With perhaps the exception of Bob Dornan, there has never been a more visceral embodiment of Orange County’s conservative ethos than Wally George. Both accidentally poignant and intentionally brash, George spewed the essence of both the blue-collar Republicanism of the early 1980s and the brewing phenomenon known as reality TV. He did it well enough that every youngster within earshot of KDOC, the local station on which his show aired from 1983 to 1993, knew who he was. And they watched just long enough for him to boot guests off his stage with his trademark smirk and conservative indignation.
For those of us who grew up in Long Beach (which my childhood friend Chris Spencer once noted “is about as far north as you can live and still be cool”), Hot Seat With Wally George was a window into the political DNA of our neighbors to the south. With pictures of the Space Shuttle and John Wayne reverently displayed behind his desk, George, sporting a white wig, confronted progressives and kooks alike. From fringe political figures to adult-film actresses, George was the ringleader of a unique circus that played out weekly on late-night television.
With an audience of young, mostly white males who would incessantly jeer and heckle, the show seemingly carried the political water of Orange County voters who enjoyed confrontation over conciliation. It was one of the earliest talk shows to be referred to as “combative,” and tickets to the live taping in Anaheim were coveted. Hot Seat mostly ran in the Saturday, 11 p.m. time slot, and after a decade of live shows, George, whose health was declining, instead hosted rerun segments until roughly June 2003.
Somewhat of a precursor to the likes of Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera, George will always hold a sacred place on the mantel of local television. And of all of George’s guests, none was more striking than Tom Metzger. The self-anointed head of the “White Aryan Resistance” and a former Klansman, Metzger would appear periodically to espouse his beliefs about a coming race war, the inferiority of ethnic minorities and other provocative race-baiting that would send George and his audience into a frenzy. Metzger worked as a television repairman (which he proudly touted as a confirmation of his white, working-class credentials) and lived for a period of time in Fallbrook, which also seemingly helped his street cred.
Along with his son Tom Jr., the two would often appear on Hot Seat to share their ideologies and pontificate on why the United States would never elect an African-American president, a prediction that seems to have worked out well for Metzger. Introduced by George in some of his segments as a “putrid idiot,” Metzger maintains an online presence today as a writer and host of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) website and an internet radio series titled Race and Reason. He is also infamously known for his involvement in a 1988 lawsuit brought by the family of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw, who was attacked and killed in Oregon by a group of skinheads allegedly affiliated with or inspired by Metzger’s WAR movement. The resulting judgment nearly bankrupted the organization.
What made those Hot Seat appearances by Metzger in the 1980s and ’90s so relevant was just how clearly the lines between good and evil were drawn. George wore the white hat (literally), and Metzger was the bad guy; there was no gray to be found. And the audience reaction corroborated those roles. George’s last interview with Metzger was around 1992, against the backdrop of that year’s LA riots, and George absolutely laid into Metzger.
George repeatedly scolded Metzger for being “un-American” and referred to WAR as a bunch of “dumb Nazis.” George kicked Metzger off his stage after an unprecedented but understandable four minutes. It was a proud moment for Orange County conservatism, as, embodied by George, it stood up to the emblematic scourge of white supremacy.
The last time George and Metzger would square off is jaw-dropping when viewed through the lens of today’s political climate. With the benefit of 30-plus years of hindsight, that 1992 interview is proof positive the political paradigm of the right has completely been turned on its head in this era of Donald Trump. Viewed against the MAGA-inspired rally at Huntington Beach (see Frank John Tristan’s “Huntington Beach Pro-Trump March Turns Into Attack on Anti-Trump Protesters, OC Weekly ,” March 26, 2017), the Republican landscape of a Wally George-era Orange County is, perhaps, unrecognizable.
Prescient of what occurred in Charlottesville and Trump’s reaction to it, the 1992 interview with Metzger captured a moment in time when conservative Republicans rallied openly against white supremacy and the Nazis. Watching that episode, it is equal parts antiquated and Orwellian, with George orchestrating an audience full of young, mostly white, conservative, Orange County men in fomenting and rallying viciously against Metzger and what he stood for. To riff on Trump’s own axiom, George made it clear there were not very fine people on both sides.
In a fitting end to the segment, George stood up behind his desk and led his audience in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, with particular vocal emphasis on the last line: “with liberty and justice for all.” He then expanded on that theme to his audience as he looked deploringly at Metzger, reminding him the phrase is meant to encompass “all races, all religions and all creeds.”
George died in 2003, and his memorial service was held at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. Congruent with his Orange County roots, he was eulogized by no less than the Reverend Robert Schuller. Hot Seat is now hard to find in reruns on local television, and YouTube videos are rare. But at one time, George was Orange County. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think the modern Republican party (and Trump followers in particular) could learn a thing or two about dignified conservatism from Wally George.
Alex Cherin is a lawyer and lobbyist based in Los Angeles. He resides in Long Beach.