Talk-Radio Titan Does Have a Way With Words

Media Reviews for Media People: 'The Rush Limbaugh Show'

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Whenever a discussion about politics breaks out in my presence, my immediate impulse is to pull a fire alarm, scream something like "tsunami!" or "diarrhea!" then flee as if shot from a cannon. If a few toddlers or wheelchair-bound seniors happen to get trampled in the process, well, that's the price we pay for freedom of expression.
Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh

It's not that I don't care; it's that I don't care what you think. Nothing personal. Political discussions, especially at this tender moment in the electoral cycle, alternate between the inane (Did not! Did so! Did not! Did so did so did so did so!), the insane (harangues by the far-sides-of-the-spectrum contingents) and the unoriginal (half-articulate regurgitations of whatever CNN or The New York Times said that morning). Me, I'll stick to topics that better reflect my intellectual vigor, like power pop or darts.

Captive audience
Through a series of regrettable events, however, I recently found myself falsely imprisoned in a friend's car. The soundtrack to my captivity was "The Rush Limbaugh Show," that bastion of proud, confident conservative discourse.

I'd never heard his show before, because I avoid parking my radio dial on any station that features even a whit of political chatter. As it is, people are already too shouty at the dinner table or in line at Walgreen's. Why willingly enter an environment that indulges their dippiest argumentative instincts?

Surprisingly, there's little such back-and-forth here. To listen to a three-hour block of "The Rush Limbaugh Show" is to enter an alternate dimension in which the exalted leader is never, ever challenged. You can almost hear his listeners nodding in unison upon references to "socialist squirrel" Barack Obama or "The Treason Times." Tuesday's call from Republican veep pick Sarah Palin included the following volley from the ever-gracious host: "I admire you so much, I really don't even know what to ask." "Meet the Press," this ain't.

But after a few hours listening to Limbaugh that first day and several more over the last two weeks, I arrived at an unlikely epiphany: The guy's a genius.

Earns points for passion
Regardless of whether you subscribe to his brand of conservative political philosophy -- and I'll leave my own allegiances at the door for the purposes of this exercise -- it's impossible to deny Limbaugh's skill as a communicator. During his three-hour syndicated afternoon block, Limbaugh comes across as a preacher, a populist, a provocateur, a parodist, a pissant and a pragmatist. He presents his arguments with great passion and off-the-charts eloquence. If there's a more effective communicator in the media today, I haven't yet found him or her.

Take Monday's show, which commenced with a spirited 10-minute introductory monologue rallying his listeners to help "drag the McCain campaign across the finish line." After a quick commercial break, Limbaugh returned with a clever attack on Obama's definition of a small business. He lived up to his pre-argument promise -- "I know numbers are hard to follow, but this will not be" -- and made his case with the intelligence and logic that his critics rarely acknowledge.

Limbaugh should more often elevate the discussion in such a manner. The show sags when he drags the debate out onto the playground and revs up the name-calling, whether blaming the subprime mortgage crisis on "liberal democrat social engineering" or tiresomely referring and re-referring to "the country club media elites" (late in Monday's show he'd label Tom Brokaw a "drive-by media emeritus" -- think what you want about the characterization, but that's a nifty bit of wordplay). I know that the putdowns are a major part of Limbaugh's shtick, but the guy's jabs would sting more if he didn't throw so many of 'em.

Meanwhile, if I had something to sell, I'd sell it here. Though I hesitate to broadly stereotype millions of listeners, Limbaugh Nation (Rush-sha?) appears to be as much a cult as an audience. If something is associated with the host, directly or indirectly, his radio acolytes dig it. This makes me wonder why Limbaugh hasn't slapped his name and face atop any number of products: Rush Limbaugh's Republican Ranch Dressing, etc. Well, outside of the whole I'm-a-serious-commentator-who-would-like-to-be-taken-seriously thing.

Now, a worry from our sponsors
I digress. It surprises me that few name-brand advertisers choose to hawk their wares during "The Rush Limbaugh Show." Beyond a handful of recognizable financial brands -- HSBC, Lending Tree -- Limbaugh's three daily hours on WABC/New York are packed with below-the-radar firms that engage in economic fear-mongering. Did you hear? The IRS is hiring new agents at an alarming rate! There are powerful secrets that credit card companies don't want you to know! Liquidate your holdings! Run for the hills!

I understand marketers' reluctance to associate themselves with content that a sizable chunk of the U.S. population finds intellectually abhorrent, but really: They have the mother of all attentive audiences here. Conservatives drive cars. They eat soup. They go to the movies.

Now that I've reached across the aisle -- or, in my case, the car's back seat -- and freed myself from my GOP-leaning captors, I likely won't listen to "The Rush Limbaugh Show" ever again. But I can say this: I get Rush Limbaugh now. I get why he lures millions of listeners every day and sells gazillions of books and commands more in appearance fees than Keith Olbermann and Anderson Cooper combined.

No matter what you might think about what Limbaugh is saying, he says it with relish and an effortless command of the material. He frames his arguments in a way that Joe the Plumber, Jack the Professor and Jane the Prostitute can easily ingest. If only our real politicians could communicate quite as effectively.
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