Charles Murray was 'Terrified' on Colbert Report

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A fearless social observer admits unease while being interviewed on the comedy talk show.


Charles Murray, the provocative and controversial political scientist, is generally fearless when dueling over his at times uncompromising claims, including how federal programs have speeded family disintegration, and his disputed assertions about race and intelligence.

Dealing with Stephen Colbert was quite another matter.

"I was terrified," he told a Chicago audience while discussing his latest work, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

The new book focuses on two separate groups of white Americans: elites living largely removed from much of society and a working-class which he finds to be a symbol of ongoing moral decay. It's not headline-grabbing like 1994's The Bell Curve, written with Richard Herrnstein, a late Harvard psychologist, but it will rankle many.

Before a church audience, I began an interview with the controversial scholar by alluding to his recent appearance on Colbert's show. There he confronted the razor-sharp comic's blowhard on-air persona, a Bill O'Reilly-like cable TV host who can often skewer the same value system he purports to personify.

On the surface, Murray seemed to fare just fine and went along with the humor when Colbert asked, "Are lower class white people giving other whites a bad name? Can't we just call them not-white anymore?"

The book-touting guest then resisted the temptation to vent when Colbert slipped in what was clearly planned to be a rhetorical torpedo, namely reviving long-ago allegations that some research cited by Murray was sponsored by white supremacist groups.

In Chicago, he said that what viewers say as far as his seeming calm and controlled demeanor wasn't what he felt, especially as he prepared to go on stage for the taping.

"I was more frightened than I'd ever been," he said.

For sure, he received prior counsel surely similar to that afforded most Colbert guests. That included admonition to not compete with the star for laughs, don't look defensive and to make sure to laugh at the Northwestern University graduate's jokes.

Murray was "irritated" at Colbert "bringing up hoary accusations" he feels were unfair and answered long ago.

But, all in all, he said, "I was satisfied since I wasn't humiliated."

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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