For the past two years, Rush Limbaugh III has done more to shape the tone of national political discussion than any member of the House and Senate, than any cabinet level appointee, than the chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican parties or the anchors of the major network news broadcasts.
Limbaugh has achieved this primarily through radio, an almost moribund industry which Limbaugh, and a few of his competitors, have infused with new energy and cash. Capitalizing on the low costs of satellite transmission and on the availability of huge numbers of AM stations wasting away in city after city, Limbaugh has, more than anyone else, been able to convert the specialized and geographically constricted field of talk radio into a national, syndicated marketplace, altering the competitive pattern of radio stations in hundreds of urban, suburban, and rural communities.
Satellite communications have made it possible for individual stations, unable to afford the high costs of producing their own talk shows, to pick and choose from a range of syndicated programs. The AM stations are often appendages to more profitable FM outlets, coasting on marginal profits from advertising directed to a tiny fraction of the population. Limbaugh has been the driving force in turning a sluggish market into a profit bonanza. After years of local broadcasting in the Middle West and California, Limbaugh was able to launch his daily three-hour show nationally in 1988 from WABC in New York. It reached over a hundred stations by the end of the decade and now runs on 648 stations with an estimated audience of 20 million people who hear him at least once a week. Local stations climbing on this bandwagon have seen their ratings—and profits—shoot up.
In Seattle in 1991, radio station KVI switched from rock music to Limbaugh and other talk-show hosts; since then, the station has gone from ranking twenty-third in the regional market to fourth. Brian Jennings, KVI’s program director during the time Limbaugh was acquired, says that “we added millions of dollars” to the station’s revenues in doing so. Nationally, according to Robert Unmacht, editor of the M Street Journal, which tracks market trends and patterns in the radio industry, “We haven’t seen success like this perhaps ever.” In most markets, Limbaugh leads, “and by a long way.”
In his statements on the air, Limbaugh is a clever conservative provocateur. Buthe also fills one of the traditional, now neglected, functions of radio: he has become for many listeners a kind of companion, a person with sympathetic views and opinions on contemporary events who is there, reliably and consistently, day in, day out. In this respect, he is part of a tradition dating back to Will Rogers, to Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, or Arthur Godfrey—a tradition maintained in recent years by only one other man, Paul Harvey, who has been broadcasting for sixty-one years.
Every day, Limbaugh takes events in the day’s news and reinterprets them as part of his larger indignation over the state of American culture, individual and group rights, sexual mores, and the ground rules of capitalism and democracy. He presents the discussions over each of these issues as part of a continuing partisan struggle between a demonized Democratic liberalism and an idealized Republican conservatism. Before the election of 1992, Limbaugh devoted relatively littleof his attention to the national Democratic Party but concentrated on the more visible radical spokesmen for liberalism, including the leaders of the National Organization of Women, militant AIDS activists, and advocates for the homeless among many others. Since the 1992 election, liberalism, for Limbaugh, has been incarnated in the administration of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the political destruction of the Clintons has become his mission.
The release of the Clintons’ most recent financial disclosure statement, for example, gave Limbaugh the opportunity to bring together, in his genially contemptuous way, some of his favorite themes: an overbearing first lady, an American left determined to impose its dictatorial programs on an unwilling electorate, and an administration dominated by liberals greedy for personal gain and at the same time unable to produce prosperity for the larger society:
The President and his first lady have released their financial disclosure forms and it’s quite interesting. President Clinton’s assets were between $95,000 and $266,000, Mrs. Clinton’s holdings ranged from $516,000 to $1.05 million, because these financial disclosure forms give people a wide latitude…and Chelsea Clinton’s assets are estimated to be between $23,000 and $140,000. That’s almost as much as her dad. She’s thirteen-years-old, that’s almost as much as her dad. She’s got a hell of a babysitting business on the side going somewhere. One thing not listed here is what they’ve put in Socks’ account. I’d like to see Socks the cat’s disclosure form. Gee, these people are spreading money around like crazy. Now, how many of you when you heard about this were puzzled, or surprised, or a little bit curious about why so much money has accrued to Mrs. Clinton while relatively small amounts have accrued to the President? And many of you were stunned to see anywhere between $23,000 and $140,000 in the account of Chelsea Clinton, the first daughter.
