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.
On arriving in New York, Limbaugh immediately set to work building his affiliate network and his general visibility, charging forward indefatigably on all fronts at once. He wasted no time plunging the show into the 1988 presidential campaign, branding Michael Dukakis “The Loser” and assigning him update theme music drawn from the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser,” emphasizing the refrain: “ . . . and I’m not what I appear to be,” a dig at the Massachusetts governor’s futile effort to disguise or downplay his liberalism. He began giving one-man “Rush to Excellence” tours around the country. These efforts paid off very quickly. By 1990, the radio-show audience had hit 20 million; his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be, was released in 1992 and sold 2 million copies in six weeks, making it at that point the fastest-selling volume in publishing history.
But he really hit his stride with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. The two men seemed to have an elective non-affinity, perhaps because they were both baby-boomer know-it-alls from the same general region of the country (Limbaugh from southeastern Missouri, Clinton from Arkansas), and perhaps because Limbaugh’s unprecedented and growing influence was so intensely and visibly annoying to the ambitious young politician. Clinton, after all, had come into office borne on a wave of mainstream hosannas, and expectations were high after the 12-year Republican control of the White House. But Limbaugh turned out to be a serious obstacle to him every step of the way, proving to be a major force in rallying public opinion against Clinton’s own health-care overhaul and helping to lay the groundwork for the anti-Clinton 1994 electoral tsunami. The newly elected Republicans even made him an honorary member of the freshman class of 1995, an honor he coveted, even though he has always thought of himself as a conservative rather than a Republican.
For some time, the early Clinton years represented Limbaugh’s high point. Clinton pushed back, effectively (if outrageously) associating Limbaugh and talk radio with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and winning re-election in 1996 in a walk, running against an aging and ineffective Bob Dole. That did not mean that Limbaugh let up, and the events surrounding Monica Lewinsky in 1998 gave him a rich new target, as did the electoral chaos of 2000. But a cluster of personal issues, including charges relating to the abuse of prescription drugs and a catastrophic loss of his hearing, all seemed to conspire to place a ceiling on his influence. There was a noticeable ebbing of energy in the show at times, and it was not immune to the fracturing effect the Bush 43 presidency had on conservatives, with internal differences emerging on issues ranging from the prescription-drug entitlement to the Iraq war to immigration reform.
But all that seems to have changed, and Limbaugh clearly has the wind at his back again with a newly growing audience. Like the radio guy he is and always will be, he is a survivor. He has wisely chosen to avoid television for the most part after a syndicated television show successful with audiences (and produced by Roger Ailes in the early 1990s in a warm-up for Ailes’s unprecedented triumph as the creator of the Fox News Channel) proved less so with advertisers. Events, too, have moved his way. The abject failure of the John McCain campaign vindicated many of Limbaugh’s longstanding complaints about the more moderate wing of the Republican Party. And the rise of Obama has proved nothing less than a godsend for him—though only because he had the boldness to seize the opportunity it presented.
Occasionally, Limbaugh will talk on his show about radio, past, present, and future, and you understand that his great success is no accident. Able to draw with minuteness on more than four decades of work experience, he has achieved a comprehensive and detailed grasp of the technical, performing, and business dimensions of the industry, all of which give him an unmatched understanding of the medium and its possibilities. But it is more than a wonk’s understanding. He has a deep-in-the-bones feeling for what is magical about radio at its best—its immediacy, its simplicity, its ability to create the richness of imagined places and moments with just a few well-placed elements of sound, its incomparable advantages as a medium for storytelling with the pride of place that it gives to the spoken word and the individual human voice, abstracted from all other considerations. He probably also understands why he himself is not nearly so good on TV, faced as he is with the classic McLuhanesque problem of a hot personality in a cool medium.
He also understood why predictions of radio’s demise have repeatedly been proved wrong, why AM radio has lent itself particularly well to the kind of simple and easy interactivity on which talk thrives, and why the movement of talk radio into the AM band would have the same revitalizing effect there as an urban homesteader turning a decrepit old townhouse into a place of elegance and commodity. AM radio was supposed to have died off years ago due to its weak and tinny sound. But the takeover by talk in the early 1990s, primarily due to Limbaugh, managed to transform a decaying and outdated infrastructure into the perfect vehicle for the medium’s own aspirations.
It could not have happened without the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Interactive talk of one sort or another had been around since the earliest days of radio, and there had been, of course, plenty of local talk shows, mostly conservative in flavor, on many stations. But the Fairness Doctrine kept them within bounds, obliging stations holding broadcast licenses to offer equal representation to all sides of a controversial issue and to provide coverage to issues of local importance. They imposed these requirements on the ground that channels were limited and so it was necessary to ensure that they served the larger public interest.
But with the vast and rapid growth of cable and satellite television and radio and other new media, this requirement no longer made any sense. The doctrine was abolished, and the way was opened for a show like Limbaugh’s to go into national syndication. His show could never have been sustained with the doctrine in place, a fact that has helped fuel the occasional expressions of Democratic interest—most recently coming from Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois—in its reinstitution.
It would be hard, though, to accomplish that without sparking something like an actual revolt in this country. Talk radio is, implicitly, talk-back radio—a medium tuned into during times of frustration, exasperation, even desperation, by people who do not find that their thoughts, sentiments, values, and loyalties are fairly or even minimally represented in the “official” media. Such feelings may be justified or unjustified, wholesome or noxious; but in any event they are likely to fester and curdle in the absence of some outlet in which they can be expressed. Talk radio is a place where people can go to hear opinions freely expressed that they will not hear elsewhere, and where they can come away with a sense of confirmation that they are not alone, are not crazy, and are not wrong to think and feel such things. The existence of such frustrations and fears are the sine qua non of talk radio; it would not exist without them.
But that is not all. Without Limbaugh’s influence, talk radio might well have become a dreary medium of loud voices, relentless anger, and seething resentment, the sort of thing that the New York screamer Joe Pyne had pioneered in the 50s and 60s—“go gargle with razor blades,” he liked to tell his callers as he hung up on them—and that one can still see pop up in some of Limbaugh’s lesser epigones. Or it might have descended to the sometimes amusing but corrosive nonstop vulgarity of a Howard Stern. Limbaugh himself can be edgy, though almost always within PG-rated boundaries. But what he gave talk radio was a sense of sheer fun, of lightness, humor, and wit, whether indulging in his self-parodying Muhammad Ali–like braggadocio, drawing on his vast array of American pop-cultural reference points, or, in moving impromptu mini-sermons, reminding his listeners of the need to stay hopeful, work hard, and count their blessings as Americans. In such moments, and in many other moments besides, he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature. He transmutes the anger and frustration of millions of Americans into something more constructive.
The critics may be correct that the flourishing of talk radio is a sign of something wrong in our culture. But they mistake the effect for the cause. Talk radio is not the cause, but the corrective. In our own time, and in the person of Rush Limbaugh, along with others of his talk-radio brethren, a problem of long-standing in our culture has reached a critical stage: the growing loss of confidence in our elite cultural institutions, including the media, universities, and the agencies of government. The posture and policies of the Obama presidency, using temporary majorities and legislative trickery to shove through massive unread bills that will likely damage the nation and may subvert the Constitution, have brought this distrust to a higher level. The medium of talk radio has played a critical role in giving articulate shape and force to the resistance. If it is at times a crude and bumptious medium, it sometimes has to be, to disarm the false pieties and self-righteous gravitas in which our current elites too often clothe themselves. Genuinely democratic speech tends to be just that way, in case we have forgotten.
1 Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, Sentinel, 240 pages.