A Matter Of Opinion -- When Conservative Commentator Michael Medved Found Himself Attacking The Hollywood Elite On Their Own Turf, He Moved To A Radio Pulpit Here

"Give yourself to the Dark Side, Luke," sneers Darth Vader. "Your friends have fallen into our trap. Their situation is hopeless."

"Never!" Luke Skywalker vows. "I will never turn." But the rage simmers in his soul as he watches the good guys being slaughtered in their battle with the storm troopers.

"Your thoughts betray you," says Vader. "You have a sister. If you will not turn, then perhaps she will!"

"NOOOOOOOO!" cries Skywalker. He seizes his light saber and delivers a ferocious blow, launching his climactic battle against the Dark Side of The Force . . .

FROM HIS SEAT IN the press-only section at the preview showing, Michael Medved watches impassively. Eight-year-old Shayna huddles under one arm, peeking between her fingers at the galactic struggle. Four-year-old Daniel cringes under the other arm, his toy light saber clutched to his chest.

The notebook on Medved's lap is noteless. He won't need it. "Return of the Jedi" is embedded in American culture, and in Medved's.

Minutes later, he's back in the theater lobby, holding forth.

"I'd forgotten how incredibly Wagnerian this film is," he says, his sleepy 4-year-old draped over his shoulder. "The drama, the mythic spectacle, Valkyrie and Valhalla . . . "

This is high praise from a guy who has seen and critiqued virtually every major film released in this country for a generation, and who deeply resents most of them.

Then again, "Return of the Jedi" is an apt metaphor for the continuing cultural journey that has carried Medved back and forth across the nation, from Eugene McCarthy to Rush Limbaugh, from the New Left to the New Right, from a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia to the homes of the Hollywood elite.

And finally to Seattle, where Medved hopes to fulfill his destiny to become a Jedi warrior in the continuing struggle for the soul of America.

To that end, this nationally-known commentator and film critic has become the latest addition to the line-up of talkmeisters at KVI-AM (570) radio. With seven books, a nationally syndicated TV program, regular substitute gigs for Rush Limbaugh and a busy national lecture circuit, Medved is certainly KVI's biggest catch so far.

It remains to be seen whether Medved's unique blend of Ivy League intellect, Hollywood chutzpah and conservative values will sell in this sodden corner of the Northwest woods. So far, his reviews are mixed.

IN SOME RESPECTS, Medved's roundabout journey to Mercer Island is typical of a place populated mostly by people from somewhere else.

Born in 1948, at the peak of the postwar baby boom, he spent his early childhood in inner-city Philadelphia. "It was a working-class immigrant neighborhood, where everybody spoke with an accent, including me," Medved says. "My grandparents came over from Germany in 1934. My mother worked and Dad was in grad school, so I spent my waking hours with my grandmother and her sister at their variety store. They sold rubber bands and pencils and baseball cards and Bazooka bubble gum. I went up and down the street, from one store to the next, bothering people. It was wonderful."

When Medved was 6, his father earned a Ph.D. in physics and took a job designing aircraft radar for Convair in San Diego. With young Medved garbed in a new cowboy outfit, the family headed west, camping at national parks along the way.

Medved spent nine years in San Diego schools. But, having moved to "the least-Jewish city in the West," he felt he "stuck out like a sore thumb."

"We were very Jewish, in that my parents never pretended we were anything else," he says. "My parents tried to keep kosher, and we had these embarrassing records of Israeli folk music. My dad listened to Vivaldi records long before it was cool.

"And I was a real pill. I was more geeky and intellectual than my parents."

In 1963, the defense industry went into a nose dive and the Medveds moved north to Los Angeles, where his father took a faculty job at UCLA. Medved transferred to Palisades High, a brand new school that drew the offspring of the Hollywood glitterati, plus a smattering of Jewish kids from nearby Brentwood.

It was a fateful move. Three years later, Time magazine showed up, having selected Palisades' Class of 1965 for a cover story on the emergence of "today's teenagers." Medved, the geeky kid voted "most intellectual" and "really radical" of his class, was one of them.

Medved went on to Yale, where he grew his hair long, switched to aviator-style glasses and organized anti-war events.

"I really wasn't that left wing," he protests. "I was genuinely horrified by the Vietnam War; people my age were coming home in body bags. But we didn't close down the university . . . My role was as a counterpoint to SDS, who thought I was a tool of the administration.

"And, in fact, I was a conservative in the making."

The conservative Medved evolved in phases. He graduated with honors and started at Yale Law School. But this was 1969, when the nation seemed about to come unglued.

While still at Yale, he had volunteered for Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign, then switched to Robert Kennedy. He was in the next room at the Los Angeles hotel when Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. "After that, I couldn't walk away from politics," he wrote later. "It was as if Kennedy's death had put a holy seal on my commitment. Over the next three years, liberal politics became my whole life.