Well, let me tell you there is a theory I’ve had for the longest time, and I think the theory is somewhat validated by the release of these figures. Let me tell you what I mean. Now, in discussing the Clinton’s arrangement, both their marriage and their political partnership, there have been many people who have fallen for what I think is something the Clintons have intended people to fall for, and that is the notion that Bill is a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving, middle-of-the-road kind of a guy and that Hillary is the real leftist of the team. And they say, “Look at Bill, Bill is just out there, probably a fun guy to go to the ball game with, but you look at what Hillary is doing, she’s appointing all these left-wingers and she’s in charge of health care and she’s doing this or that.” And I have always said, “Folks don’t fall for that.” What we have there is a team and they realize what they have to do to gain the power necessary to implement their agenda and that is to get votes. They have got nothing unless they have the office of the presidency.
And let’s face it, the people of America just don’t elect liberals. Even though this nation’s agenda is being pushed every day farther to the left than it has been in decades, the fact of the matter is the people did not elect this administration on that basis. They thought they were getting a new Democrat, that they were getting a moderate, centrist sort of guy. In fact, I don’t think ideology mattered much when it came to Clinton. He was certainly not conservative, but he was more conservative than other Democrats were. And they did everything they could to hide Mrs. Clinton’s intentions. Clinton has to get the votes and I think part of the structure they created to make him electable was not just the ideology shift of him appearing to be in the center. But also money. I think that they think it’s very important for him to be able to say he doesn’t have any money, that he’s not a wealthy guy. It’s part of the way they rode into Washington, you know, on their moral white horse. They were going to clean up the ravages of greed and selfishness that they say pock-marked the Eighties. And they said, “We are not like that. We are sincere, and we care and are smarter people and we are better people and we know. And yes, maybe what we want to do has failed in other parts of the world and in this country before. But it will work this time because we are smart people, we are better people and we love you and we care about you.”
And they went on an assault against the rich, they went out on an assault against achievement. And then of course we learned that Mrs. Clinton is out there trying to earn as much money as she can, in the very way that she criticized everybody in the Eighties for trying to earn money. And she did it quite handily, turning $1,000 into $100,000. So her financial disclosure holdings are somewhere between $516,000 and $1.05 million, while her husband’s is a meager $96,000 to $266,000, when in fact it’s both of their money. In my opinion they have just got it separated this way so as to present him as someone attractive to voters. ‘Cause remember folks, you’ve got to understand politics. This is not a criticism, this is a critique, this is just an explanation of why this is.
A lot of people looking at this are going to be surprised by it, and I would maintain to you they know what they have to do to get elected, and that simply Clinton is the guy that has to get the votes. The country is not ready yet, or wasn’t, to elect a woman president. They knew that. So they have got to get themselves to Washington to get their agenda anywhere near the position where they can begin to implement it. So they have structured all of this to make Clinton look attractive, and part of that is to make him look like a pauper, or an average guy. And he doesn’t have a whole lot of money. He’s not a rich guy, he doesn’t belong to country clubs, his car is a Mustang, he jogs wearing sloppy old shorts, and so forth. I think it’s brilliantly structured. But I think if the truth be known, this money is theirs; they have just got it divided this way.
Limbaugh’s radio show has become increasingly dogged and humorless as it has concentrated on the Clinton administration. But he undoubtedly expresses the ideas, resentments, and suspicions of millions of Americans who also see the contemporary Democratic Party as a hostile force draining their savings through taxes, limiting their opportunities to find better jobs, and establishing an elite culture, antagonistic to their religious beliefs and sexual preferences. It is for this group that Limbaugh is not only a spokesman, but also, with his calm, almost cozy tone, a companion.
