Why Jon Stewart Is A Better Satirist Than Rush Limbaugh

They're both exceptionally talented broadcasters. But even more than laughs, the talk radio host wants to ingratiate himself to powerful conservatives.

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In May 1994, my colleague James Fallows published a perceptive article about Rush Limbaugh that began by stating, "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."

Paying homage to the talk radio host's talent, the piece observed that his popularity couldn't be explained by politics alone -- after all, there are lots of conservative Republicans but very few capable of commanding an audience of many millions for 15 hours per week. "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," Fallows wrote. "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."

The piece went on to explain the host's brand of satire: "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 ... 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."

There was, however, a difference:

SNL, 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.

In subsequent years, Limbaugh's show would continue to eschew opportunities to poke fun at too many "inherently satirizable conservative characters" to count, until the talk show host was acknowledging, at the end of the Bush administration, that he'd carried water for wrongheaded actions undertaken by the president. The heavy-handed political constraints on Limbaugh's satire is part of the reason that the outrage factor on his show has been ramped up over the years: He is so careful to avoid offending the conservative movement's orthodoxies of thought that to keep from becoming predictable and dull, he must transgress against liberal political correctness in ways so outrageous that it isn't even satire anymore so much as calculated attempts to offend.

The latest example is his monologue riffing on news that Kraft is introducing a new Oreo cookie. Limbaugh, who accuses liberals of being race-obsessed, reacted by suggesting that the company name the cookie, which will include both chocolate and vanilla frosting, the "Or-Bam-eo."

As I read that old Fallows piece, I couldn't help but think about Jon Stewart, another entertainer who owes his success to fusing pop culture and politics and adroitly satirizing the latter. That Stewart is a liberal is obvious enough. The bulk of his audience is liberal too, but he also has a lot of crossover appeal -- like Limbaugh, he owes his success to being a talented broadcaster and a satirist much more than to any particular political or ideological stance that he takes.

Unlike Limbaugh, however, he hasn't encumbered his satire by refusing to aim it at ridiculous characters and hypocrisies on "his own side" -- liberals may have it marginally easier, but they don't get a pass. Recall Stewart's reluctant but devastating skewering of Anthony Wiener, a childhood friend of his and frequent guest on his show. Or any number of segments that explicitly or implicitly criticize the Obama administration. Or to cite an example from this week, consider how he responded when MSNBC host Ed Schultz absurdly claimed that Rick Perry was talking about Barack Obama when he said in a stump speech that there was "a black cloud" hanging over the economy. Stewart addresses the story, defending Perry, in the latter half of this clip:

In a subsequent segment, "The Daily Show" piles on, satirizing the larger habit of reading racism into metaphors where none exists -- just the sort of absurdity that Limbaugh might target (with less humor and more vitriol).

Here is that segment:

Why is it that Limbaugh is unwilling to skewer conservatives, while Stewart, a liberal, is apt to go after any target so long as it's likely to get a laugh? It isn't that Stewart loves the craft of what he's doing more. Any longtime Limbaugh listener knows that his love of the radio medium isn't a put-on, and that he takes great pride in being good at it. Perhaps Limbaugh understood that there was more money to be made and larger audiences to be won by championing one team. But I don't think that's it either. Indeed, I think that Limbaugh could've conducted himself more like Stewart and made as much money over the years, though we cannot really know for sure.

In any case, I think Fallows hit on the reason back in 1994:

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.

Needless to say, George W. Bush understood the benefits of being nice to the talk radio host too: "Rush Limbaugh was going along today, doing his radio show as usual, when producers started waving their arms frantically trying to get his attention. It seemed POTUS was on the line from Kennebunkport, Me. He and his father (Bush 41) and his brother Jeb (former governor of Florida) were calling to congratulate the conservative broadcaster on his 20 years on the air." Should a Republican win the White House in 2012, expect to see more of the same from the talk radio host, who has never been very good at holding Republican presidents to account.

At bottom, Jon Stewart is a better satirist than Rush Limbaugh not because he is a more talented broadcaster, or more educated, or possessed of a higher IQ. Those are all the reasons Limbaugh would expect to be cited, but Limbaugh isn't less talented or intelligent. The reality is that Stewart bests Limbaugh because a good satirist can't give a damn about the approval of powerful elites, or make his material contingent on ideological approval. It's hard to imagine Stewart being awed by a White House invite from Obama, or hoping for the approval of Hillary Clinton. And it's very easy to imagine Limbaugh taking pride in being consulted by George W. Bush. It's too bad -- the right could use more good political satirists. But as every good conservative well knows, those social invites to inside-the-Beltway gatherings are corrosive.

Image credit: Reuters