JERRY SPRINGER IS A TALK SHOW HOST, but he might be even better as a talk show guest. "Politicians Who Have Resigned over Sex Scandals," "Parents of Special-Needs Children," "Separated Husbands Who Can't Let Go of Their Wives—Then Finally Do": Hey, Oprah, Phil and Sally, if you've got the topic, Jerry Springer has probably had the problem.

The Jerry Springer Show has become one of the fastest-rising entries in the never-ending gasp track of talk TV. What sets Springer, who was a two-term mayor and popular newscaster, apart from the pack, says Cincinnati Enquirer TV critic John Kiesewetter, is the combination of "the compassionate politician and newsman that we came to know in Cincinnati." Indeed, Springer tends to tackle more serious subjects than do his rivals, e.g., racial strife in a Florida high school or survivors of gang violence. Spawned more than two years ago in Cincinnati, the Chicago-based daily syndicated series now reaches 148 markets covering 87 percent of the country.

On the zeitgeisl scale, Springer scores even higher: Cher is a faithful follower, as is Roseanne Arnold. The show, with guests ranging from Jesse Jackson and Oliver North to occasional low-road acts (giants, psychics, Siamese-twin sisters), has become successful enough that its host, who rose to political power as a liberal Democrat, can crack, "I'm just two paychecks away from being a Republican."

Not that that's likely. Young Gerald Springer was practically weaned on New Deal politics around the family dinner table in the New York City borough of Queens. His parents, Richard and Margot (now both deceased), had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939 and settled in London, where Jerry and his older sister, Evelyn, now 54 and a language teacher, were born. He was 5 when the family emigrated to the U.S. While his father prospered making and selling stuffed animals and his mother worked as a bank clerk, Jerry was happily becoming Americanized. He particularly relished discarding the blue shorts, bow lie and beret he wore on the firs I day of school in favor of less distinctive attire.

By the time he graduated from Forest Hills High School and enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans, he had become a full-fledged member of the civil rights and antiwar generation. In 1969, after graduating from law school at Northwestern, he joined a Cincinnati law firm and became active in a local referendum seeking to lower the voting age in Ohio to 19.

The referendum failed, but Springer's speechmaking impressed area Democrats. At 25, he ran for Congress. "I was licked off about the war," he says. Curiously, three days after his announcement. Springer, an Army reservist, was called to active duty and sent to Fort Knox, Ky.; it was likely just a coincidence that his opponent, five-term incumbent Rep. Don Clancy, sat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Upon his discharge four months later, Springer resumed his bid for Clancy's seat, only to lose by a modest margin.

In 1971 he won a city council seat and two years later earned enough reelection votes to be named vice-mayor. Then, in 1973, he married Micki Velten, an administrative aide for Procter & Gamble, whom he had met on a blind date in 1969. Both his marriage and his political career were severely tested when Springer's sex life got in the way of his ambition. In December 1973 and again the following January, Springer had ventured across the Ohio River to a Kentucky massage parlor, where he employed the services of a prostitute. After vice cops discovered his secret, Springer sweated blood. "I thought, 'Oh, Jesus, I'm going to be blackmailed,' " he says. "I realized that I couldn't live my life with that hanging over my head, so I told my wife and my family, and then I told her family."

His confessions didn't end there. He resigned his political post and, at a 1974 press conference, told stunned reporters why. But his honesty worked for him: In 1977, Springer received more votes than any other councilman, and thus, under local law, became mayor. He was 33. Among other accomplishments, he paved the way for a new jail system and brought rock and roll to Riverfront Stadium.

He says his toughest decision came when a Nazi group petitioned his office for a permit to march in a local parade. Even though his parents had lost friends and relatives in concentration camps, Springer, a staunch First Amendment advocate, allowed the Nazis to march. He says his parents' advice was, "Go ahead—this is America. Give the Nazis a lot of publicity, and people will sec how vile they are."

By far the greatest personal trial in Springer's life, though, was the arrival of his only child, Katie, in 1976. She was born legally blind, deaf in one ear and without nasal passages. When she was an infant, Jerry and Micki had to clean out her nose every night with a lengthy tube. "That's the end of the sad story," says Springer. "The happy story is that she is a bright, exceptional kid who has really overcome a lot."

Now 17, Katie has learned to make out shapes and colors. A junior in a public high school, she is popular with her classmates and handles her physical challenges with self-deprecating humor. But she has also had to cope with the breakup of her parents' marriage, a subject Springer himself still finds difficult to discuss. He and Micki, 48, were separated for nearly four years. Both have now filed for divorce. "My heart just wasn't in it anymore," he says.

Springer's career waxed as his marriage waned. After stepping down as mayor in 1981 and losing a gubernatorial primary in 1982, he went to work as a commentator for Cincinnati TV's Channel 5, WLWT. Within five years Channel 5 was No. 1 in the local ratings. Even after launching his talk show in 1991 and moving it to Chicago a year later, he continued commuting to Cincinnati to deliver the news until the routine simply proved too exhausting. Besides, by that lime he had made his mark in Chicago. In October 1992, the new kid was invited to appear with fellow TV gabbers Sally Jessy Raphael, Larry King and Montel Williams on Phil Donahue's 25th-anniversary special. Thai's when Oprah Winfrey offered to show Springer around town, and he responded by asking for her autograph. He still sounds a bit awestruck, in fact. "When I ran for political office," Springer reflects, "I wasn't scared—I always knew what I was talking about. But this is scary. I'm competing against some pretty major people. I don't want to screw up."

MARK GOODMAN
SUE CARSWELL in Chicago and Cincinnati

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Carswell.