On a recent show, Limbaugh entertained his audience with commentary by a junior Republican Congressman from Ohio, John A. Boehner, who used a press report that Clinton periodically became enraged with his staff to attack the administration:
Imagine you were the President of the United States and your health-care plan was on life support; the dollar was in free fall; your staff was stealing towels and taking helicopter joy rides; 87 members of Congress demanded the resignation of your top health official; all 44 GOP senators demanded that you disavow your party’s intolerant remarks about Christian activists; Harry and Louise are back on the air; the stock market was plummeting; interest rates were going up for the fifth time since January; inflation fears have economists worried; your Supreme Court nominee Steven Breyer’s investments are under intense scrutiny; you put out the tin cup to pay for your various legal defenses; you are contemplating the invasion of a Caribbean superpower, Haiti; Korean policy was being dictated by Jimmy Carter; Paula Jones is getting play with the mainstream press; the first phase of the Whitewater investigation is coming to a close, more to come; Congressional hearings on Whitewater are coming this August; nobody has denied a single item in Bob Woodward’s book; The New York Times accuses the White House of a Whitewater cover-up, again; voters don’t know what you believe in or what you are committed to; you don’t know what you believe in or are committed to; a decade of greed is finally defined in two words, “cattle futures”; your party hasn’t won a single major election since you took office; nobody likes your welfare plan; members of your party are running from you like scalded dogs; you are Leno’s and Letterman’s number one source for material; 65 percent of the American people think the country is on the wrong track, and character does matter after all.
The success of Limbaugh’s current anti-Clinton shows reveals more about contemporary politics than did the popularity of the broadcasts he made before the 1992 election attacking such well-known targets on the left as Ted Kennedy, Jane Fonda, and Eleanor Smeal, the former head of NOW. No doubt a good many of Limbaugh’s listeners don’t agree with his politics but are entertained by his combative style and his willingness to say outrageous things. But his core audience draws heavily on the high percentage of Americans who hold sharply unfavorable views of President Clinton. More than his predecessors, Clinton is faced with a large, and deeply hostile, number of critics and adversaries. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that, in response to survey questions, roughly 25 percent of the population say that they “strongly disapprove” of the Clinton administration, an exceptionally high level during a period of peace and relative prosperity. In addition, Limbaugh appeals to the discontents of many of those whose hopes were raised by the Clinton campaign and who have since been disappointed: defense workers who felt the administration would undertake a serious program of economic conversion and retraining; Democratic moderates who wanted Clinton to take more centrist positions; and particularly voters who lose confidence in public officials whose public and private lives are subjected to moral criticism.
For those who are hostile to Clinton and for those deeply disappointed by his presidency, and especially for those prepared to accept the premise that Bill and Hillary Clinton—using subterfuge and deceit if necessary—are determined to promote goals that are both liberal to an extreme and arrogantly elitist, including support for abortion, homosexuals, and condom distribution, to name only a few of Limbaugh’s targets, he offers an internally logical and consistent way of looking at the Democratic administration. It apparently doesn’t matter that Limbaugh makes factual errors and distorts some of the issues he deals with.* Starting from the assumption that the Clintons have a secret liberal agenda even more expensive and permissive than they will admit to, he takes it as an obligation and higher duty to examine their every action or pronouncement to show its deceptive purpose. No possibility, for example, should be left unexplored in the inquiry into the death of Vincent Foster.
Limbaugh’s continuing success suggests that the election of Bill Clinton has significantly transformed the nature of political conflict. The Clintons’ marriage, their experience with infidelity, the mixture of their calculation and conviction, their elitism and egalitarianism—none of these is reassuring to a wide public. The Clintons’ behavior and policies only seem to make more acute long-standing anxieties, particularly among lower-middle-class workers, over the collapse of families and family loyalty, the increase in welfare dependency, the emergence of an urban underclass, the rise in fatherlessness and illegitimacy, and violent juvenile crime. Limbaugh’s success in attracting to his broadcasts close to a fifth of the adult voting population suggests that national party politics have now become more closely connected than ever to issues involving public and personal morality and the respective roles of men and women at work and at home. Limbaugh makes no secret of his commitment to the conservative Republican mission: “It has never been the express purpose of this program to criticize Republicans, and I have never hidden this fact,” Limbaugh recently told listeners.
