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Thursday, April 9, 2015
Commentary Magazine - How to understand Rush Limbaugh
Rush talked about this at length on his program today, the outstanding Commentary Magazine article from 2011 detailing the success of Radio Icon Rush Limbaugh:
How to Understand Rush Limbaugh One of the many strategic errors made by the Obama administration in the early days of 2009 was its decision to take on talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh—though it was, perhaps, hard to blame the president and his people for trying. After all, they were riding the wave of a big electoral win and feeling pretty invincible, with large majorities in both houses of Congress and a messiah in the White House, and Limbaugh had just stunned the country, days before Obama was inaugurated, by summarizing his feelings about the new president in four simple words: “I hope he fails.” Limbaugh impatiently brushed aside the happy talk about compromise and bipartisan cooperation and scoffed at the claim that Obama was a pragmatic, post-ideological, post-partisan, post-racial conciliator and healer. Instead, he saw every reason to believe that Obama would aggressively pursue a leftist dream agenda: an exponential expansion of government’s size and power, a reordering of the American economic system, and a dismantling of America’s role as a world power. Limbaugh was not alone in such views, but he was the only major figure on the right willing to stick his neck out at a time when the rest of the nation seemed dazed into acquiescence by the so-far impeccably staged Obama ascendancy. Such was the mood of the moment that it seemed a sullen breach of etiquette to utter any such criticism. In any event, the White House quickly concluded that Limbaugh’s statement was a rare blunder and that hay was to be made of it. What better way to sow division among the Republicans, and confine them to a tiny corner of American political life, than to identify Rush Limbaugh as the “real head” of their party and brand him as an unpatriotic extremist and sore loser—or, in the light-touch description of longtime Clinton adviser Paul Begala, as “a corpulent drug addict with an AM radio talk show”? If they could succeed in this angle of attack, they would kill two birds with one stone, marginalizing their most popular antagonist while rendering the opposition party impotent with embarrassment and internal squabbling. Each Republican would face a choice of embracing the glittering “new age” of Obama and gathering a few scraps from beneath the Democratic table or following Rush into the fever swamps of an embittered permanent minority and getting nothing at all. _____________ The Democrats’ strategy backfired. Limbaugh’s vocal opposition to the stimulus package, which he dubbed “Porkulus,” helped galvanize a unanimous Republican vote in opposition—an astonishing achievement of partisan unity that would be repeated in subsequent lopsided votes on health care and other issues—and would lay the blame for these failed policies entirely on the Democrats’ doorstep, culminating in a huge and decisive electoral pushback against the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. The question of whether Limbaugh was or is the “real leader” of the Republican Party suddenly became far less interesting to the White House and its friends in the media, perhaps because the answer was turning out to be something different from what they had expected. Limbaugh had goaded them into elevating his own importance; and in focusing on him and other putative “leaders,” they blinded themselves to the spontaneous and broad-based popular revolt that was rising against them. In retrospect, the amazing part of the story is how thoroughly the White House misunderstood Limbaugh’s appeal, his staying power, and his approach to issues. It also points to a curious fact about Limbaugh’s standing in the mind of much of the American media and the American left. Even though they talk about him all the time, he’s the man who isn’t quite there. By which I mean that there is a stubborn unwillingness, both wishful and self-defeating, to recognize Limbaugh for what he is, take him seriously, and grant him his legitimate due. Many of his detractors have never even listened to his show, for example. Some of his critics regularly refer to him as Rush “Lim-bough” (like a tree limb), as if his name is so obscure to them that they cannot even remember how to pronounce it. In short, he is never quite acknowledged as the formidable figure he clearly is. Instead, he is dismissed in one of two ways—either as a comic buffoon, a passing phenomenon in the hit parade of American pop culture, or as a mean-spirited apostle of hate who appeals to a tiny lunatic fringe. These two views are not quite compatible, but they have one thing in common: they both aim to push him to the margins and render him illegitimate, unworthy of respectful attention. This shunning actually works in Limbaugh’s favor because it creates the very conditions that cause him to be chronically underestimated and keeps his opposition chronically off-balance. Indeed, Limbaugh’s use of comedy and irony and showmanship are integral to his modus operandi, the judo by which he draws in his opponents and then uses their own force to up-end them. And unless you make an effort to hear voices outside the echo chamber of the mainstream media, you won’t have any inkling of what Limbaugh is all about or of how widely his reach and appeal extend. The influence is real and pervasive. Like it or not, Rush Limbaugh is unarguably one of the most important figures in the political and cultural life of the United States in the past three decades. His national radio show has been on the air steadily for nearly 23 years and continues to command a huge following, upward of 20 million listeners a week on 600 stations. The only reason it is not even bigger is that his success has spawned so many imitators, a small army of talkers such as Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, and so on, who inevitably siphon off some of his market share. He has been doing this show for three hours a day, five days a week, without guests (except on rare