BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The right side of the airwaves ...

I don't “do radio”, so Rush Limbaugh isn't on my radar the way he could be. I found his TV show back in the Klinton years amusing, but since he's been “audio only”, I've not heard him in ages. I did, however, find Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One on the dollar store shelves a couple of years back, and it's been sitting in my “to be read” piles since. A few weeks ago I was looking for the next book to slot into my active reading rotation, and noticed that the author of this was the same Zev Chafets that wrote that Roger Ailes bio that I reviewed last month, which I'd enjoyed, so figured I'd have a go at this.

I have to admit, going in, that the little bookmarks that I put into what I'm reading (and are generally a good indicator of my engagement with a book) are few and far between here. As quotable as Rush may be on his show, the story of his life is considerably less so (or at least from my take on it). This volume is more a straight biography of the man than a celebration of his material, so focuses more on his trials and tribulations (and, to some extent “feet of clay”), than being a rah-rah session for “dittoheads”.

There was, however, quite a lot of stuff in here that I didn't know about the man, that I might very well have were I a “regular listener”, first and foremost of which is the factoid that he has been, for quite a long time, for all intents and purposes deaf. I'm guessing that this is something that his on-going audience knows, but it was somewhat of a shock to read, as it hadn't filtered down to me, despite being a regular consumer of on-line conservative punditry. Go figure.

The other piece of this that I found somewhat odd was that, until late in his career, Limbaugh was not particularly political. The book describes how his father (and other relatives) were, but not Rush. His goal, from a quite early age, was to succeed in radio, and he didn't become the conservative icon that he is until that had become the key element to “his shtick” on-air … which does lead one to wonder just how dedicated to the doctrine he is (a question that at least gets danced around a bit here).

It's not that he didn't have any interest in conservative political thought, there is a touching bit here regarding (one of my childhood heroes) William F. Buckley and National Review:
… Limbaugh had once read a book by Buckley that he had found in his father's library, and he sometimes watched Firing Line. Rush even did a very funny imitation of Buckley's mellifluous, multisyllabic English. But it wasn't until Limbaugh began doing political satire full-time that he actually began reading National Review on a regular basis.
      “I thought you had to be invited to read it,” he said in an emotional broadcast on the day Buckley died. “I thought there was a select group of people that were entitled to be a part of that. I'd never seen it on a newsstand. I had never seen it anywhere at anybody's house.
That's a clear view of how far from the political bubble he had lived (as I'd been a subscriber to N.R. all my teen years!), and he thought the only way to get the magazine was to contact it and ask to be allowed to subscribe. His moving to the nationally syndicated show changed that, and he was soon invited into WFB's inner circle – Buckley was evidently a fan, and eventually he became something of a father figure to Rush.

Having at one point aspired to a career in radio myself, much of Rush's early employment arc was rather painful to read. He went from being a high-school DJ to a brief stint in college, to assorted small stations in secondary markets, and a predictable string of firings … that just being the nature of the business. For a while he'd stepped away from radio and went to work for the marketing department of the Kansas City Royals, where he ended up forging a somewhat improbable lifetime friendship with Royals star George Brett. While with the Royals, Rush went through two marriages, and by the time he was fired, “shock radio” was starting to fill the airwaves. Larry Lujack (of WLS in Chicago), Don Imus, and Howard Stern were pioneering this niche, as well as (on the West Coast), Morton Downey Jr. … who was caustic enough to get fired just at the right time. Rush was hired by a guy who'd worked at a station he'd previously been at to replace Downey on the Sacramento station where he'd been based … on the theory that Rush would be edgy, but not as inflammatory. Of course, Limbaugh's new-found conservative voice made the California liberals nuts, and that drove his ratings. This got the attention of Ed McLaughlin, former head of ABC radio, who worked a deal to get Rush out of his Sacramento contract and on the air in New York in 1988, and two months later his syndicated national program debuted with fifty-six stations. Chafets notes what drove his success: “His innovation was to bring top-40 radio's energy to political issues …” and “A lot of what makes Limbaugh's show fun is his irreverence toward subjects that conservatives discuss, in public, with extreme reverence or not at all.”, and almost immediately Rush was making serious money. However, he remained an outsider. What he wanted most in life was to be accepted into the “media world”, to be “one of them”, but because of the ultra-leftist orientation of the New York media environment, he was – despite his extreme success – mocked and exiled by the foot-soldiers of the Progressive culture wars … and on some level the acceptance he had from the likes of Bill Buckley and other conservative icons (including Ronald Regan) still wasn't enough to salve that hurt.