There are enough people hitting Republicans from [California Democratic Congressman] Vic Fazio on up or on down, depending on what you look at. And I’m sick and tired of Republicans being mischaracterized and misrepresented, and villainized, demonized, for years and years and years in the mainstream media. I am on their side. I am a Republican…. I clearly come to you each day and tell you what my bias is and I admit that I have one.
In the Limbaugh house in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, according to Michael Arkush, author of Rush!, Limbaugh’s father and namesake, Rush Limbaugh Jr., “with his loud, booming voice would rave for hours about the vices of Communism, and the virtues of democracy.” Many of Limbaugh’s ideas about the evils of liberalism and federal social programs apparently came directly from his father, a prominent and well-to-do lawyer.
Friends…[say] Rusty often sat passively during these discussions, almost afraid to challenge his father’s authority. But his brother saw it differently. “One of his greatest attributes,” David [Limbaugh’s brother] said, “is that he is a good listener, and literally absorbs everything.”
On the one hand, according to Arkush, the Limbaugh house was in a neighborhood of “white houses with green shutters and tended lawns…. Kids flocked over to the house all the time to play with the pinball machine, and in later years, for marathon sessions of poker, spades, or crazy eights.” But another aspect of the Limbaugh household did not fit into a placid picture of small town life. Robert Denton, a friend of Limbaugh’s from junior high school, told Arkush about his fear of Limbaugh’s father, a huge man who weighed as much as four hundred pounds: “You were on your best behavior over there…I remember being afraid of his father. He was just kind of gruff, so you didn’t warm up to him very much. Rusty and him kept their distance. They had moved into a very large house and Rusty’s room was downstairs in the basement, and his father, because of his size, didn’t move around very much. He kind of just sat in the chair in the living room, so we stayed away from that area of the house.”
For Limbaugh, who was born in 1951, the central fact of growing up during the 1960s was his feeling of isolation from the liberal and libertarian culture of the time. Working as a disk jockey at a local station while still in high school, he says, “I played all the protest songs, all those things like John Lennon and the Yoko Ono Band. But I never really listened to the lyrics. Rock music to me was never anything special. It’s basically all rebellion and blue jeans. To this day, I have never owned a pair of blue jeans.” Arkush writes that Limbaugh
was never part of the popular crowd, though he certainly had the necessary credentials. He was bright enough and funny enough and well-connected enough—the Limbaughs were one of the most highly regarded families in town, with plenty of money to command substantial social clout, and his friends’ parents were also part of the upper crust. But Rusty was a bit on the chunky side, and didn’t have a steady girl, which is one of the age-old prerequisites for membership in the in-crowd—you must be part of “a couple.”
Limbaugh has recently married for the third time. His early relations with women and his first two marriages seem to have been unhappy, and suggest a solitary man. “Rusty was not an outcast, but he was introverted and shy,” writes Paul D. Colford, author of The Rush Limbaugh Story: Talent on Loan from God—An Unauthorized Biography.
He lacked confidence. He once hid himself in the backseat of a car so that he could steal a peek when a friend necked with a date up front—and thereby learn how to do it himself.
But when he got a sterling opportunity to grab a kiss of his own, the results were devastating. It happened during a game of spin-the-bottle [when it was his turn to be] kissed by one of the prettiest girls in high school. But she looked at him and gasped. Couldn’t do it. Not with him, that is. And everyone in the room witnessed his humiliation.
