Television: Sitting Here in Limbaugh
December 29, 1991
How to do Rush Limbaugh? It’s a serious politicomedic question, a challenge for anyone of the liberal/left persuasion who stammers in the face of right-wing-but-funny. You dread sounding shrill, so you develop a grudging respect, maybe even a winking approval for the talk show host who has the nation’s right ear. You begin casting him in a whimsical light to avoid casting yourself as someone who can’t take a joke.
Better you laugh with success than it laugh at you. Limbaugh is the nation’s No. 1 radio talk show host, with 530 stations and some 13 million listeners tuning in for his daily three-hour program. His three-month-old TV show, in which he cavorts guestless 30 minutes a night, is syndicated in 203 markets and many weeks is the No. 3 late-night talk show, topped only by Nightline and Leno. His book, The Way Things Ought To Be, has been the No. 1 hardback bestseller for 14 weeks.
Success begets tolerance. Even reluctant libs look at Limbaugh in a new light — Shirley MacLaine, as he tells it, communed deeply with him at a star-studded Manhattan party. News stories, which invariably dub him a “rock and roll Republican,” tend to chuckle over the bombastic, entertainment-value Rush, repeating his patented lines about “environmentalist wackos,” “feminazis,” and the boast that he has “talent on loan from God” — while they ignore the more heated moments, like his defense of Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice’s declaration that America is “a Christian nation.” Literal to a fault (when he wants to be), Rush explains that Fordice is right, because “86 per cent of Americans claim to be Christian.” Liberals who act like they’re threatened with a concentration camp “need a psychiatrist.”
Still, Rush is not a screaming hatemonger like Bob Grant or Morton Downey Jr. He’s got charm, humor (though personally I’ve yet to laugh out loud), and ideology — a combo as bedeviling to “the dominant media” as Ross Perot’s magic. (The author of the nation’s No. 1 paperback nonfiction book during the election, Ross was Rush’s one true rival and a daily target of his ridicule.) Of course, the media eventually struck back at Perot, a fate Limbaugh evades by not running for office, though he is often asked to.
All of which may well make him, as he’s also fond of repeating, “The most dangerous man in America.” That says it all: He mocks liberals who believe a funny conservative is dangerous, and yet this roly-poly marshmallow, who once shied away from television because of his girth, wants the world to know he stings.
“How to do Rush?” parallels the nagging ’80s question of how to do Ronald Reagan. And that parallel bounces off another: Reagan’s former media consultant, Roger Ailes, is Rush’s TV executive producer. With another former Ailes client, George Bush, out, the Republicans scrambling, and Pat Buchanan a Party pooper, it’s reasonable to conclude: Rush Limbaugh is the country’s foremost conservative.
If Rush has reached that prickly pinnacle, it’s because he’s determined to prove that conservatives just want to have fun. Limbaugh’s real mission is to show that liberals are a bunch of p.c. killjoys, that their web of political do’s and don’t’s restrains the natural expansiveness of man. (Which is an indirect way for Republicans to say, “I am not sexually repressed!”)
And so every day, millions tune into Rush to get permission to have fun. Every now and then, Rush bursts forth and bellows that he’s “having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have” (a locution that contains the conservative seeds of fun’s repression). Recently Joan from Birmingham called the TV show. She’s one of Rush’s biggest fans, she assured him, but she has to say it, she just got tired of his Clinton-bashing. Rush’s response was characteristic: First he retreated — lied, waffled, you might say — claiming that he doesn’t bash. Then he attacked: “My guy lost and I’m having a good time,” he said soon as Joan got off the phone (always polite, he stabs callers only behind their backs). “Joan’s guy won and she’s miserable.” The point, as always, is to show that liberals are constitutionally crybabies.
In this, Rush is at least consistent. The day after the election, despite much radio caller moaning, he declared he wasn’t going to get depressed or blame the media — that would be no better than the Democrats blaming Willie Horton for ’88. He exhorted his audience to get on with their lives, to prosper despite the economic disaster Clinton will surely bring, and “not look at whoever’s in the White House as your Daddy.”
Perhaps his cheer is forced. It’s possible that Limbaugh is merely a creature of the Reagan-Bush era, and maybe, please please please, he’ll just fade away. If the next few years improve the economic lot of his fans — people whose instinct is less for Rush’s ideological conservativism than for Perot’s fed-up populism — Rush might find himself with less to say and begin feeding more and more off his media stardom, devouring his own tail. Already a promo-for-a-promo feel courses through the broadcasts: His TV show refers to and plugs his radio show, his radio plugs his TV, and both plug his newsletter (“printed on nonrecycled paper”) and his book — shelves of which serve as backdrop on the show’s set. To top it off, he regularly reads excerpts of both rave and attack reviews (and I can’t write this without imagining him reading the most flat-footed parts on the air to prove me wrong wrong wrong and no fun!).
But that’s wishful thinking. Limbaugh will thrive. Sure, the shows have lost some angry oomph since the election, but then, hasn’t life? With subjects like gays in the military and Marge Schott, he’ll have plenty to play with. In fact, he’ll be a refreshingly fearless critic of Clinton’s inevitable hypocrisies.
After the wistful question of whether his show will survive, the other query you hear most in New York — where Rush works and lives (on the Upper West Side!) but where people seem barely aware of the national legend (his TV ratings here are among the lowest, despite the recent switch from Channel 9 at 12:30 a.m. to Channel 5 at 11 a.m.) — is: He doesn’t really believe half the stuff he says, does he? Way more than half. As Limbaugh told USA Today, his views are “honestly held and sincerely offered. But the arrogance is pure, 100 per cent shtick — an attempt at humor.”
