Talent on Loan from the GOP

The Rush Limbaugh story
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IS there anything left to say about Rush Limbaugh? After reading two books by him and one book about him, plus following his radio show for several years and sporadically corresponding with him through E-mail, I still wonder about two things. One is whether the "crossover" formula that brought Limbaugh such spectacular success has now hit a fundamental limit. The other is the connection between Limbaugh's checkered personal history and his current political views.

Crossover appeal, comparable to what a rap or country group enjoys when it gets a mainstream following, is the thing that has set Limbaugh apart from other right-wing figures. I fear that most members of the professional class, and perhaps many readers of this magazine, will never take Limbaugh seriously enough or understand his appeal, because they have no chance to see him at his best.

If you hold a normal white-collar office job, you may have trouble hearing Limbaugh's radio program, which airs between noon and three Eastern time each weekday. If you have only heard about Limbaugh, or have heard him in any setting other than that of his daily program, you may be tempted to write him off as a shock-value fad, like Andrew Dice Clay or Morton Downey Jr. of yesteryear. Limbaugh's TV program, although it is competitive in its wee-hours slot, screams "fringe operation" in a way his radio program never does. The set is cheesy; the audience looks homogeneous and so slavish toward Limbaugh that its raucous laughter and applause actually undercuts the host's appeal—he looks as if he were leading a cult rather than earning a following. Limbaugh is infinitely better to listen to than to look at; this is a man made for radio as David Letterman is for TV. Both of Limbaugh's books have been No. 1 national bestsellers—in his skillful biography of Limbaugh, Paul D. Colford estimates that Limbaugh earned $5.5 million in book royalties and advances in 1992 alone. Yet neither book would explain Limbaugh's popularity to someone who had not heard the radio show. (The first book, The Way Things Ought to Be, is partly an autobiography and partly a digest of Limbaugh's political views, often taken straight from his radio broadcasts. The second, See, I Told You So, is a more straightforward, less interesting conservative tract.)

The element that has won for Limbaugh crossover listeners who would never sit still for Pat Buchanan or Jerry Falwell is his fusing of humor and Baby Boom—era pop culture with the conservative message. The power of this approach seems obvious now that Limbaugh has demonstrated it, but before him the only two people who had figured it out were Lee Atwater and P J O'Rourke. Conservatives like John Sununu and Dan Quayle would never choose "My City Was Gone," by the Pretenders, for theme music, because the lyrics of the song are explicitly anti-business: the city is "gone" in the song because of the ravages of capitalism. (Nor did Bill Clinton show much panache with his earnest and literal-minded campaign song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.") Limbaugh laughed off the contradictions and appropriated the song. Hearing its powerful bass line, more people would think nowadays of Limbaugh than of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde.

Anyone who has really listened to the radio show knows that Limbaugh is genuinely smart and funny—as opposed to merely shocking, like Morton Downey, Andrew Dice Clay, or the right-wing talk-show host of the 1960s, Joe Pyne. Through the 1970s Limbaugh bounced around the country as a Boss Jock-style disc jockey, known during much of this period as Jeff Christie. Because of his background he is more convincingly at ease with pop music than the Clintons or the Gores could ever be, and the best part of his show is his conversion of 1960s rock classics into parodies with a 1990s conservative message. The Beach Boys' "Little Old Lady From Pasadena" becomes an anti-Hillary tirade, "The Little First Lady With Megalomania." Dion's "The Wanderer" becomes "The Philanderer," sung by a beery Ted Kennedy sound-alike. These routines are mean-spirited, but they make me laugh, which is why I have often been among the daytime audience that, according to Limbaugh, now numbers 4.6 million at any given moment.

Liberals who are used to thinking of Limbaugh as another Falwell or Buchanan should instead think of his radio program, at its best, as another Saturday Night Live. What Chevy Chase did to the stumbling Gerald Ford and what Dana Carvey did to George Bush is what Limbaugh threatens to do, day in and day out, to the Clintons, Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and anyone else on the left.

The SNL comparison underscores Limbaugh's commercial achievement even as it suggests his impending limitation. When SNL began, its cast was called the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" precisely because its time slot seemed so dismal that the network had little to lose if the show failed. SNL's success helped reverse that thinking and made the slot itself attractive. In an even more dramatic way, Limbaugh's program has changed the prevailing wisdom about how the radio business works.

BY far the most interesting part of the books Limbaugh has written is his account of the obstacles he encountered getting a nationally syndicated daytime talk show on the air. Syndicated radio programs have been commonplace at night. Long before he became a fixture on CNN, for instance, Larry King ran an all-night nationwide call-in show on the Mutual radio network. But local stations were willing to carry these shows mainly because the advertising potential for evening programs was paltry; most listeners were home then, watching television. Daytime and "drive time" programming was far more valuable, and in the pre-Limbaugh era radio managers thought that daytime programs had to be (as Limbaugh puts it in his first book) "Local Local Local" in order to survive. Talk was fine, but it had to be about local politics, local celebrities, and local sports, and it had to provide a chance for local callers to get on the air. "We were planning to do what virtually everyone at any meaningful radio station in the country said was impossible: syndicate a controversial, issues-oriented program during the middle of the day," Limbaugh says in his first book, The real problem with the show was not that it was controversial or issues-oriented but that it came from out of town.

By the mid-1980s Limbaugh was running a call-in show on KFBK in Sacramento which prefigured his national show in both content and popularity. A radio veteran named Ed McLaughlin heard the show and persuaded Limbaugh to try to syndicate it. They realized that their plan could not succeed unless Limbaugh was based in either Los Angeles or New York and had outlets in both cities. They reached L.A. listeners through a tiny station in Simi Valley (which they later dropped when the giant L.A. station KFI picked them up), and squeezed into New York through a package deal with WABC. From 10:00 A.M. to noon Limbaugh did a purely local call-in show for WABC, and then from noon to 2:00 P.M. he used the same studio for his nation-wide program, heard in fifty-six other cities but not in New York.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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