Story Highlights• Imus known for his verbal shots at politicians, colleagues
• But Rutgers ballplayers aren't the same kind of public figures
• Some say his comments about them may be the last straw
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(CNN) -- Don Imus has gotten himself into trouble numerous times during nearly four decades on the radio.
He has taken verbal shots at everybody from presidents to media colleagues, but in calling the women of the Rutgers University basketball team "nappy-headed hos," most observers believe he crossed a line.
"Those women did not deserve those hateful and hurtful comments," Democratic presidential candidate and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said Tuesday. "I've been on the receiving end of his barbs, so I understand. I'm a public figure, but it just went way over the line."
Republican presidential candidate and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told reporters he spoke to Imus Tuesday afternoon. "I would appear on his program again, sure," Giuliani said. "I believe he understands he made a very, very big mistake."
Imus has recovered before. And comments made about him years ago seem like they could have been written this week.
In a Freedom Forum Online article in 2000, journalism professor and media watchdog Ruth Bayard Smith said, "I find his program fascinating. On the one hand, he conducts really thoughtful, interesting interviews with people in politics or [with] journalists ... it's incredibly intelligent. And then in a second, they'll hang up, and he'll start talking about whomever he's talking about and say racist things or homophobic things or misogynist things."
One of Imus' most infamous insults came at the expense of Clinton and her husband during the 1996 White House correspondents dinner, where Imus poked fun at everything from Hillary Clinton's role in the Whitewater land deal to the president's extramarital sex life.
Imus hasn't spared journalists either. He once called Lesley Stahl "a gutless, lying weasel" and the news reader on his own program "dumber than dirt."
The difference this time may be the women he insulted. They are not politicians or celebrities.
"I achieve a lot, and unless they have given this name of 'ho' a new definition, then that is not what I am," Kia Vaughn, a Rutgers sophomore center, said at a news conference Tuesday.
"I would like to know why, what the reason was for what was said. ... I would like him to get to know us as a whole and myself," Vaughn's teammate Rashida Jenay said.
Imus has made his name putting nothing off limits, not even himself.
A look at his biography page on MSNBC.com gives a quick indication of how seriously the man takes himself and his fame.
"He graduated [high school] with no honors and no skills," the bio reads. "Requiring neither, a broadcasting career seemed a natural."
In addition to the self-deprecating humor, Imus retains influence because he is able to attract a highly desirable audience.
"Book sellers, senators, congressmen, media personalities and even clergy are always after the same audience as Imus' advertisers: Affluent, educated and influential men, many of whom not only buy books, but count as swing votes," David Kiley wrote on BusinessWeek Online in 2005.
Kiley also cited Imus as politically neutral, avoiding the partisan baggage of talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken.
Talkers Magazine Online said Imus lets his guests have their say.
"Imus' interview style, unlike so many others, involves not interrupting his guests constantly and that allows him to get a lot of information out to the audience. It's a tactic that brings the biggest names to his nationally syndicated program back again and again," the Web site said.
Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain said Monday that IMUS' comments haven't dissuaded him from appearing on the show.
"Whether he needs to do more in order to satisfy the concerns of people like the members of that team, that's something that's between him and them," the senator from Arizona said.
The controversy didn't seem to hurt Imus' guest list on Tuesday. Comedian Bill Maher, CBS News political analyst Jeff Greenfield and former President Jimmy Carter's chief of staff Hamilton Jordan all appeared.
Imus himself said Tuesday he could recover.
"I have a history of keeping my word," he said on NBC's "Today" show about pledges to more carefully watch his words.
Imus began his radio career in Palmdale, California, in the desert east of Los Angeles, and worked his way through Cleveland, Ohio, to New York. His New York show was successful, But a long-running battle with alcohol and drug addiction got him fired in 1977. After a stint back in Cleveland, he returned to New York. His current radio job at WFAN in New York began in 1979, when the station was known as WNBC. MSNBC began simulcasting the radio show in 1996.
While insults and controversy have long been a part of Imus, so has his work for causes in which he takes a deep interest.
He has raised millions for charity, more than $50 million, according to his MSNBC biography, financing the Tomorrows Children Fund, the CJ Foundation for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the Imus Ranch for children with cancer and a cancer research facility in Hackensack, New Jersey.
Radio host Don Imus has recovered from controversial remarks in the past.