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.

Paul Colford's biography of Limbaugh shows that Limbaugh's recollection of his rise is selective and self-serving on many points. For example, Colford points out that many of Limbaugh's distinctive pieces of stage business, from the "Dadalup! Dadalup!" introduction for news bits to his deliberate rattling of papers and other spoofs of on-air protocol, are derived from the disc jockey Larry Lujack, of Chicago's WLS, whom Limbaugh idolized as a boy. But Colford confirms Limbaugh's emphasis on the obstacles he faced, which make his success in changing the radio market all the more impressive. (Howard Stern is the best-known personality to have tried daytime syndication after Limbaugh showed that it was possible.)

Now, of course, Limbaugh is not a long shot but an industry. Colford estimates that in 1992 Limbaugh earned $4 million directly from his radio program, plus another $2.5 million from spinoff activities—including his "shockingly lucrative" newsletter, an eight-page monthly that goes to hundreds of thousands of subscribers at $29.95 a year. Limbaugh could not have built such a following on ideology alone. Ronald Reagan won landslide victories, but no one would listen to him for fifteen hours a week. People listened to the Limbaugh program because it was great entertainment.

This brings us back to Saturday Night Live. It, too, has a political bias—how many of its cast and crew can have voted for Bush or Reagan?—but it is not always predictable. In its time it has ridiculed Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and other Democrats. Limbaugh, in contrast, has become 100 percent predictable. He has not, as far as I know, said or written anything positive, ever, about Bill or Hillary Clinton. Nor in the past year and a half has he said anything remotely critical or disrespectful about Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, Clarence Thomas, William Bennett, or other inherently satirizable conservative characters.

Limbaugh earned the crossover part of his following because of his image as a wild man who was not afraid to make fun of anything. (His most notorious and memorable step in this direction was "caller abortions": ending unwanted phone calls with the sound of a vacuum cleaner and a tiny scream. How could liberals say this was in poor taste?, Limbaugh asked straight-faced. Weren't they the ones who said that abortions were okay?) But he is now manifestly afraid to make fun of the Republican Party or its platform. The result is as if SNL and David Letterman were afraid to make fun of Bill Clinton: the jokes get old when they're all the same. For people who don't agree with Limbaugh, his show has always been outrageous. Now it's dull. Limbaugh can certainly survive with an audience consisting only of believers, as Buchanan and Falwell do. But since crossover fans were so important to his ascent, it is puzzling that he would risk letting them drift away.

The shift seems to be traceable to one particular day. As recently as June 2, 1992, Limbaugh was free-swinging even against some Republicans. During the Republican primaries early that year Limbaugh had been very hard on George Bush for his recklessness and his deviation from the conservative line. Pat Buchanan's truculent campaign seemed matched to Limbaugh's outlook—and Limbaugh supported it on the air. "Rush was a big help to us during the primary campaign," Buchanan told me recently. "We used to travel around New Hampshire in the car, and Rush would come on the radio telling everybody that it would be a good thing to vote for Buchanan and shake Bush up." When Ross Perot first entered the race, Limbaugh was sympathetic to him, too. Paul Colford quotes Limbaugh's comments about Perot on June 1, 1992: "I think Perot convinces people that they matter again.... Say what you want about his lack of specificity, he's also the one candidate who doesn't run from a problem." Limbaugh criticizes Perot in his first book, but in the second simply ridicules him as a "hand grenade with a crewcut" and a "ubiquitous irritant." What happened?

On June 3 George Bush invited Rush Limbaugh to Washington. The two had dinner and took in a show together. Limbaugh stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom—where, according to Colford, he placed calls to his relatives saying, "You'll never guess where I am!" and "remained awake into the wee hours so that he could study and savor every detail of the Lincoln Bedroom." This kind of buttering-up may seem too obvious to be effective, as when Bill and Hillary Clinton started their "charm offensive" last summer by inviting White House reporters to dinner at the White House. But it generally works, and it worked miracles in Limbaugh's case.

From that day forward Limbaugh never said one word on his show that could be construed as hurting Bush's re-election effort (or at least none that I heard, and I was listening a lot at the time). Having proclaimed for years, and with good reason, that his show was so entertaining that it didn't need guests, he had both Bush and Quayle on the air and listened to them reverently. The significance of the change is not that Limbaugh backed Bush for re-election-millions of people did—but that one visit seemed to turn him around permanently. At the risk of pop-psychoanalyzing, something Limbaugh does every day on his show, let me suggest that his pliability is rooted in a strange insecurity.