Like in the Ailes book, Chafets weaves his experiences in working on the book throughout. He notes that many of Rush's family and friends were quite hesitant to talk with him – with at least one being convinced that if he talked to this guy from the New York Times, he was sure to be depicted as some Neanderthal and/or idiot … and at one point he mentions a question he'd put to Rush about his (massive) contract: “… it sounded to him like a hostile question, a Democrat question …”, so the distrust of everything on the Left was pretty ingrained. This makes his exultation at the demise of the laughable Leftist “Air America” more understandable:
Less than two years after {Air America's} grand launch it filed for bankruptcy protection. Limbaugh celebrated the fall, calling Air America, “an embarrassing, blithering, total bomb-out of a failure.” Liberals, he said, can't compete in the open marketplace of ideas, because they don't really want to spell out what they actually believe. “There's no hiding on talk radio,” he said, “When your ideas sound stupid, it's out there to be exposed for one and all …”
Chafets has a very insightful look at the matrix in which Rush operates, in terms of the media establishments, and although it's a couple of paragraphs, I figured it was to-the-point enough to include here:
      If Limbaugh had been all bombast, his act wouldn't have lasted long. But he proved to be not just a great broadcaster but a very astute media critic. He realized that the mainstream media's greatest vulnerability was high-handed obtuseness. News organizations acted as though their biases and interests – financial, political, and personal – were invisible to the public. Limbaugh pointed out, in the clearest possible way, that the Emperor's clothes were all tailored in the same shop, according to the same specifications, and he let his listeners in on why and how.
      This was embarrassing, of course. Journalists like to think of themselves as independent thinkers and speakers of “truth to power.” In fact, they work for big organizations and, like organization people everywhere, they toe the company line. To soften this reality, editors and reporters are almost uniformly recruited from a pool of like-minded people. They don't need to be explicitly told what to cover or how, any more than the Pope needs to send out memos to his cardinals about abortion. Here and there you can find editors and reporters with a certain degree of independence, but they are rare. As for editorial writers, they have all the latitude of West Point cadets.
While the lock-step march of the Leftist MSM, and their political allies, presents an often insurmountable challenge to non-“Progressive” politicians (cf. the hugely skewed moderation of the Trump-Clinton debates), it did nothing but make Rush money. In fact, the Obama regime opted to “run against Rush”, all but coronating him as head of the Republican Party … which was not happy news for the actual head of the RNC at the time. While Rush took to this with a gusto, the Leftist media was in full assault mode, trying to belittle and dismiss Rush (while still insisting that he was “the Boss” of the party). This eventually got quite ugly with attacks on Limbaugh for his addiction to pain pills (that he eventually beat), as only the Left can “do ugly”.

This book came out in 2010, so it only got into the ramp-up of the last election cycle, but there is quite a bit about how Rush was playing in that (he “won” a Gallup poll of who was the most trustworthy conservative voice). There are also parts on his family life, a good deal on the above-mentioned challenges with his hearing (he has a call-taker that's a former court reporter, so she can transcribe what's being said by callers in real-time onto his monitor), and other assorted issues (his dalliance with the NFL – that got sabotaged by the usual suspects making the predictable and unjustified claims of “racism”).

Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One is still in print in the paperback edition, so you might be able to find it in brick-and-mortar book stores that don't discriminate against conservative voices (there are a lot of liberals who will throw a hissy fit at the very sight of Rush's visage on the cover, their panties suddenly twisting into sanity-reducing knots), but otherwise the on-line big boys have it … and the used guys have “like new” copies of the hardcover going for as little as a penny (plus shipping). If you're interested in Rush, the conservative movement, or in broadcasting in general, you'll likely find something worthwhile in this.

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Tags: book review
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