occasions), using only the dramatic ebb and flow of his monologues, his always inventive patter with callers, his “updates,” song parodies, mimicry, and various other elements in his DJ’s bag of tricks. He is equipped with a resonant and instantly recognizable baritone voice and an unusually quick and creative mind, a keen and independent grasp of political issues and political personalities, and—what is perhaps his greatest talent—an astonishing ability to reformulate complex ideas in direct, vivid, and often eloquent ways, always delivering his thoughts live and unscripted, out there on the high wire. He conducts his show in an air of high-spiritedness and relaxed good humor, clearly enjoying himself, always willing to be spontaneous and unpredictable, even though he is aware that every word he utters on the air is being recorded and tracked by his political enemies in the hope that he will slip up and say something career-destroying. Limbaugh the judo master is delighted to make note of this surveillance, with the same delight he expresses when one of his “outrageous” sound bites makes the rounds of the mainstream media, and he can then play back all the sputtering but eerily uniform reactions from the mainstream commentators, turning it back on them with a well-placed witticism. There are countless examples of his judo skills at work, but perhaps the most spectacular was the one in the fall of 2007, in which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sought to humiliate Limbaugh only to have the humiliation returned to him threefold. Limbaugh had a caller who complained that the mainstream media would not interview “real soldiers” in Iraq but instead sought out the disgruntled. Limbaugh, in agreement, cited the case of Jesse MacBeth, an Army enlistee who had failed to make it through boot camp but lied about his lack of real military service in order to speak credibly at anti-war rallies. Limbaugh called MacBeth, accurately, a “phony soldier.” But his statement was quickly pulled out of context by Media Matters, one of the Democratic groups that monitors Limbaugh’s every word, and was reframed as a swipe at all soldiers who had misgivings about the war. Limbaugh was denounced in the House for “sliming” the “brave men and women.” Reid used the occasion to address the Senate and deplore Limbaugh’s “unpatriotic comments” for going “beyond the pale of decency” and then wrote a letter to Limbaugh’s syndicator demanding that the talk-show host be repudiated. But Reid overplayed his hand. Far from running from the controversy, Limbaugh embraced it. He read Reid’s letter on the air, revealing it for the dishonest and bullying document it was, and then, in a stroke of pure genius, announced that he would auction it on eBay and give the proceeds to a military charitable foundation. The letter was sold for $2.1 million, and Rush matched the contribution with his own $2.1 million. Reid could only express his pleasure that the letter had done so much good. He had been flipped onto his back. _____________ Given Limbaugh’s talents and achievements, one would have thought that even his detractors would have an interest in knowing more about him: who he is, where he came from, and why he has acquired and kept such a large and devoted following. But in fact, there has been a remarkable lack of curiosity on that score and little incentive to go beyond the sort of routine demonization that only strengthens him. It was not until 2010 that a reasonably fair-minded account of Limbaugh’s life and work, by the journalist Zev Chafets, appeared in print.1 As Chafets reports in the book’s acknowledgments, it was not easy finding a publisher willing to take on such a book, unless it had the words “idiot” or “liar” in the title, since, as one friend explained it to him, “I have to go out for lunch in this city every day.” So call it a politically correct lack of curiosity, then; but whatever the reason, it has meant our missing out on a fascinating story of a very American life. But not missing out entirely, since much of the story comes across in Limbaugh’s own account of himself on his show. Anyone can figure out from listening to the show that he was and is a quintessential radio guy, a product of that fluid, wide-open, insecure, enterprising, somewhat hardscrabble, somewhat gonzo world of the AM radio disc jockey, in which salesmanship and showmanship were two names for the same thing and in which incessant changes of name and employer were the most predictable element of life: “packing and unpacking, town to town, up and down the dial” in the words of the theme song of WKRP in Cincinnati, the 1970s TV sitcom that captured some of the knockout zaniness of that world. Limbaugh was smitten early and permanently with the romance of radio and never really wanted to do anything else with his life, including bothering to go to college, let alone taking on his birthright, the leadership of the family law firm. It was a business one could learn only in the doing. While still in high school, he started working at KMGO-AM in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, spinning discs in the afternoons under the name “Rusty Sharpe.” Later, he was “Jeff Christie,” morning-drive DJ on WIXZ-AM in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where he hosted “The Solid Rockin’ Gold Show.” There was a move to Kansas City, where he would eventually begin dabbling in political discussion, and then finally KFBK in Sacramento, where he followed in the footsteps of the unpleasantly provocative Morton Downey Jr. and was able to do politically oriented talk as a solo act without guests and using his own name, finally developing the bombastic Limbaugh persona (“El Rushbo” with “talent on loan from Gawww-duh”) and the familiar epithets (“Feminazis” and “Environmentalist Wackos”) applied to his designated opponents. In Sacramento, he perfected his formula and proved a great success, tripling Downey’s already sizable audience and attracting the attention of syndicator Ed McLaughlin, who in 1988 brought him to WABC in New York to do The Rush Limbaugh Program, 21 years after those first broadcasts back at KMGO.
Read the rest of the Commentary article on Rush Limbaugh here.