His first wife, Roxy Maxine McNeely, described their breakup after a year and a half of marriage: “I just don’t think he has the energy for a relationship. We were just getting started, two people that ended up together. Now, looking back, I think he was happier on his own. Relationships are hard for Rush. People are hard.” Arkush quotes Sandy Martin, a friend of Limbaugh’s, recalling Limbaugh’s reaction to his first divorce: “He said, ‘That’s it, I’m through with women. I’m going to be asexual.”‘
Limbaugh’s second marriage, to Michelle Sixta, had a similarly disengaged quality. During the first, crucial, months when Limbaugh began his national show from New York, Sixta would occasionally sit in, but “not everyone realized that she was, in fact, his wife. The conversation between them was so stiff, or so centered on the topics being discussed on the air, that she appeared to be his consultant or his publicist.” According to Colford,
Without Michelle, Limbaugh continued to indulge in the vegetative sports that suited him but troubled her. On one Monday morning, he described a perfect weekend he had—not getting dressed, not leaving his cluttered apartment, ordering takeout for all his meals, listening to music and reading.
In his obsessive interest in Clinton’s sex life, Limbaugh can sometimes sound almost wistful. During a broadcast on May 22 in Washington, he mused with a female caller over why so few voters have taken seriously Paula Jones’s charges of sexual harassment:
“Can I share with you an impression I have that frustrates me?” Limbaugh asked.
“Sure, go ahead.”
“I may be totally wrong about this, but my impression is that women swoon over this guy.”
“Clinton?” the woman listener replied, incredulous.
“Well I don’t know,”
“Obviously, you don’t. But my impression, especially liberal women swoon over this guy. I mean physically. I mean emotionally. I mean fantasize about this guy…I think that many women see another JFK in this guy.”
The remarkable thing about Rush Limbaugh is that he did not allow himself to become, as some might have expected, a frustrated loner. Instead, he seems to have found in radio broadcasting, which fascinated him even when he was a boy, a way to express another side of his character: grandiose, boisterous, chummy, bullying, powerful, funny, mean, and sometimes acutely sensitive to excesses and hypocrisies, particularly of the political left. He has become an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur in promoting his voice and manner on radio and television, on the speaking circuit, through a newsletter, on television, in two best-selling books, and in selling his own merchandise, including t-shirts, golf hats, and videos.
Limbaugh’s success did not come easy but was achieved in the face of repeated difficulties. In 1970—with a draft deferment on medical grounds that remain obscure—he dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University after three semesters, and spent the next eight years trying to make a career as a disk jockey and talk-show host, drifting from station to station in Pennsylvania and in the Middle West; he was fired again and again by station managers who found him contentious and unpromising. “I’d hang up and insult people,” he later said. He spent five years in a dead-end public relations job with the Kansas City Royals baseball team before he again tried broadcasting, moving from Kansas City to Sacramento and finally, in 1988, to WABC in New York.
As Limbaugh slowly ascended the ladder of talk radio, he acquired the capacity to capture, often with a harsh and nasty humor, the resentment and anger of a substantial part of white, especially white male, America. A recent Times-Mirror survey found that 6 percent of the public listens to Limbaugh daily and another 20 percent listens to him some of the time. Of the hard-core listeners, 56 percent are men, 44 percent are women; 92 percent are white, 5 percent black, and the rest Hispanic, Asian, or other nationalities. Perhaps most striking was the finding that while 9 percent of all those surveyed described themselves as white evangelicals, 35 percent of Limbaugh listeners said they were white evangelicals. Limbaugh evokes an America besieged by abortionists, vegetarians, antismokers, advocates of racial quotas, advocates for the homeless, multiculturalists, the liberal press and television, ACT UP, the ACLU, and NOW. All these people and organizations Limbaugh identifies with the national Democratic Party, liberalism, and, most especially, the administration of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In a November 1991 broadcast, reprinted in his book The Way Things Ought To Be, Limbaugh gives a shrewd summary of his resentments—resentments undoubtedly shared by many of his listeners:
I’m sick and tired of turning on my TV and being told that the AIDS crisis is my fault too, because I don’t care enough…. In this 500th anniversary year of Columbus’s voyage, I’m tired of hearing him trashed. I don’t give a hoot that he gave some Indians a disease that they didn’t have immunity against. We can’t change that, we’re here…. I’m sick and tired of hearing Western culture constantly disparaged. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go,” is the chant at Stanford University. What would Stanford be if the pioneers that are so reviled today as imperialists, racists, sexists, bigots, and homophobes hadn’t fought their way across a continent to California?…
The American middle class is just plain tired and worn out. They are blamed for everything in this country…. The kids of God-fearing parents are handed condoms at school and told, “We know you are just a bunch of little minks, that we can’t stop you from exploring your sexuality, so here, take this condom and protect yourself.” …We’re getting to the point where the tax producers will someday be outnumbered by the tax eaters of society…. We have the spaced-out Hollywood left eating beans and rice to focus attention on the evils of capitalism…. In schools, we are teaching kids about tribal Africa instead of Aristotle….