THE life story hinted at in Limbaugh's books and spelled out in Colford's is a familiar one for people who end up as either comedians or disc jockeys. Limbaugh's father, Rush Limbaugh Jr., was a prominent small-town lawyer who looked down on his son's infatuation with radio. Indeed, Limbaugh says that his father never took his career seriously until he saw Rush Limbaugh III on Nightline. The years of youthful wallowing in pop culture that make a good comedian or DJ often mean a troubled school career. The on-air bravado and effusiveness of Limbaugh and other born DJs is very often accompanied by shyness and uncertainty in normal life. The DJs who sound so suave and confident were usually not seen that way when they were growing up. Even the most successful disc jockeys have usually had to move from city to city every few years. Limbaugh's early life sounds as if it fit this pattern. Moreover, he was by objective standards a failure well into his thirties. He was fired from several DJ jobs, had two short and unsuccessful marriages, was chronically broke, and spent five long years as a public-relations man for the Kansas City Royals, fearing that his radio career was over.

Limbaugh tells a version of this story on the air and in his books to make a point about the need to hold on to your dream. That's a good point, but his bumpy life story seems to have left Limbaugh inwardly vulnerable to the respectable world he mocks on-air. I remember being amazed two years ago when Limbaugh on his show described his excitement about having lunch with Peter Jennings. Limbaugh by then had more impact on U.S. politics than any anchorman, yet despite his "talent on loan from God" bombast he was clearly grateful for attention from someone he considered famous. The same tone came through in a profile of Limbaugh by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. Limbaugh could mock liberals and "feminazis" on the air, but in person he was (Dowd made clear) very eager to be liked.

George Bush, or someone near him, clearly figured out the political benefits of being nice to Limbaugh. There was an intellectual counterpart to this wooing process. As Limbaugh became more and more a party operative, his subject matter shifted too—from positions he'd developed to those he had obviously been fed.

While he was on his way up, Limbaugh's material was mainly cultural. Abortion, homelessness, environmental excess, feminism—you could hate what he said, but his positions were based on what he'd seen. He was sick of what he saw as liberal piety and was trying to poke holes in it and be funny at the same time. His opinions were political in the broadest sense but were not confined to straight party politics.

Then Limbaugh wrote his first book, based (to judge from his acknowledgments) on a draft by John Fund, of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Since then Limbaugh's emphasis has increasingly shifted to the Journal's own editorial-page causes, especially the doctrinaire version of supply-side economics. I disagree with the theory on its merits—but its merits are not its drawback for a radio show. There are two drawbacks: supplyside is more boring than Limbaugh's previous subjects, and it increasingly makes Limbaugh into the very thing he used to mock—a theorist out of touch with the realities of the world.

Whenever Limbaugh talks about economics in either book he comes out with statements that invite a "Hey, wait a minute!" response. Limbaugh says that liberal politicians gorge at the public trough and don't know what it means to earn an honest living. He then praises hardworking Republicans like Clarence Thomas and William Bennett, each of whom, of course, has spent most of his career on the public payroll. He inveighs against big-spending Democrats and deficit spending, but barely mentions the largest budget item of all, Social Security. Last year Limbaugh claimed on the air that as President, Bush faced a level of federal debt comparable to that which John Kennedy had faced—in each case the national debt totaled about 55 percent of the annual economic output. President Kennedy was praised for cutting taxes; therefore President Bush should have been too. He didn't say that 55 percent under President Kennedy was part of a steep downward trend in the debt level. (Total debt reached an all-time peak of about 127 percent of annual economic output just after the Second World War, and fell more or less continuously to 37 percent in 1982.) Bush's 55 percent was part of a dramatic rise. To say, as Limbaugh did, that Bush and Kennedy faced the "same" budget constraints is therefore (as I told Rush in one of my E-mail memos to him) like saying that an airplane a hundred feet off the ground during takeoff and one a hundred feet from impact during free fall are in the same shape. He is clearly working from clips and theories someone else has handed him, very much like the Hollywood liberals he ridicules, who are working from clips about the plight of whales or the rain forest.

The Republican Party and the supply-siders are now reaping the rewards of being nice to Limbaugh when liberals were mocking him. It never pays to be snide. Who knows how different politics would be today if liberals had been nice to Limbaugh first?

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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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