He quit law school, wrote speeches for Democratic candidates, and yearned to write a book.

The next jolt came with the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which led him to rethink his Jewishness, and the importance of military power. He read Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag," and took a fresh look at the evils of socialism. He migrated back to Berkeley, where his apartment was burglarized, resulting in a classic new perspective on crime and punishment.

In 1975, he and Palisades High chum David Wallechinsky attended their 10-year reunion, interviewed their former classmates and turned out a best-seller -"What Really Happened to the Class of '65?" It was essentially an oral history of California boomers who had little history to report. But between the lines was a critical examination of boomer values that launched Medved on his new career as a cultural critic.

"It was a very conservative book," Medved recalls. "I had already become convinced that the counterculture was a fraud, and a joke and a danger. It was important to challenge the conventional wisdoms about the '60s."

Meanwhile, Medved's theology also was gravitating to the right. He had begun keeping the Sabbath, and teamed up with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a brilliant Jewish thinker from South Africa. Together, they founded a conservative Jewish community in Santa Monica.

At the same time, Medved gravitated toward movie criticism, writing newspaper reviews and eventually co-hosting a Public Broadcasting Service TV show, "Sneak Previews." Initially, at least, it was the perfect pulpit for an emerging conservative who accidentally found himself stuck in Hollywood.

Medved's film criticism peaked five years ago with the publication of "Hollywood vs. America," a scathing, 350-page indictment of the entertainment industry's assault on traditional values. "Hollywood no longer reflects or even respects the values of most American families," he wrote. "On many of the important issues in contemporary life, popular entertainment seems to go out of its way to challenge conventional notions of decency." While the nation rejected sex, drugs and rock and roll, he said, the film industry had become obsessed with them.

"Hollywood vs. America" generated attaboys from many political conservatives, and howls from critics, including libertarians who believed Medved was advocating some kind of censorship. He stopped short of that, appealing instead to movie makers to clean up their act, and movie fans to quit patronizing films that run counter to family values.

The book and the changing political mood turned Medved into something of a Hollywood pariah. He and his wife had started their family relatively late, and Los Angeles was no longer kid-friendly. Diane Medved, an accomplished journalist and psychologist, was earning her Ph.D. and had published her own conservative criticism. Their friends, the Lapins, had migrated north, and the Medveds were intrigued.

Last year, the opportunity cropped up when KVI-AM fired talk show host Mike Siegel. Medved, unable to get a talk show in L.A., leaped at the opportunity. The Medveds packed up and moved north, buying a posh home near the Lapins on Mercer Island with a sweeping view of Lake Washington and points south.

After less than a year, the Medveds insist they are home. They have reunited with the Lapins, organizing a new conservative synagogue and a Jewish home-school. "I keep asking myself: `Why did it take us so long to move here?" Medved says.

They host friends and listeners for Sabbath dinners and take walks in the woods. Diane frequently fills in on KVI when her husband is traveling. They walk to the local supermarket and are on first-name terms with the clerks.

"It's the smallness of the place," Medved says. "I can name all nine members of Congress. Yet it's big enough and serious enough about things. Seattle clearly originated its own trends. It's a mix of the provincial and the cosmopolitan."

Medved's noon-to-3 program is smart, serious and well-researched, a refreshing change from his predecessor's penchant for shooting from the hip. Medved is charming, polite to a fault, speaks in complete sentences, reads widely and has excellent recall. In a given show, he may quote Ronald Reagan or Solzhenitsyn, George Bernard Shaw or Thomas Jefferson. He argues eloquently for ideas ranging from constitutionalism to creationism. He listens to conflicting views, enjoys the dialogue and avoids that annoying talk-radio habit of cutting off dissent with a flip of a switch and a cheap one-liner.

He calls himself a libertarian-leaning conservative who believes in a free market, individual liberties and responsibilities and a tightly limited government.

"I was a history major at Yale, and I love American history," he says. "I believe America was established with unbelievable common sense and decency and wisdom. And for 200 years, we have been attempting to work out the vision of the founding fathers.

"And, like a lot of people, I believe we began to lose sight of that vision some time in this century. The logic and sanity of those political values are desperately needed now."

Yet Medved's positions are not always predictable.

A few examples:

On the environmental movement: "There is a strain of conservatives that has over-reacted to environmental extremists. It drives me crazy that many conservatives fail to understand that saving old-growth forests is a profoundly conservative idea. You drive past a clear-cut and it seems like a no-brainer that this is not an appropriate way to deal with this splendid part of the earth."

On global warming: "It's a complete scam."

On illegal drugs: "William F. Buckley argues for legalization of drugs, and he may be right. I think the truth is somewhere between where we are, the War on Drugs which only makes the problem worse, and outright legalization."