Dan Rostenkowski, the House Ways and Means Chairman, says, “We will all have to sacrifice to fix our nation’s problems.” Congressman, what the hell do you think everybody’s been doing because of your policies and your ideas?… The sympathy in this country is never for those on whose shoulders the burden actually rests: the diligent middle class. The sympathy is directed at people like the woman who was killed last year after she fell asleep in a dumpster and who was crushed by a garbage truck as it picked up the trash. The American people had that story thrown in their face for a week. They were told it was their fault that it happened! That the woman was so hopeless that she had to rummage around in dumpsters for food. Nobody put that woman in the dumpster, she climbed in herself….
Finally, I am weary and near my wits’ end at having to listen to the complaint that the American safety net has holes in it and too many people are slipping through. The problem is that too many people are using that safety net as a hammock.
Limbaugh accompanies his commentary with a faintly mocking description of himself as “talent on loan from God,” “the only healthful addiction in America,” and “the epitome of morality and virtue.” His show is explicitly pitched as the working man’s answer to culturally liberal television and radio programs, ranging from National Public Radio and PBS television to Saturday Night Live—his program has been called the “Revenge of the Conservative Nerds,” addressed as it is to an audience whose members describe themselves proudly as “dittoheads,” to show their veneration of Limbaugh.
In a 1992 radio show, Limbaugh talked about the psychological attractions of the Republican Party for people like himself and his listeners: “The Republican Party is like a microcosm of those of us who are conservatives. Every day we are inundated by what is supposedly natural in this country, what is supposedly normal, by what is supposedly in the majority, by virtue of what the dominant media culture shows us, and most often, it’s not us. Most often, what we believe in is made fun of, lampooned, impugned, and put down. Then, we don’t want to feel that way. We want to feel as much a part of the mainstream as anybody else.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that Limbaugh, by making himself the favorite spokesman for the “microcosm” he describes here, has become the principal adversary of the President of the United States. Clinton’s periodic outbursts of anger toward Limbaugh and other conservative critics suggest his ability to undermine a Democratic incumbent. Limbaugh’s support of George Bush in 1992 did not, however, have any measurable effect on the outcome of the election, and he may be better positioned to be a king-killer than a king-maker. Yet two factors may keep him from going further in American politics: the structure of the market for talk radio, and the limitations of his own personality.
In the competition for a share of the market in cable television and in radio, there is no need to appeal to a listening or viewing majority. In contrast to the major television networks and the national political parties, contemporary cable and radio marketing has encouraged programmers to take as their target particular audiences sharing an ideology, a set of religious beliefs, or psychological or social needs. This “segmented pluralism” lacks the corrective and ultimately enlarging presence of contrary viewpoints and external criticism; it has no potential for serious conflict or debate. Just as it is possible for people to “dissolve” into a football game or MTV, it is now possible to dissolve into Pat Robertson’s vision of the world on the Family Channel.
