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March 11, 2012

Harmless Little Fuzzball





Not doing himself any favors here.

I’m trying to remember the last time I called anyone a slut. I’m pleased to say that I can dredge up no memory of using the word unironically, though this may be more a function of alcohol intake than virtue. In my latter years at Mankato, the Dan Aykroyd line from Saturday Night Live—“Jane, you ignorant slut”—was often referenced. A male A&E writer at The Reporter and I often called each other ignorant sluts in that stentorian Point/Counterpoint tone but, at least from my side, not seriously.*

The fact that Rush Limbaugh is facing a possibly career-crippling crisis these days in part for calling a law student a slut (after she testified to Congress to advocate mandating that all private insurance plans cover contraceptives**) is not nearly as surprising as the fact that it took so long. While only a few stations have dropped Rush’s daily program, advertisers have fled. At this writing, he has been reduced to running free spots supplied by the Ad Council to fill out three-hour shows that include as few as two bona-fide paid commercials. The downward spiral recalls the trajectory of Don Imus, who never really rebounded from his own female-student-hating rant.

My Rush Limbaugh baptism occurred sometime in the mid-Nineties, when Armed Forces Radio picked up the first hour of his program worldwide. In Japan, via the Far East Network, it happened to air during my dinner hour and, starved for any sort of American political commentary, I listened.

He was not an unknown quantity. By then, two of my high school friends had become avid dittoheads and had acquired a grating habit of quoting from the Book of Rush whenever we met. Personally, I could not find much common ground with the views expressed on the program, which in those days were mainly:

* Bill Clinton rapes and gets away with it, thanks to the liberal media..
* Hillary Clinton killed a guy.
* HillaryCare bad
* “Mr. Newt” Gingrich good
* Social Security sucks
* Welfare sucks

I decided to use myself as a guinea pig and see if repeated one-hour doses of The Rush Limbaugh Program would reduce me, too, to a slathering dittohead. I wasn't entirely resistant to the idea. I loved those two high school friends, and my conversion would have revived our friendship--rather like lonely Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers not minding having his body snatched. This experiment went on for about four years. The result: no. Somehow, I proved immune. Four years in, I still found Rush's arguments specious and his facts dubious. If I agreed with him on anything, it was his contention that he was a "harmless little fuzzball." He certainly rolled right off me.

I hasten to add that I usually enjoyed the program and often felt oddly invigorated by it, even wishing that FEN would air the latter two hours as well. Rush could occasionally be very funny. Anything having to do with Ted Kennedy seemed to bring out the best in him. But persuasive? Meh. Eventually, FEN moved the show to an hour inconvenient for me and I got NPR with dinner instead. I found I didn’t miss Rush that much and forgot about him, except when some particularly cringe-worthy comment or other would thrust him into the news.

If I hear him these days, it is usually when a clip from his show is played on The Daily Show, complete with video. I’ve never understood his decision to set up a camera in his broadcast studio. Yes, I realize it’s SOP for radio hosts these days, but Rush cuts an unflattering figure even by the standards of radio hosts. Any listener would be instantly freed of the spell woven by Rush’s impressive voice upon glimpsing the lumpy chatterbox in his tight polo shirts as he waves his stubby fingers and sputters into the microphone there in his gloomy, cluttered lair. He looks like a villain concocted for the old Batman TV series but rejected for lacking the gravity of, say, a Mr. Freeze or an Egghead. The ill-advised visuals make it that much easier to boo him, as Daily Show audiences inevitably do.

In retrospect, Rush’s truly brilliant achievement during the Nineties was to give the conservative movement the veneer of a cool club—something his idol, William F. Buckley, never would have thought to do, and something that the names most strongly associated with conservative thinking in the immediate pre-Rush years—George Will, Pat Buchanan, etc.—could not have done to save their lives. Even Ronald Reagan’s coalition with the Reagan Democrats proved a rickety contraption that disintegrated along with his neural net. Rush’s club was both more attractive and more durable. He and his listeners always sounded like they were having the most fun anyone was having throughout the Nineties, shaking their heads and chuckling at the zany antics of those darn liberals. Pretty compelling stuff for anyone who's ever been dismissed by smarty-pants liberal relatives or teachers as a rube or a reactionary.

To gain admission to the club, one had to buy into an utterly random Whitman’s Sampler of positions: pro-small government, anti-feminism, anti-corporate regulation, pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-balanced budget (and yet pro-military spending increases, too), anti-gay rights… Rush’s real passion, it always seemed to me, was limited to small government and low taxes--themes he warmed to more and more as his income grew. He couldn’t have cared less about most of the social issues but recognized that the massive evangelical population very much could, and did, and that he needed their votes to forge a winning coalition. Hence, the perfunctory pandering on abortion and gays at regular intervals.

The exception that proved this rule was the anti-feminism stuff, which came from the heart—and evidently still does. In the Nineties, Rush may have despised Bill Clinton’s policies, but always seemed to betray a sort of roguish admiration for Bubba himself. Not so with regard to the personage he snidely called “Mrs. Clinton.” There was a real, palpable, paint-peeling hatred there.

Since Hillary Clinton sought a policy role in her husband’s administration, I suppose one could argue that she voluntarily stepped outside the cocoon that traditionally protects presidential spouses and made herself a legitimate target for right-wing vitriol. However, Rush has gone after Michelle Obama with comparable zeal, as if the latter's urging the nation’s schoolchildren to eat more wholesome lunches were on a par with the former's cooking up HillaryCare in closed-door meetings.

When as benign a figure as Michelle Obama gets called out for “uppity-ism” and (for heaven’s sake) fatness, it becomes clear how Rush got himself into his current bind. We all knew his day was coming; we just didn’t know how we would get here. It might be another racial flare-up, like the one that drove him from ESPN. Homophobia was in the race, too, albeit with long odds. But any real student of the Limbaugh oeuvre knew that it would be something he said about a woman that would do him in. And now, perhaps, it finally has.

"We're not sexists, we're chauvinists,” he once declared. “We're male chauvinist pigs, and we're happy to be because we think that's what men were destined to be. We think that's what women want."

Ah, Rush, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.





* Full disclosure, though: I was a great aficionado of the word concubine in those Mankato days, as readers of Summer of Marv know.






** Can anyone in this day and age be surprised to learn that the dust-up has achieved its own Wikipedia page? (While I still don't have one?)