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‘There but for the grace of God go I.” The phrase is usually a cautionary note. My neighbor’s blunder could have been mine. My co-worker’s illness could easily be my affliction. I ought to count my blessings. But the flipside of the phrase is pregnant with promise, and many Americans felt it when they learned that radio phenom Rush Limbaugh, who marks his 20th year “of broadcast excellence” this summer, is making media history with a new $400-million contract.
Sure, many right-wingers were happy just to know that “El Rushbo” is making more than Katie Couric. “That could be me one day,” many surmise upon hearing news like that. With a little grace and hard work, maybe that kind of great success could be mine. Someday, that could be my son or daughter, if I teach them right. That sentiment — an appreciation of what’s possible in America, land of the free, which includes a free market — is at the heart of many Americans’ reaction to the news.
There were, of course, complaints from the hard-Left. Ralph Nader took the occasion to grab for attention, excoriating Rush as “the Kingboy of corporatist radio.” As the news was breaking, one Daily Kos commentator declared, “the right has just bankrolled an eight-year radical right-radio attack on the presidency of Barack Obama.” Besides ridicule and ill will, there was a lot of victory-declaring on the left-wing blogosphere and other media outlets, where the news wasn’t recognized as an acknowledgement of success and business acumen, but spun as the Right conceding defeat: “They’ll need Limbaugh’s voice come January 20,” the narrative went, “because it will be all Left, all the time” — a premature declaration of White House and congressional victories.
That may happen, but I’m not giving up the fight yet. Heaven knows, Limbaugh goes on air nearly every day urging conservatives not to concede, but to fight; to focus on not just the White House but congressional races this November — as well as battles long after. The host may not be a fan of John McCain, but he sees the stubborn existential threats that America and human dignity face today, and tomorrow.
As an Army lieutenant e-mailed me about the Limbaugh news, “Count me as one who is ecstatic about Rush Limbaugh and his big contract. I admit to being jealous, but in a positive way, since I know I have never deserved the kind of money he can generate. I hope he lives to be a hundred and gets more money every … Anybody who begrudges his success has the right to see if they can do what he does better … and knock him off his perch as the best radio entertainer around. Nobody so far even comes close; certainly no liberal or moderate.”
This is how Americans tend to react. A recent Pew poll found that “being wealthy” is far from the top priority of Americans — we value things like “having enough time to do things you want to do,” “being successful in a career,” and “having children.” “Being married” rated as “very important” for 50 percent of those polled, while “being wealthy” rates with only such a priority for 13 percent. Even though being rich is not the be-all, end-all for Americans, they are optimistic they could be and will be — having that motivational hope, even when probably not entirely realistic. One 2000 Time magazine survey had 20 percent of Americans polled optimistic that they would someday be in the top one percent of American earners; Americans frequently think we’re richer than we are, because we always see great riches and promise before us. Many Americans have real reason to be optimistic, if not always the luck, grace, or determination to seal the deal.
That was bad news for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, who attacked the top one percent. It’s why McCain doesn’t help himself with conservatives or the wide swath of American voters when he rails against executive pay, as he tends to. He’s adapted Democratic rhetoric. While the Left tends to use “us and them” as part of their electoral strategy — making Americans feel like victims who need to be saved by the government — conservatives appeal to the optimistic imaginations of Americans.
In this summer of high gas prices, imagine if McCain could talk about American exceptionalism, and, for example, embrace the opportunity that our discovery-spirit can present if we were to explore new drilling options in Alaska.
I don’t know if McCain will. I know he could if he wanted to. It would be but a piece of a narrative about this great country. The Arizona senator and former prisoner of war, in many ways has lived American exceptionalism; he has an inspiring personal story of national service and “love” for America, as a recent campaign commercial put it. Sadly, when he slams executive pay and curbs the First Amendment, he’s buying into another story.
What I do know is that Limbaugh inspires such things by words and example — as one who has worked hard, fallen and gotten up again, making clear that we’re all human, living in a country where the possibilities are endless. Excessive regulation, overbearing taxation, demagoguing about what Europe thinks about us — these burdens and distractions hurt the civic morale and make the dream harder to achieve. Instead of patronizing, paternalistic governing by bureaucracy, if whoever takes the oath of office in January wants to protect and defend the Constitution, and let us otherwise live free in this great country full of citizens on the Left and Right, we’ll be in good shape to keep dreaming.
— Kathryn Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.
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