Practically from the beginning I have been asked by reporters to explain the show’s success. I never thought about why and in truth I was afraid of finding out. My fear was that the discovery would cause me to become a caricature of myself; that is, I would try to be myself rather than just be myself.
An interesting fear. Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote that we are all “impersonators of ourselves,” and Rush Limbaugh senses the danger of being trapped in the impersonation. Yet he revels in his persona, and in parodying it. He describes himself with mock egomania: “talent on loan from God,” “the epitome of morality and virtue,” “the cutting edge of societal evolution,” and of course, “Excellence in Broadcasting.”
Three hours a day on radio, plus another half-hour on TV, Limbaugh rules the airwaves. So far the nation shows no sign of getting sated with him. The radio show beams from 594 stations, and may pass 600 by the time you read this, claiming nearly 15 million listeners.
Not just listeners: enthusiasts, “Dittoheads,” as they are called, signifying absolute agreement with Limbaugh’s conservative views. (Callers to his show, matching his mock egotism with mock adoration, greet him with “megadittoes.”) The Dittoheads also have countless “Rush Rooms”—rooms consecrated to listening to Rush—around the country, including five in Washington, D.C. Limbaugh’s book, The Way Things Ought to Be, has topped the best-seller lists for more than six months. His “Rush to Excellence” tours pack auditoriums across what he likes to call the Fruited Plain.
The Dittoheads span the white middle- and working- classes. If you’ve ridden in a cab or taken your car to the garage or visited a small business lately, you’ve found that Rush is inescapable, from sea to shining sea, inveighing comically against “feminazis,” “environmentalist wackos,” “the imperial Congress,” individual malefactors (Bill and Hillary, “the Rev-uh-rend Jesse Jackson,” Mario “Coomo,” Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank), and “The Media.” The latter, of course, don’t seem to include himself, the most sensational phenomenon in broadcasting.
It’s easy to see why they don’t. “The Media” have come to mean an ideological family, part of the whole political system Middle America is disgusted with. Rush is not a member of that family. He shares neither its views nor its pretense of having no views. Time, Newsweek, and “Nightline,” to name a few, have all viewed “talk radio,” meaning primarily Rush, with alarm, as a hotbed of demagogy, especially after Rush fanned national outrage over congressional check-kiting. (The New Yorker has been driven to sniff about the need for “mediating institutions,” as opposed to the rule by rabble fostered by Limbaugh and his ilk.)
Limbaugh delights in the alarm he inspires. He likes to quote hysterical liberals who call him things like “the most dangerous man in America.” Dangerous? “I’m just a harmless, lovable little fuzzball,” he puffs, tongue ever in cheek.
But that raises the question, Then why do some people think he’s dangerous?
Rush Limbaugh was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1951. His father, who died in 1990, was a lawyer, whose sternly conservative politics Rush inherited. His mother was more easy-going, and Rush credits her with giving him his sense of humor. He dropped out of college after a year; his passion was always radio. During the Sixties he worked as a disc jockey, then went to the Kansas City Royals (as a publicist, not a centerfielder), and, after shuttling around the country from Pittsburgh to Sacramento, eventually got back into radio. “I have been fired seven times,” he says. By 1983, Rush was making only $18,000 a year—less than he’d been making ten years earlier in Pittsburgh—and feeling low.
In 1984, he finally got his own radio talk show in Sacramento, along with the freedom to do it his own way. He credits that freedom as the key to his success: for the first time he was allowed to please himself. He pleased lots of others in the process. The show was such a hit that within four years it went into national syndication. He moved to New York.
Those were the Reagan years, when conservatives were finding themselves in demand, even in the despised media. Limbaugh was, and remains, a profoundly loyal Reaganite. Though he was also loyal to George Bush (even when, last year, a large part of his audience turned to Ross Perot, in some ways Rush’s obvious populist counterpart), in a way he has been filling the void Reagan left in January of 1989. Since then, there has been no real middle American voice of conservatism like Limbaugh. “The last surviving idiocy of the Reagan-Bush years,” jeers the columnist Alexander Cockburn, one of the last surviving relics of the Stalin years. Jeering aside, Terry Eastland has observed that Rush is the only man since Reagan who can appeal to all the warring branches of conservatism.
Limbaugh is careful to put humor ahead of politics. “I have always viewed radio as an entertainment medium, a part of show biz,” he says. He has never hidden his conservatism and has always milked politics for humor, but to him the humor is paramount. Above all, he has to amuse. So he was surprised when his opinions turned out to be integral to his appeal. “People were going crazy over the show—primarily because of my political point of view.”
