While reading the mostly balanced Zev Chafets Rush Limbaugh story in the New York Times Magazine, I was struck by how long so many people have vastly underestimated Limbaugh’s talents. For two decades his critics kept sneering, “His gets millions for mouthing off three hours day.”
But every time anyone tried to match what he does, they usually failed. Why? There are others in radio who are as informed, and better in point-by-point analysis and refutation. A few commentators even have his ability to mimic voices, or go from authentic furor to comedy in seconds. And many hosts on the left or right are as constant in their beliefs, and, like Limbaugh, can be counted on for not triangulating when the national mood swings against them. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have mastered mock-seriousness.
But Limbaugh has been able to create a special sort of humor; it can be parodying (“Southern Command,” “Club Gitmo,” “Revoke Jimmy Carter’s passport while he is out of the country”) without being sarcastic and nihilistic. He makes fun of his own affluence and American excess, while ridiculing the hoity-toity pretensions of academia and high journalism in such an off-handed manner as to seem a given. He has also got down to perfection the hypocrisies of the egalitarian elite Left, whose utopian bromides for everyone else are belied by their own conspicuous tastes and consumption.
So for the audience, the attraction comes not just from the political commentary per se, but from the catharsis he offers to the weary who are exhausted after hearing from government, the media, the universities, and the politicians 24/7 that they and their ancestors have been greedy, racist, sexist, homophobic, polluters, destroyers of wildlife, destructive to the planet and unsophisticated. Limbaugh says to them all “Hey, relax, the problem is not you, but those calling you all those names” — and then has fun proving his point.
A final note: He really is, despite the liberal invective and his own riches, a cultural populist, who succeeded entirely on his own merits, without help but often opposition from, the usual institutions that ensure media success. His AM format is in direct contrast to the FM or NPRish nasal-toned host. He is not impressed by the Columbia School of Journalism types who, for all their degrees, write so many silly and untrue things for Newsweek or the New York Times. And he doesn’t think being a CBS or NBC anchor is de facto proof of any Edward R. Murrow gravitas. Critics bristle at his serial use of adjectives like “mainstream” or “drive-by” for the media, but his millions of listeners, in contrast, apparently like to see the pretensions and biases of high-brow Bill-Moyers-like journalism exposed. Each a time a talking-head on election night, snickers or shudders in shocked disbelief at the latest Limbaughism (e.g., cf. “Operation Chaos”) their own affectations only prove Limbaugh’s point.
In an era when talentless authors sell few books after mega-advances, high-paid media people tank ratings, athletes get millions for hitting under .300, and CEOs take big stock options as they leave in failure, add Limbaugh’s talents all up and you can see why he is paid what he is paid.