang. One of the greatest artifacts in the world are devices that can be used to accuse someone of being what you are.
CG: Have you ever been threatened?
BC: Oh, I get threats all the time.
CG: To the point that you had to call security or have a bodyguard?
BC: Yeah, Iâ€™ve had that. Clear Channel stepped up many times and escorted me in and out of the building and had security at my house. Yeah, that happens.
CG: How frequently?
BC: Oh, it happened maybe three times in 20 years. People are smarter than that because I turn it over to the FBI and police, and they are pretty good at finding these people out.
CG: Do you have a concealed carry permit?
CG: Iâ€™m surprised.
BC: I donâ€™t want to go through the training for like 16-18 hours. But I have lots of guns. I got 357s. I have a Glock. I have a 12 gauge. I love to shoot. Iâ€™ll go out with some FBI friends of mine who shoot at the range at the airport and I go out to Clermont County and shoot, but I donâ€™t have a concealed carry and I hope I donâ€™t need one, but I wish all Americans were armed. In fact, I think also teachers ought to be armed. And, if you get on a plane, they should hand out guns to everybody. And then there wouldnâ€™t be any problems. I like guns and guns like me.
CG: You lost your mother this past year. Was she absolutely the most formative person in your life?
BC: No question. She had four kids. My father was an alcoholic. He was abusive. He left when I was about 11. She had kids that were 13, 11, nine and four. She had no money and in fact, was left with no money because dad ran up bills. We had debt run up over the top of our eyeballsâ€¦Mom was unemployed and spent the first 20 years of the marriage never working. But she got a job worked outside the home. Each of us worked, at least I did and the older ones, and gave money back to mom, and we kept the family togetherâ€¦We lived humbly and she taught me the value of hard work and she taught me the value of integrity and she taught me to never let the problems in life keep you down.
Mom had an 8th grade education, my older brother John has a Ph.D., I have a Jurist Doctorate Degree, my brother Patrick works at P & G, he has an MBA, and my sister Diane has a college education. Nobody (in the family) before us even went to college or high school, but all of us have advanced degrees because of Mom. So, she set us on the path and it was up to usâ€¦.
Mom gave me the two most important things a parent can give a kid which are roots and wings. We knew we had a homeâ€¦But, we had to find our way in the world.
CG: Did she ever scold you for things you did or said on the air?
BC: All the time. Daniel Pilarczyk, the Archbishop. I skewered him pretty good. Mom and I got into heated arguments and she wouldnâ€™t talk to me for several weeks because she thought I was being disloyal to the Catholic faith. I said, â€śNo, Mom, Pilarczyk was being disloyal to the Catholic Faith.â€ť But we got into arguments about that and about politics all the time and she would offer me insight, she would tell me what to do and what not to do. I didnâ€™t often pay attention but I listened to her because she was my biggest fan and my harshest critic.
CG: Did you ever reconcile with your father?
CG: Sometimes, there is large burden in unfinished business.
BC: I got a call from my Mom when I was in Law School in Toledo in the mid-1970â€™s saying that â€śyour dad called me and he wants to see you.â€ť I said I donâ€™t want to see him. He called Momâ€”this had been 14 years after he left. Heâ€™s got a new life in Illinois. He was under arrest. He had DUIs. He lost jobs at Procter & Gamble and Kroger. Name was in the paper, Bill Cunninghamâ€¦About an hour went by (after his motherâ€™s call), the phone rings and it was my fatherâ€¦And he said, â€śBilly, this is your dad.â€ť I said, â€śYup.â€ť He said, â€śI have to see you, we gotta talk.â€ť I said, â€śI donâ€™t want to see youâ€¦Dad you werenâ€™t a father to me in life, Iâ€™m not going to be a son to you in your death. Iâ€™m not going to do it.â€ť Hung up on him. I understand he tried to call back a couple more times, I didnâ€™t answerâ€¦He died about a month later. And it didnâ€™t hit me until I saw the movie Saving Private Ryan. My dad hit Guadalcanal and some other beaches and from the time he came back in 1945, he had a terrible alcohol problem for 20 years.
He died of lung cancer and pancreatic and liver cancerâ€¦If I would have seen him, would he have said to me, â€śIâ€™m sorry. These are the reasons why I became an alcoholic and was abusive, and badâ€ť?
Thatâ€™s the biggest mistake in my personal life is that I didnâ€™t re-connect with my father and find out the reasons for his behavior. Now that he is dead, Iâ€™ll never knowâ€¦ Now, it is an unopened wound and itâ€™ll never close.
CG: Who is Bill Cunningham?
BC: Iâ€™m a kid from Deer Park who went to Deer Park High School. I went to Xavier and then Toledo Law School. And at the end of my days if somebody would say: â€śhe was one of the best husbands, best dad, best grandfather and the best friend a person could have,â€ť I will have been successful. Because the great and small leave this earthâ€¦and the real value of the human life is whatâ€™s left behind.
CG: One other thing, is a line ever truly available?
BC: Never a line open. Callers are a mechanism of getting the listeners. Callers donâ€™t matter. If I have 200,000 listeners, I might have six callers. If you call a talk show and wait for an hour, you should have an interesting takeâ€¦But Iâ€™m always amazed at how ridiculous so many callers are and they have nothing to say anyway.