Limbaugh provides his own successful variation on this theme, offering a refuge where “dittoheads” can join together in radio communion. In dozens of American cities and towns one can find “Rush Rooms” where lunch is eaten in reverent silence as Limbaugh speaks for 180 minutes, except for commercial breaks and the news. In many respects Limbaugh is providing for himself and his listeners a cocoon for the like-minded, as distinguished from a forum for serious criticism of liberalism and of the Clinton administration.
The absence of give-and-take in this kind of marketing produces a tendency to self-indulgence, more and more evident in Limbaugh’s repetitive attacks on vegetarians, animal rights groups, environmentalists, and health food advocates, whom he denounces as threatening his freedom to consume what he likes. Limbaugh’s concerns become so intense at times that they violate his own ideological principles. He spent a large part of a recent show denouncing the efforts of a Burger King franchise operator in Berkeley, California, who had the backing of the Berkeley City Council, to overcome corporate opposition to selling vegetarian burgers.
Now you vegetarians are fine, except you try to force it on everybody. Yes, you do. You sit there with your condemnation over everybody. That’s what I don’t like about all this…. There are vegetarians trying to take over, there are vegetarians trying to run certain businesses out of business. Isn’t it enough for you vegetarians just to sit there and eat your seaweed, and watercress, and all that? You’ve got to condemn everyone else who is not…. If these vegetarians want their own convenience, let them start their own stores. Let them start their own convenience “veggie burger” locations, complete with bicycle drive through, allow sandals and T-shirts inside so your clientele can dress normally. But don’t put a barbeller in there, because vegetarians are a bunch of weaklings who wouldn’t be able to bench press fifty pounds after one of their meals, ask anyone in the NFL.
That the Burger King franchise operator was simply trying to respond to consumer demand in Berkeley, and make a living according to the rules of the free-market capitalism Limbaugh himself professes to support, clearly was not worth mentioning. The chance to denounce vegetarians in hated Berkeley took precedence over anything else—a precedence that can be taken as reflecting the current division in the Republican Party between business people mainly concerned with profits and lower taxes and right-wing conservatives such as Limbaugh who become indignant at any sign of cultural experiment.
The lack of intellectual competition inherent in the structure of the new, segmented marketplace discourages anything close to serious argument. The similarly subdivided, special-interest character of the nation’s politics, on both the left and right, is, in turn, powerfully reinforced by trends in radio and television, and also in magazines “targeted” to meet the needs of different demographic “cohorts,” distinguished by age, sex, marital status, leisure habits, consumer preferences, etc. Publishers are more and more concerned to sell books addressed to the loneliness and self-doubt of such “target groups” as divorced wives and husbands, cultural conservatives, and New Age feminists. Limbaugh stays popular, but in his increasingly self-congratulatory mood he seems stuck with an audience of hard-core admirers who would be turned off by a more complex or informed discussion. The combination of Limbaugh’s rigidity and the limitations of his audience may restrict his influence on electoral politics. In the broadcasting business the incentives to deal with contemporary issues with some courage and depth have, in any case, become weaker; the same must be said for the discourse of national politics generally. If any citizens are hungry for more serious public consideration of such matters as cultural values, rights, education, and gender, they are not likely to be satisfied.
October 6, 1994
Criticism of the Limbaugh show has became a minor industry. Brian Keliher in San Diego publishes the Flush Rush Quarterly newsletter, which combines articles challenging Limbaugh’s accuracy with highly personal commentary on his public and private life (the Quarterly logo is a picture of Limbaugh being flushed down a toilet) and the July-August issue of Extra, the magazine published by the liberal organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) contains a cover story titled “Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error” accusing him of dozens of falsehoods. Limbaugh, for example, claimed on February 18, 1994: “Do you know we have more acreage of forest land in the United States today than we did at the time the Constitution was written?” FAIR then quoted Douglas MacCleery, a historian with the US Forest Service, who said “We have about two-thirds of the forest area we had then.” Limbaugh then contended that in recent years, reforestation has been very successful: forest land grew from 664 million acres in 1952 to 731 million acres in 1987, he said. FAIR countered: “The Constitution was not written in 1952, but in 1789.” ↩