Tom Rose Continues To Make Waves

Fiery conservative, diehard Zionist, and author behind the film that will touch your heart this season, Tom Rose is a man of extremes.

“Okay, what are we doing here?” shouts conservative pundit Tom Rose as his three boys and several dinner guests pull up chairs for a Friday-evening meal at his northside home.

“We’re celebrating the Sabbath, which is the moment when God rested!” says his 12-year-old son, Yonaton.

“And is God a Republican or a Democrat?” Tom says.

“I’m pretty sure he is an independent,” the boy answers.

On the kitchen counter, Atlas Shrugged, The Wall Street Journal, The Jewish Press, and other right-leaning reading material await a lazy Saturday. Gathered here as much for the cerebral banter as the Kosher food, retired Army General Dick Chegar, Indianapolis Jewish Federation director Michael Pappo, and Rose’s father, Irwin, try to keep up as Rose leads the free-for-all. Pappo, a long-time friend whom Rose calls “a ’60s radical,” seems a favorite target. “While you were burning down college campuses,” Rose says with a smirk, “Dick Chegar was fighting for your right to do that.”

Describing his own college experience, Irwin gets only a few words in: “I went to Ohio State and studied …”

Rose interrupts. “What do they call it … Jewish engineering?”

“Business administration!” his father corrects.

For all the fun, the family observes the Sabbath here very strictly. Once sundown on Friday occurs, no one makes use of any technology (including the car). Dinner has to be prepared in advance. The rules forbid even a reporter writing in his notebook. Before the meal begins, everyone chants a prayer, and then Rose walks over to his oldest son, Noam. Whispering a Hebrew blessing into his ear, he thumps the boy firmly on the back and chest. Then he repeats the process with his other two sons.

Rose begins to serve the food and quizzes his kids on world history. “Who was Captain Cook?” he asks. “What did he discover? The universe? No, that was Captain Kirk. Cook was an incredible navigator. A lot better than Christopher Columbus ever was. What else happened in 1492?”

“The Jews were sent out of Spain!” Yonaton chimes in.

“What day?” Tom asks, and the boy correctly answers August 4, the same day that Columbus set sail.

His youngest son, Udi, smiles and asks his father a leading question: “Abba, what else happened on August 4?”

“The Queen Mother was born, Roger Clemens was born, and I was born,” Rose says. “Certainly no president of ours was born that day.” Everyone grins knowingly at the omission of Barack Obama, also born on August 4.

Flipping through a large decorative version of the Old Testament, Rose tries to stump his boys on minutiae of Judaic scripture. “From what book does the Kedoshim come?” he asks, and the boys correctly answer Leviticus. After a few more right answers, he can’t help but throw in a joke. “Okay, the Torah says we have to be holy, that whatever we do should fit with the spirit of the laws, not just the technical details. And what if what you think is right, the Torah thinks is wrong? What are those people called?” He pauses for dramatic effect before answering his own question: “Liberals!”

“I’ll admit to being an extremist in defense of my country, my values, and Judeo-Christian civilization,” Rose says.

Rose, best known in Indy as the fiery right-wing host of a pair of political talk-radio shows, can sometimes find the persona hard to turn off. And if pressed, he’ll admit to some showmanship. But make no mistake: Rose is a bona fide conservative. And he has the resume to prove it. The Indy native served in former Mayor Steve Goldsmith’s administration and once published the right-leaning Jerusalem Post. He ran for Congress on a platform that even many members of his own party found too far from center.

Which makes it all the more surprising that he is also the author of a charming 1989 bestseller about three whales stranded in Barrow, Alaska. But Freeing the Whales, a report from his brief time as a broadcast journalist in one of the coldest places on Earth, will probably win over a new generation next month as the Hollywood version—Big Miracle, starring Drew Barrymore, Ted Danson, and John Krasinski—hits screens. Which just goes to show: Sometimes the best stories come from extreme places.

For a guy who feigns offense on the rare occasions that his opinions are described as moderate, Tom Rose had a fairly middle-of-the-road upbringing. The son of a commercial developer in Indianapolis, he attended North Central High School before heading to Brandeis University and later Columbia University to study journalism. On the liberal Columbia campus, the unlikeliest of places, Rose began to forge his conservatism. “I was struck by how this environment that was supposed to engender free speech and diversity of thought did everything in its power to crush that,” he says. “There was no diversity of opinion. Only externalities like color and gender were tolerated. It was a liberal uniformity that I found absolutely paralyzing, and I started to question everything I was taught there.”