Which some saw, and see, as dangerous. But to whom? Well, to professional politicians, for sure. At a time when the “adversary press” has disappeared (it was adversarial only toward Republicans anyway), Limbaugh whips up something worse than anger: derision.
He isn’t unique in this. For more than a decade, politicians have realized that comedians can be their deadliest enemies. To become a Carson gag could be lethal, as Jimmy Carter learned. But before Limbaugh, most political humor came from the center (Carson, Leno) or left (Mark Russell, George Carlin, “Saturday Night Live”). As Henry Allen of the Washington Post has noted, everything is political nowadays: what you wear, what you eat, how you make love. Politics no longer means a few cigar-smoking old guys making deals in the back room. Now it means, to put it briefly, Hillary. It’s less a department than a dimension of life, and it has become interwoven with, among many other things, news and entertainment. Show biz and politics are merging. Limited government is gone; so are limitations on the media.
Yet Limbaugh is different from the rest. Both left and center share the premises of modern politics. They accept government in nearly every area of life. Even the pro-abortion lobby’s call for “getting government out of the bedroom” implies that it’s all right for the government to rummage through the rest of the house.
Limbaugh instinctively denies all this. He has a philosophy, and he can expound it at length, but what he really has in common with his audience is that he feels crowded, imposed on, and even tyrannized by modern politics. He’s not melodramatic about it; he prefers the vein of humor. In fact, when I first heard him, I wondered whom he was reminding me of. Then I realized: he sounds just like everyone I grew up with in the Midwest! His voice has the comic musical gripe of the heartland, rising defensively to a falsetto of complaint. (You can hear it, for instance, in Paul Dooley as the long-suffering father in the movie Breaking Away: “Hell no, I don’t feel lucky to be alive. I feel lucky I’m not dead! There’s a difference!”
Though Rush is improbably based in New York City (where he is a regular at the posh restaurant “21”), his humor is straight Midwestern: corn, hyperbole, and bawdy. Outside the Beltway, which includes Manhattan, most folks prefer exaggeration to polish. The epigram is not Rush’s forte (pronounced “for-tay” in Missouri, when pronounced at all). The bigger the joke, the better. Good taste is optional. So when Rush talks about environmentalism, he adds sound effects: Andy Williams singing “Born Free,” interrupted by heavy gunfire. He can dispatch a pest with a “caller abortion,” ending the call to the sound of a vacuum cleaner and a woman’s piercing scream. On one of his videotaped tour appearances he has great success with an obscene routine involving a condom and Representative Barney Frank.
With the defeat of George Bush—some would say with the election of George Bush—liberalism has regained its old near-monopoly of the strongholds of power and opinion: the presidency, Congress, the media, the universities, Hollywood. Yet liberalism has never been so unpopular. This has created a golden opportunity for any conservative who could break into broadcasting in the role of vox populi. Limbaugh was ready, willing, and able. Already successful when the job opened up, he has become a colossus.
“Everything Reagan-Bush stood for has collapsed into disaster,” Cockburn has remarked (about a year after the Soviet Union ceased to exist). It seems that way, thanks mostly to Bush. But conservatives are still feisty, convinced that their vision, not liberalism’s has been vindicated by events, and that Bill Clinton won on a fluke.
Even now conservatives have more faith in their future than liberals have in theirs. Limbaugh embodies that faith. The progressive future is behind us, and it didn’t work. Rush is the first man in radio to treat progressive politics simply as one big joke. He isn’t profound, but he is very sharp, quick to spot the flaw in an opposing argument and to turn the flaw into risible lunacy. Unlike many conservatives, he doesn’t accept defeat. His message to liberals, even now, is that they’re just about finished.
And liberals are afraid of Limbaugh. When they call him “dangerous,” they have their reasons: for them, a near-monopoly isn’t enough. They want unanimity. Limbaugh’s mockery dissolves the respect and moral authority they once enjoyed. He has become a rallying point for popular sentiment, the bedrock feeling which the historian John Lukacs distinguishes from artificial “public opinion”—what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. Thanks to Rush, everyone no longer thinks everyone else is a liberal. The great mass of ordinary conservative people, most of whom aren’t “movement” conservatives, don’t feel lonely anymore: they get in touch with each other through Rush.
