More than a decade ago I sat in Jason Lewis' "Leave It to Beaver" living room for an interview with the talk radio host, who was probably near the height of his on-air popularity. It was a quiet, suburban morning. Sweatpants and slippers, a cup of coffee and a collection of daily newspapers. The wife doing laundry. The photogenic kids, the three-car garage.
Lewis, who had gotten clobbered in his only prior foray into electoral politics in 1990, admitted then that he could see himself running for office again someday because, like radio, politics "gets in your blood."
You might think a guy with a hunger for office might mind his rhetoric, might temper his words over the next decade or so. But the radio job called for bluster, for controversy and confrontation, and Lewis, "Mr. Right," delivered.
Some of the most egregious comments were about young women, whom he called "Stepford wives" because they wanted insurance to cover their birth control pills and who "couldn't explain to you what GDP was." He also had controversial comments about slavery ("If you don't want to own a slave, don't, but don't tell other people they can't"), which he later said were misunderstood or taken out of context.
Now he's the GOP nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in Minnesota's Second District, and the DFL will certainly use some of his more contentious statements against him — just as his Republican opponents did in the primary.
Given the rise of Donald Trump — despite comments that would have derailed any previous candidate — does it even matter anymore?
My question for Lewis on Tuesday was: Did radio hosts like Jason Lewis make Donald Trump possible, or is Trump making Lewis possible?
Lewis laughed. "I was paid to be provocative, and I did my job well," he said, declining to take credit or blame for the tone of political discourse in 2016.
But Lewis also defended his radio show (he retired in 2014) as a legitimate platform to discuss public policy "without having to raise money." He went after Republicans, especially moderates, almost as often as liberals, he said. Lewis said management sometimes tried to push him to be more controversial and less wonky. "Given the caricature painted of me, I think I was more introspective than given credit for," he said.
Lewis was quick to point out that when he went on vacation, he sometimes had former Sen. Paul Wellstone take over his show because "I thought it was important that my audience hear the other side."
Lewis calls his race against Democrat Angie Craig a "quintessential" American race that pits a champion of individual rights against what he calls her "collectivism," his economic conservatism against tax-and-spend liberalism.
"The country is at a tipping point. It reminds me of 1980," said Lewis, who promises "bold, independent leadership." He said even as a radio host he often angered the party faithful because "I don't put party ahead of principle. People are tired of the establishment, tired of red state vs. blue state."
Radio listeners might be a little surprised by the apparent tempering of Lewis' views. They would certainly be surprised by this comment on the current president: "Barack Obama's presidency was a good thing for society," Lewis said, because he broke barriers. "I oppose Barack Obama because he's a liberal."
I listened to Lewis on the radio over the years and found him to be intelligent and well-prepared, as well as a bit of a blowhard. Off the air, however, he's reasoned and moderate, more apt to listen to a differing viewpoint. I like him. But his public persona is what has the DFL salivating, and why some have referred to him as a "mini Trump."
Ken Martin, DFL Party chair, said Lewis is changing his script to run in the swing district, which has leaned Democratic in recent cycles. He thinks radio hosts like Lewis "certainly created the environment" for Trump.
"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of things that he said [on air] that put him outside the mainstream," Martin said. "Jason Lewis has said things that would make Donald Trump blush. He's really far out there for some of the crazy positions he takes."
Lewis has said from the beginning he would back the party's nominee, and he will. He supports some of Trump's harshest stands, such as being wary of Syrian refugees, but says it's unrealistic to deport millions of Mexicans. Asked if he would vote to build a wall, Lewis said he would "do what I have to to get control of the border."
So far, Lewis has been on attack-lite against Craig. In one video, he called her a "nice person" but "horribly misguided." But when asked how he stacks up against her business expertise, with a leadership position at St. Jude Medical, Lewis pointed to current accusations that the company's devices could be hacked, and he hinted that problems at the company could become an issue.
I asked Lewis if he wanted to talk about anything else. "Elvis and the Beatles," he said. He's a huge fan because Elvis went from a truck driver to an icon, "the epitome of the American dream." But Elvis was also a stark reminder that "there's a consequence to that."
For a former radio jock who wants to go to the big show in Washington, it's probably a good thing to keep in mind.