After graduating from Columbia in 1985, Rose freelanced for CBS Radio in South Africa and the Philippines for a short time, ultimately covering the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He returned to the States in 1986 and took a TV reporting job in Fort Myers, Florida. The following year he moved to New York and started a small broadcast production company called New York News Corp. NYNC provided film and satellite uplink services to foreign news stations that needed to cover stories in the U.S. Once in a while, Rose would even fill in on-camera. But the most typical jobs started the way one did in October 1988, when a Japanese news station called and hired Rose to accompany its broadcaster to Barrow, Alaska.

A town of 4,000 people at the northernmost tip of North America, Barrow is Alaska’s Alaska—frigid and remote even by the standards of those in Anchorage. Whales travel there to feed during the short summer before making the long trip down the coast to winter near California. But the cold had arrived early that year. Nighttime temperatures were already approaching 20 degrees below zero. A few days before Rose arrived, an Inuit  hunter had found three whales trapped under the frozen water with only a 10-by-20–foot hole in which to surface and breathe, their path to the open sea now impeded by miles of ice.

Under normal circumstances, the whales would have either been harvested by the local hunters or suffocated when the hole eventually sealed. But in an enormous stroke of luck for the animals, a tiny local NBC affiliate had filmed them pathetically circling the hole, taking turns breathing. Tom Brokaw and the Nightly News got ahold of it, and the up-close images of the beasts proved irresistible. Every station in the world wanted its own shots.

It didn’t sound like much of a story to Rose. And the 26-year-old was suffering from mono at the time. But along with 150 other reporters, he arrived to cover what was fast becoming the feel-good story of the year. Rescue efforts began. The oil company VECO donated a 185-ton ice-breaking barge. President Reagan deployed the National Guard, and when its helicopters failed to tow the barge to the site, the Soviets donated two of their own ships. For the next three weeks, Rose not only covered the plight of the whales but began to take note of the surrounding media circus. The absurdity of 26 television networks converging on one of the world’s most desolate places to cover a naturally occurring event did not escape him. By the time two of the creatures had been saved (the youngest died) and everyone went home, Rose may have been the only one who saw the whole story.

He returned to Barrow a few months later for research, and wrote Freeing the Whales (with the subhead How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event) in 1989. “Network news producers loved animal stories,” Rose wrote. “They gave the network anchors a chance to display, in the spirit of the ’88 campaign, that they too were ‘kinder and gentler.’ But for a reason as obvious as it was elusive, whale stories were the best of all. Tom Brokaw impacted the psyches of even his most cynical viewers with his rueful smile at the end of Thursday’s broadcast.” As sardonic as the book can be in places, the story tugs at the heart. Good Morning America, PBS NewsHour, and other national shows featured Rose as his title snuck onto the New York Times bestseller list for a short time. But sales soon faded (Rose estimates he made only about $35,000), and he assumed that his moment in the spotlight, like the whales’, had passed.

“Good morning, Indiana! This is Tom Rose, in for Greg Garrison right here on WIBC. As always, once a month, our special guest: the honorable Mayor Greg Ballard. Mayor, good morning.”

The phone lines light up in the WIBC studio on Monument Circle (a property of Emmis Communications, which also owns IM). Wearing a yarmulke over neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair, Rose launches into an attack on Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully for a recent piece that questioned the mayor’s job figures. “So I would imagine you won’t be drinking eggnog with Tully anytime soon,” he says into the microphone. “He’s the kid in the class who loves to show up the quarterback. The cheap shots are so grating.”

The mayor sits among friends at the conservative Garrison talk-radio show, but he tries to take the high road—or at least the middle one. “Oh, Tully comes and goes,” Ballard says. “He bashes both sides. Actually, he has given us a lot of credit for what we’re doing.”

Rose presses the issue. “Some people think his implication was that Greg Ballard is a liar,” he says. “I think it was worse than that—that Greg Ballard is a politician!”

Ballard proudly mentions the 105,000 feet of curbs and sidewalks his administration has replaced to date, and Rose sees a transition to national politics. “That’s almost a Washington-sized number!” he says, and segues to President Obama’s policies. “I know your focus is municipal, but I have to ask you about what’s going on in Washington. They came out with this deal yesterday that the White House says will cut $38 billion in expenditures for the remaining five months of this fiscal year. In fact, it only cuts $352 million! Only 1 percent of what they claimed to have saved! Nobody at the local level can get away with the chicanery that goes on in Washington.”

