Rush, To Judgment
By Jonathan Alter
Sunday 12 October 2003
It s been a bad year for bully-boy conservatives. Time for them to taste their own bitter medicine.
If you listen hard, you can hear the booming voice: Look, the Clinton liberals and feminazis won t tell you, but here s the problem with this big talk-show host who turns out to be a prescription- drug junkie. You have a guy who finally stops spinning and fesses up for his actions. Fine. He says he won t play the victim. Good. He s off to rehab. God bless. But what he and his apologists want you to forget is that he broke the law yes, the L-A-W. Some of us around here still have respect for it.
Folks, this guy didn t just use drugs, he put another person in harm s way to feed his own habit. He repeatedly sent his maid out into a parking lot to score for him. Thousands of pills. Talk about cowardly. The housekeeper was being set up by her big celebrity boss to take the fall if they got busted. Now, that s the problem with these famous people who develop the wrong 60s values. The little person the kind of average American who listens to this program takes the risks, while the celebrity gets the slobbering praise for overcoming his problems. That s the world these liberals have brought you. Unforgivable.
Perhaps you can do a better Limbaugh imitation. But you have to admit that if the shoe were on the other foot, he would be banging it on his microphone. So why have almost all of his conservative talk-show friends rushed to Rush s defense? Why will he, undoubtedly, get a long standing ovation at his first public appearance after he returns from rehab? Why will both conservatives and liberals show him the compassion he routinely denies to other people?
Because the sad case of Rush Limbaugh is also about the sad state of American politics. Things have reached a point where the health problems of a radio commentator might genuinely affect the outcome of the 2004 election. Most of Limbaugh s 20 million listeners are diehard Republicans, but millions are not. These non-dittohead independents are critical in the election. They have rightly concluded that he is a first-rate communicator and entertainer. They don t follow him slavishly but give him a hearing, which is a huge asset in politics. You can drive almost anywhere in the United States on any weekday and get a three-hour, undiluted, un-rebutted and often persuasive advertisement for President Bush and the Republican Party. If Rush goes, so does the biggest megaphone in the GOP s elephant echo chamber.
This conservative free media is worth even more than Bush s war chest in delivering the message, stigmatizing the Democrats and turning out the base at election time. It consists not just of Rush, of course, but of other radio talk shows and the Fox News Channel, all of which have a big stake in the continued success of the much-revered leader of their product category. For several years, they have succeeded not because of some right-wing conspiracy in network-executive suites but because their production values are simply superior to those of liberals. They know how to grab and hold an audience.
The Democrats have only two ways to compete. The first is by building their own radio and TV outlets. Al Franken is working on a new radio gig and Al Gore (and his backers, Steven Ratner and Joel Hyatt) are on the verge of buying Newsworld International, a tiny cable network owned by Vivendi that currently carries Canadian Broadcasting Corp. stories from overseas and is available in only 20 million American homes. To succeed, Gore and company will need deeper pockets and will have to take a page from Fox and lie about not being politically slanted. Otherwise, GoreTV will get no advertising. So expect to see a slogan from the new network, if it ever launches, that is something like Fair and Honest or Independent and Balanced. If it persuades any funny liberals to sign up, they might even get some viewers.
The second hope for Democrats is that every political phenomenon eventually burns out. It hasn t been a good year for bully boy (or girl) conservatives. Their critics including me are ready to give them a taste of their own bitter medicine. Smirking William Bennett got his hand caught in a slot machine. Shrewish Ann Coulter hit the best-seller list but her charge that liberals are all guilty of treason makes her look like a wacko. Bill O Reilly urged Fox to sue Franken, then denied having done so. Conservative books still sell but, for the first time, they have company. Sharp-elbowed liberal books by Franken, Michael Moore, Paul Krugman, Molly Ivins and Joe Conason (not to mention Hillary Clinton) cram the best-seller lists. It s not exactly a liberal renaissance but at least they are finally fighting back.
Liberals, believers in tolerance and drug treatment, treat Rush with insincere sympathy. Conservatives have the nerve to blast the liberals for playing too rough, the better to rally the faithful. The big guy himself could help the dialogue if he returns to the airwaves after rehab with a more tolerant and less vitriolic message. But then he wouldn t be Rush Limbaugh anymore.
Jump to TO Features for Monday 13 October 2003