Limbaugh is also well aware of both the economic and the moral fault lines of today’s politics. “People look out over America and see over $1 trillion in transfers of money from producers to non-producers, and it hasn’t worked,” he told Margaret Carlson of Time. “And they see a continuing decadence…. [They yearn for] decency and decorum in life.”
He knows he speaks for the taxed and responsible against the subsidized and irresponsible. America used to be a country in which you could have certain moral expectations of your neighbors—that they would at least respect the Judeo-Christian moral code, take care of their children, and leave your property alone. Now it has become less a community, or community of communities, than a single, anomic political economy, in which to hold the old moral expectations is to “impose one’s religious views,” and in which citizens may loot each other through the medium of the state.
Twice divorced himself, Limbaugh doesn’t like to preach. But his satire serves moral purposes. He ridicules avatars of the New Morality, which has reached its depths in men like Kennedy and Frank. One of his cleverest inventions is a number called “The Philanderer,” based on the old Dion hit “The Wanderer” and sung by a skilled Kennedy impersonator. “The satire here is not subtle,” sniffed Walter Goodman, reviewing Limbaugh’s book for The New York Times several months after the rest of the country had bought and read hundreds of thousands of copies. You bet it isn’t subtle. Neither was Juvenal. The complaint is so New Yorkish! When the country is falling apart, there are other virtues than subtlety.
On abortion Limbaugh is dead serious, and he constantly tries to find new, unhackneyed analogies and lines of argument. He is also courageous on the issue: his firm anti-abortion stance drives away many who agree with him on most other matters. He doesn’t always put the market first.
Not especially religious by outward indications, Limbaugh seems to respect piety more than to exercise it. “America was founded as a Judeo-Christian country,” he says in his book. Nothing unconventional there, and the topic quickly moves to the separation of church and state—a political angle he is more comfortable with. “The separation of church and state in our Constitution is not there to protect Americans from religion,” he writes. “It is there to protect Americans from the government.” Nice. The rest of the chapter on religion, though, is mostly routine conservative stuff about “values” and “secular humanism.”
Not even all conservatives are Dittoheads. One friend of mine has found Rush “disappointing” whenever he has tuned in. “He takes too long getting around to the issues. He talks about himself too much. The jocular self-infatuation wears thin—I’m not sure it’s all jocular.” Well, that’s fair enough. A disproportionate part of the Limbaugh productions—show, book, videos, etc.—is devoted to The Wonder of Rush: how it all started, people who knew him when, his early struggles, how he finally made it, theories and secrets of his success, famous friends he has made, sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. It gets awfully cloying, but you have to realize that Rush is not so much in awe of himself as of his success—a very different thing.
One of Rush’s chief gifts is simply non-stop talking. Bill Buckley calls it his “preternatural fluency.” In radio you must avoid dead air above all things. It’s not a medium for, say, a Wittgenstein, however fruitful his long, thoughtful pauses may turn out to be: in radio, whereof one does not know, thereof one must frequently speak anyway. Others stop to think; Rush thinks while he talks.
Liberals once more have power. What they don’t have—what they may never have again—is legitimacy. The fall of communism is often said to have broken up the conservative movement, and there is a lot of truth in that. But in the long run the end of communism may prove more deeply subversive to liberalism, its kindred ideology.
The irony of liberalism is that, although liberals have opposed most military spending, their programs were accepted as long as they came in a package deal with national defense. Even the most conservative anti-communists thought the federal government, with all the unconstitutional excrescences of the New Deal and the Great Society, was worth putting up with during the Cold War, when national survival seemed to be at stake. But with no foreign threat, who needs the sprawling federal government? Only those who live off it. To the “producers,” as Limbaugh calls them, Washington is a huge parasite they would be far better off without: it constantly robs, impoverishes, reduces freedoms. Its legitimacy is further weakened by its assaults on traditional morality, assaults the Clintons are determined to step up. For many Americans, the salient fact about the federal government is that it has imposed abortion on demand in every state while it has proscribed such customs as school prayer—in short, that government has become the destroyer rather than the protector of a way of life they love. And as things now stand, their alienation from it is bound to grow. Unless a new Hitler or Stalin arises, they are likely to find their enemies not in Berlin or Moscow but in Washington.
Powerful as that government may seem, Limbaugh teaches its victims that they don’t owe it their moral deference. They can laugh at it. He may be both harbinger and efficient cause of a revolution in Americans’ attitudes toward their rulers.
You can see why some people think he’s dangerous.