When Ballard expresses cautious optimism about paying down the national debt and balancing the budget, Rose almost blows a gasket. “What the hell is your optimism based on?!” he says.

On a trip to Jerusalem in 1990, Rose ran into a young Israeli woman named Rachel whom he had met on a high-school trip there many years previous. The two started to date, and the next summer, they married and started a family that would eventually include three boys. About the same time, Rose’s intellectual talents, evident in the book, caught the eye of Indy Mayor Steve Goldsmith. He joined the mayor’s office as special assistant for regulatory affairs in 1991 and moved to Indy.

Under Goldsmith, Rose’s duties included fundraising, a task that introduced him to Republican donor and media mogul Conrad Black, owner of the Chicago Sun-Times and The Jerusalem Post. After Goldsmith’s failed run for governor in 1996, Black offered Rose a job that led to the publisher position at the Israeli newspaper. Rose and Rachel moved back to Jerusalem late that year.

At the time, Palestinian suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism plagued the region. Rose vividly remembers waking one morning to a radio broadcast announcing that there was a lockdown at a school in the neighborhood where his oldest son, Noam, attended grade school. A gunman had reportedly seized it. “I flipped out, raced down to the school, jumped the fence, and ran in,” he says. “As it turns out, it wasn’t that school after all. But there were two or three other frantic American parents there. No Israeli parents could be bothered to come. They treated us like hysterical crybabies. That’s how they’ve beaten terrorism. They don’t overreact. When a disco or pizza place would get blown up, there would be a line of hundreds of people outside when it reopened just to go there and say, ‘You’re not going to shut us down.’”

Rose faced adversity at The Jerusalem Post, too—the 75-year-old broadsheet was hemorrhaging money. As publisher, he needed to cut a staff of 400 down to 140. From the moment he got there, he was hated. Trying to show a little humor, he posted a sign in his office that said what most of his reporters must have been thinking: Tom Rose, Go Home! “I felt absolutely friendless and besieged inside the operation,” he says. “It was very uncomfortable, and very necessary. That paper wouldn’t exist today if we hadn’t done something.”

At the midpoint of his seven-year tenure at the Post, Rose came as close to terrorism as anyone could, but in an unlikely place—New York City. Working on a deal between his newspaper and The Wall Street Journal to publish an edition of the latter in the Middle East, Rose scheduled a meeting with WSJ executives on the afternoon of September 10, 2001. The paper’s offices lay across West Street from the site of the World Trade Center. At the last minute, the executives had to reschedule for the next morning, so Rose decided to stroll across the street and ride up to the observation deck of the south tower. He barely caught the last elevator before they closed at 5 p.m., and the cashier stamped his ticket with the time and date.

The following morning, Rose took a cab into the city for his meeting and saw smoke in the distance. When they reached a roadblock a mile from his destination, he got out and paid the driver. As he was closing the door, a screaming noise startled him from directly overhead—the second plane. Then came an explosion and what he remembers as a moment of complete silence. He turned and walked quickly the other way. Rose still carries the elevator ticket every day in his wallet.

Despite the tumult of his years at the Post, Rose clearly admired the Israeli resolve. It strengthened his own Zionist leanings. “I loved being on the Jewish stage in history,” he says. “I don’t want to wax too poetic, but it’s what the book of Isaiah describes as the first flowering of the redemption—the first time in 2,000 years the Jewish people have had the opportunity to shape our own destiny. Of course, every human interaction there is adversarial. You ask somebody for a tissue, and they’ll say ‘What do you need a tissue for?’ Why? Because they’re Jews.”

In 2003, Conrad Black was forced to step down in the face of fraud allegations, and shortly thereafter, his company sold The Jerusalem Post and Rose was dismissed. Returning to Indianapolis, Rose bought into a chain of small newspapers called Continental Holdings and began guest-hosting for Greg Garrison in the WIBC studio. In 2006, he and his wife divorced. And when Indiana congresswoman Julia Carson passed away in 2007, Rose—at the insistence of his friend and current gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence—decided to run for her 7th District seat.

“Tom is a force of nature,” Pence says. “He’s brilliant. He would flinch at that, I’m sure. But having talked with him about a lot of issues foreign and domestic, I can say he’s one of the most profound thinkers I’ve had the pleasure to have known. And passionate. You can’t ask him what time it is without getting a very forceful opinion.”