On abortion: "I'm sympathetic with the pro-life movement, but I don't believe abortion is murder . . . The U.S. has the most liberal abortion laws in the world. We're the closest on Earth to providing abortion on demand. Most countries at least have a waiting period. There has to be a national policy between abortion on demand and banning all abortions."

On gun rights: "I believe in the Second Amendment. The last true believers are those who say gun control will reduce crime. But I also have trouble understanding why Americans have a right to own an AK-47."

On public education: "Public schools were something Madison and Jefferson did not anticipate, and an area that turned out to be a very good thing. But the concept of public education was conservative; it had to do with civilizing immigrants. And we've lost that sense."

On Social Security: "It doesn't work. It is an obscene redistribution of wealth that takes money away from janitors and pipe fitters and gives it to wealthy senior citizens in Sun City.

"And the worst part of Social Security is that it undermines families, because people now say: `I don't have to take care of my mom.' It's absolutely appropriate to have a program that prevents older people from starving. But what FDR promised was never intended to be a substitute for people saving for their own retirement."

On the income tax: "How unbelievably stupid to take money from American families and send it to Washington, D.C., where a bunch of people who aren't very smart, who are really a joke, will determine how to spend it. I could make better decisions for myself, and for society, if they would let me."

"Get rid of the income tax and we will eliminate government's attempt to micro-manage society. I would prefer a national consumption tax, with full refunds for people making less than $35,000. Taxing something discourages it, and right now we're discouraging earning and investment, which is crazy."

COMPARED TO talk-radio stars like Rush Limbaugh, Medved's ideological recipe is both more thoughtful and more precarious. If liberals believe government should be all things to all people, then Medved's conservatism says government should do only what Medved deems to be important. That government is best that governs least - except, of course, it should own and operate national parks, manage urban sprawl, limit abortions, stop clear-cutting, control drugs, dismantle Social Security, eliminate the income tax and replace it with Medved's. Anything else is insanity.

Departure from dogma leads inevitably to contradiction. As a cultural critic, he brings to the Northwest a deep disdain for the film industry, yet he spends a huge portion of his life sitting in empty theaters and writing about films. He expresses a genuine passion for the Northwest, but spends much of his time on the national lecture circuit. He waxes eloquent about the "greatest city on God's Green Earth," but opts not to live in it. He believes deeply in public education, but home-schools his kids. He rails against Hollywood, but in many respects he is Hollywood personified.

Contradictions are perhaps inevitable for a self-styled critic who each week must fill 15 hours of radio time, file three or four movie reviews, deliver a couple of lectures around the country and work on three book contracts.

In each case, his message is less about politics or place than about universal values. Medved certainly does his share of liberal-bashing - be it Patty Murray or the Clintons. But he seems most comfortable advising his fellow Americans how to live their lives. His mission is to prod America back to that little Jewish variety store in workaday Philly, when life was simple, and people knew right from wrong.

Not everything has gone well. His syndicated TV program ran out of funding and hasn't aired since last fall. He and Lapin came close to buying a Mercer Island synagogue for their Jewish community, but the deal fell through. And KVI's winter Arbitron ratings, including for Medved's afternoon slot, took a serious dip.

While Washington State politics have taken a clear turn to the right, it is an open question whether Puget Sound listeners want to be told how to live their lives.

On a recent Monday afternoon program, Medved railed about an 11-year-old girl having a boyfriend. "My daughters have no use for boys," he said. "My 8-year-old says they're dirty, stupid and can't read."

Suddenly he was attacking the women's movement. "It's the same thing I hear from radical feminists; they have the attitude of 8-year-old girls."

Seconds later, he was railing against gays in the military.

The next day, he was retelling the story of Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the Battle of Ticonderoga - all to stirring symphonic background music. In the end, Ethan Allen vows "to retire to the mountains and wage war with human nature."

"I love it," Medved gushed.

MEDVED IS SKYWALKER, standing defiantly on the bridge of the Death Star, witnessing what he genuinely believes to be the disintegration of society as he knows it. He is infuriated by this, by the implications for his family, his faith and his nation. His Jedi destiny is to fiercely resist temptation, to control his anger while waging war with the Dark Side.

His weapon of choice is talk radio, the next-best thing to a light saber. He wields it with all the strength and deftness of a one-time geek who has spent a quarter century living in Hollywood, mastering its arts and secrets while learning to despise them.

He has learned his lessons well. And he has come here, to this sodden corner of the planet with its inland seas and lush rain forests, to put them into practice. He has much to learn about his adopted home, but he's a quick study. And Medved trusts The Force.

Ross Anderson is a writer on the editorial staff of The Seattle Times. Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's photographer.