The big brag is his key attempt at humor. “This show is not about what you think,” he tells his audience. “This show is about what I think.” The big brag simultaneously inflates his importance and, by its obviousness, preempts audience resentment. The brag’s his free-market ideology in action, a blow-up toy version of letting the individual, not the government, do it.
Whether or not he becomes King of the Right Wing, the daily debates over just where does Mr. Limbaugh stand play right into his self-referential media politics. Is he far right-wing? callers ask. Does he like Pat Robertson? (His disassociation from the reverend is most delicate.) In Rush’s lexicon, he’s from “the Bennett/Kemp/Limbaugh wing of the Republican Party.” He also defends Pat Buchanan’s “religious war” and is antiabortion, but he’s not a prude. Soft-core blasphemy is a frequent motif: To announce his book’s reemergence at the top of the lists last month, he said, “For three weeks Madonna sat atop me [audience laughs] on The New York Times hardcover [on “hard” he squinches his face like he can’t stand the overstimulation] nonfiction bestseller list. But now I sit atop Madonna [oohs and boos], and she is going down.”
Other good things ab-out Rush, quickly:
• He makes ideas understandable in plain English, without talking down to the audience. In fact, unlike Reagan or Bush, Limbaugh exalts the intellect and is vaguely pro-brains: “With half my brains tied behind my back to make it even,” he says daily.
• When you agree with him — go Rush! He was ruthless on Perot, doing one of his “Updates” — song parodies on topical subjects — to the tune of “Secret Agent Man.”
• Liberal p.c. needs to be pierced.
A few sickening things about Rush:
• One of his spoof Updates is about the homeless. Only under pressure did he drop an AIDS Update set to “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” (Is there a Lee Atwater-deathbed apology in the making here?)
• He avoids direct discussion about race, couching any talk about, say, Jesse Jackson or Spike Lee in their liberal politics. Theoretically, that’s fair. But in actuality, his almost all-white audience easily fills in the cracks, which he gleefully widens: Delighted that the Colorado boycott forced Mayor David Dinkins to choose between two politically correct forces — gays or Denver’s black mayor, Wellington Webb, who asked him not to support the boycott — Limbaugh went on and on about how Dinkins and Webb were “black bros,” repeating “bro” eight times, apparently because it was just so darn funny. His understanding of racism is, at best, pre-adolescent: Iman, “a black woman,” is “beautiful … that means I’m not racist.”
• Almost everything he says on women is suspect. He just doesn’t know women, feminist or otherwise. He’s obviously afraid of them, as he admitted in Vanity Fair, because he felt unattractive and never had a date in high school. But the twice-divorced Rush can’t see his own projection: Women become the ugly desperate ones, as proven in one of his “35 undeniable truths about life”: “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.” And while he railed against Gloria Steinem for calling Al D’Amato a Nazi, he’s continued to call feminists “feminazis.” Why, Rush is just heilarious!
Such rabidness smoothed by a likable personality would seem to make him a TV natural. But there’s something off about the show. Maybe it’s because Rush plays himself sweeter and safer on TV, afraid his more free-wheeling radio rant will lose him his chance for TV glory.
TV glory seems important to Limbaugh and Ailes — they’ve been “using the medium” to the hilt. Viewers send in video Rush paeans; Rush regularly shows TV clips of his favorite enemies in the act of a liberal gaffe. But without guests and with only an occasional caller, the props are just a diversion — there’s an emptiness at the heart of the show. Oddly it’s an emptiness echoed, not countered, by the presence of a live audience.
Their laughter sounds canned. Maybe it’s because they’re trying to have more fun than a human being should be allowed to have; maybe it’s because, laughing only on Rush’s cues, their laughter is canned. Lookswise, they could pass as The Rushford Lives: 98 per cent of the men wear suits and ties.
Ultimately, it’s Rush’s relationship to his audience that defines him as either dangerous man or mere media darling. The most telling Rush phrase I’ve left till last: “Dittos.” Years back, callers were wasting valuable radio time praising him before they got on to their questions. He suggested they just say “dittos” and everyone would get the point. So people became “dittoheads” and greet him with “megadittos” from Omaha or Dallas. The special phrases that pass between Rush and audience have become a kind of nationwide baby talk, a gurgly lingo that only the in-love understand.
Though Rush urges his audience to think for themselves, like a good individualistic-minded conservative should, most everything in his spiel tells them to think like him. “You don’t have to think. I’ll do the thinking for you.” He’s being ironic, very — but many in his audience don’t get the irony and just get upset. In his own way, he wants to warn them away from followerhood — but he’d be a nobody without it.
The shows crackle with the contradiction. Never does the audience challenge him more than when they think he’s deviated from the track he’s warned them to stay on. Postelection, he apparently said something nice on the radio about Clinton (I missed what it was, but heard the hemorrhaging). As caller after caller berated him, Rush categorically denied that he had said the nice thing. Thus the faithful rose to their most noble, calling him, in so many words, a liar. One woman, after validating herself as a megadittohead, took him on, articulately and fearlessly, and dared him to replay the tape. OK, I thought, finally someone smart, strong, someone who “gets the joke” challenging him on his own ground. Will he finally be punctured, for real?