Among other socially conservative positions he holds, Rose staunchly opposes abortion and gay marriage. In his campaign brochure, he vowed to “Make English the official language of the United States” and “End the secular assault on God and public life.” The voters apparently found those opinions a little abrasive. Rose lost the nomination to the more moderate Jon Elrod.

“Tom is a force of nature,” says gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence. “He’s brilliant. And passionate. You can’t ask him what time it is without getting a very forceful opinion.”

Parlaying his occasional guest spots on the Garrison show, Rose—along with Gary Bauer, president of the Christian conservative group American Values—launched his own national show (Bauer and Rose) on Sirius satellite radio in 2008. Today, he sits at a makeshift studio in his modest kitchen every Sunday morning and interviews by phone political figures such as Dick Cheney and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Referencing a discussion he had with Netanyahu about the dangers posed by Iran, Rose quotes him in his best Israeli accent: “‘We are not prepared to be zee turkey bird at zee Zanksgiving party.’”

Rose even hosts liberals on occasion. Hillary Clinton impressed him recently when she remembered the names of his kids nine months after their first interaction. Although he concedes that the left doesn’t get equal time, he winces at the characterization of his views as “extremist.” “I envision myself as someone who is zealously on guard against extremists,” he says. “Of course, nobody would describe themselves that way. Jerry Falwell wouldn’t have written ‘fanatic right-wing fundamentalist’ on a job application. So I’ll admit to being an extremist in defense of my country, my values, and Judeo-Christian civilization. And a healthy society allows for a divergence of opinion. Consensus is something they have in North Korea.”

Back in 1995, a Hollywood screenwriter named Jack Amiel optioned Rose’s book for one dollar in the hopes of making a film as soon as possible. But at the time, the special effects needed to re-create the scene would have meant a budget of more than $100 million—all for a somewhat cynical story that had the whiff of an independent film. So the project languished. Almost a decade later, computer-generated imagery (CGI) dropped in price and made the film look feasible. To make the story more appealing to the studios, Amiel stripped out the snarky media criticism and added a child character to give kids “a way into the movie.” He sold it to Warner Brothers in 2009.

“What’s lovely about Tom’s book is that so many disparate groups found a common purpose,” Amiel says. “Greenpeace working with the Inuit and oil companies. The Reagan administration working with the Soviets. The story is compelling only because of Tom’s reporting. It became a great story.”

Danson—ironically, an outspoken environmentalist—signed on as the opportunistic oil-company executive. Barrymore joined the cast as a Greenpeace firebrand. And John Krasinski, best known for playing the affably rumpled Jim on The Office, agreed to portray an amalgam of several characters in the book. They all headed up to the 60th parallel in 2010. But when it came time to film, as Rose could have told the producers, Alaska presented some challenges. Barrow gets as cold as 60 degrees below zero in the winter, so the crew had to re-create the entire tiny town, circa 1988, outside of Anchorage.

Rose visited the set this past spring with his three boys and was stunned by the detail of the counterfeit Barrow. They watched as the crew spent an entire day (or at least the six hours of daylight in Alaska) capturing a single 15-second scene in which Danson gets out of his truck, makes a snide comment to Barrymore, and walks up to the whale hole to say “Holy shit.” Despite the expanse between their political views, Danson and Rose got along famously, chatting in the food tent about the challenges of raising teenagers. Barrymore played with his kids.

“My oldest son was a little starstruck, but the younger ones didn’t know enough to be,” Rose says. “They didn’t know who Ted Danson was. They were surprised I didn’t know who … what’s his name … John Krasinski was.”

Rose won’t allow himself to worry too much about how the film turns out. He sold the rights. It’s theirs to do with as they wish. Given the time it took to make the movie happen, any royalties he sees from that will be, well, a fluke. “I get to have an on-screen affair with Drew Barrymore,” he says. “I should owe them money!” On the other hand, when Big Miracle releases in February, it couldn’t hurt sales of his book, being reissued by St. Martin’s Press this month. And to those familiar with only his thorny political persona, it will introduce a kinder, gentler Tom Rose.

Just don’t expect to hear it on the radio anytime soon. Finishing up his interview with Ballard on WIBC, Rose asks the mayor about the resolution of the NFL labor dispute and its effect on Indy’s Super Bowl. The mayor simply expresses excitement about the event. Rose then refers to their discussion earlier in the show about the president’s numerous failed attempts at a budget proposal. “What do President Obama and the NFL have in common?” he asks. “All is forgiven!”

And with that, he cuts to commercial.

Photograph by Tony Valainis.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.