He’ll take Michael Steele for $2,000, Alex.
That “he” is Pat Sajak, host of the Jeopardy! companion Wheel of Fortune, and that donation to the chairman of the Republican National Committee is one of many the game-show host has made to conservative candidates in his lifetime. Sajak, who’s been relatively quiet about his politics until recently, blasted onto the national pundit scene in October with the debut of his column for National Review Online.
With this, he cemented his place in one of the conservative movement’s most elite and rarefied constituencies: right-wing game-show hosts.
A tiny island of Reagan Republicanism in the vast sea of liberal Hollywood, television’s greatest arbiters of luck and love—including Chuck Woolery, Drew Carey, Wink Martindale, Merv Griffin, and many others—have regularly loaned their support and opened their wallets to right-wing candidates and causes, collectively donating more than $100,000 since 1998.
Sajak alone has given more than $10,000, including fat checks to Fred Thompson, Bob Dole, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, George Allen, and Rick Lazio, as well as Steele. Alex Trebek, host of Jeopardy!, gave $3,000 to former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
“I am a conservative thinker. My political choices usually follow that path,” says John O’Hurley, a former host of Family Feud who donated more than $2,000 to Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. “I am a strong believer in individual responsibility both in the quality of my actions and in setting the direction for my life.”
O’Hurley’s fellow hosts, like all successful television personalities, are loath to risk alienating even one possible viewer by talking openly about anything controversial.
“I'm now sacrificing my career coming out as a conservative,” said The Dating Game’s Woolery, a born-again Christian, during a 2009 appearance on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News talk show. “So I'll never be hired in Hollywood again once they find out I'm doing it on your show.”
Is there something about the traditional game-show format—its reinforcement of old-fashioned family values, its populist sensibility, its neat 22-minute crystallization of the American dream—that draws a more conservative type to host? Is it that the show’s core audience, residing in the flyover states, generally prefers a certain red-blooded sort of man in charge? Is it all just a silly coincidence?
“It makes sense to me that these hosts are pretty heavily Republican,” said Olaf Hoerschelmann, a professor at Indiana University, author of Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture and perhaps the world’s leading ("only," in his words) expert on game shows. “To have the right sensibility to be a game-show host, you do have to have a belief in rugged individualism—either you make it or you’re not worth it.”
Hoerschelmann’s research showed that these programs—while never exactly rocket science—grew precipitously less intellectual and more populist in the early 1980s, in tune with the Reagan years. With the exception of Jeopardy!, popular shows increasingly tested not actual knowledge but everyman intuition, he says. Family Feud, for example, challenged contestants to guess what 100 randomly surveyed people on the street would say in response to some hypothetical question. Supermarket Sweep had them run around a grocery store.
“Generally the ideology of acquiring money and achieving fortune through luck goes along pretty well with a certain basic capitalist attitude,” Hoerschelmann said. There also seems to be an element of free enterprise involved. Many hosts have other independent ventures— Chuck Woolery sells branded fishing equipment; Wink Martindale operates Wink’s World, which attempts to spread a patriotic message—and many own a piece of their shows.
But even the less vocal ones have found ways to lend their support. According to records from the Federal Election Commission, game-show kingpin Griffin, creator of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, gave more than $50,000 to Republicans between 1998 and 2007, the year he died. Martindale, host of Tic Tac Dough and many other shows, gave $2,000 to George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. Jeff Foxworthy, host of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, gave $1,000 to Bush in 2004 and another $3,000 to the RNC. Drew Carey, host of The Price Is Right, has given $5,000 to George Voinovich and $2,300 to Ron Paul. And former Nixon aide Ben Stein, who hosted Win Ben Stein’s Money on Comedy Central in the early Aughts, has given well over $30,000 since 1998.
In addition to his contributions to the Hagel campaign, Trebek, a Canadian by birth who became an American citizen in 1998, was listed as a host for a February 2010 fundraiser in Malibu, hosted by the PAC Combat Veterans for Congress, supporting 18 Republican candidates. A spokesman for Trebek said the host “didn’t actually do that,” and that “My guess is that they asked to use his name, and since veterans were involved and he's worked for years with the USO, there might have been some confusion. But he did not attend, or host, or sponsor. “
Combat Veterans for Congress, which has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, did not return calls and an email for comment. Through his spokesman, Trebek also declined to comment. “He doesn't think he has anything to add to this discussion,” the spokesman said.
Sajak—whose first National Review Online column asserted that since “none of my family and friends is allowed to appear on Wheel of Fortune,” government employees shouldn’t be allowed to vote—declined, through the magazine, to comment. Carey also declined to comment, through a spokesman. The other hosts did not respond to repeated requests.
There are a few Democrats in the bunch, including Let’s Make a Deal’s Monty Hall, who donated $250 to Joe Lieberman’s presidential campaign, and Tom Bergeron of Dancing With the Stars, who has given more than $8,000 to left-wing causes, including more than $3,000 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But most hosts wield long-stemmed microphones in their left hand and vote with their right.
“To have the right sensibility to be a game-show host, you do have to have a belief in rugged individualism—either you make it or you’re not worth it,” says Professor Hoerschelmann.
O’Hurley, who listed his primary extracurricular interests as his wife and child, is involved with a company called Energy Inc., that processes landfill waste into energy, and is a founder of a charity called Golfers Against Cancer. He’s not one to trumpet his politics.
“Those are my private views,” he said. “Just because I am a celebrity, doesn't mean the that my opinions deserve to be celebrated. I am just another bozo on the bus.”