If journalism is the first draft of history, then talk radio provides an early glimpse into how the meaning of political events will be spun for ideological and partisan purposes. In particular, conservative talk radio is a good place to go if you want a fast-breaking take on what the right-wing line on a given issue will be, and thus how Republican and conservative candidates will position themselves, now and in time for the next election.
I have long listened to right-wing talk radio for just this reason, and it never fails to deliver. When something important happens in the world, before the intellectual journals on the right or left come out with their analyses, or longer "think pieces" are published in print or online, talk radio hosts come on the air and have to respond in near-real time to events as they transpire. In the process they develop conservative talking points as a kind of public work-in-progress. If you listen carefully to conservative talk radio in the immediate days after major political events, you can literally hear the beginnings of the party line taking shape.
The most important voice in this process belongs of course to the talk show host, who has control of the microphone and can always steer the conversation in his (or her) direction. The callers play a supporting role, either by bringing up new points or insights that contribute to the host's polemic, or by affirming and applauding the host's position, and thus reinforcing for the rest of the audience that the host is a font of wisdom and insight to whom they should defer in forming their opinions. Critical callers who articulately disagree with the host on substantive matters are few and far between -- especially on The Rush Limbaugh Program.
All of this was on display after the news broke on the evening of May 1st that a team of Navy Seals had killed Osama Bin Laden. This was a gigantic news story -- and the right's biggest nightmare. One of their main narratives about President Obama had been dealt a devastating blow. Even before he was elected president, Barack Obama had been the target of relentless mockery and ridicule on conservative talk radio. The line of attack varied from issue to issue, but its essence was usually the same: Obama is a weak and vacillating leader who gives good speeches but is in way over his head.
The attacks characteristically went at Obama's manhood -- a tactic the right has used successfully against Democratic presidents and candidates for the past forty years. During the 2008 campaign Rush Limbaugh said that Obama "can't take a punch, he's weak, and he whines." He declared repeatedly that the Senator from Illinois was "half the man Sarah Palin is." Palin herself has long delighted in mocking Obama's manhood, skillfully channeling class resentment through anti-intellectual invective. "We need a commander in chief," she smirked at a 2010 Tea Party conference, "not a professor standing behind a lectern."
On the morning of May 2nd, when I first heard the news that the Seals had killed Bin Laden under direct orders from Obama, my visceral reaction was excitement -- something I will take up in a future post. But that initial response quickly gave way to one of intense curiosity about how the right would try to spin it. In particular, I wondered how Rush Limbaugh would respond. The man whom Limbaugh and others on the right had relentlessly mocked and ridiculed as a lightweight and a wimp had quietly and systematically led and authorized the killing of Bin Laden in such a militarily impressive way that crowds in sports stadiums cheered USA! USA! and spontaneous rallies erupted at the White House.
Limbaugh would have to go on the air just a half-day later when the entire infotainment universe was abuzz in this signature moment of American triumphalism -- with the former community organizer and law professor Barack Obama looking tough and standing tall at the epicenter of a patriotic revival. I assumed that from the moment he heard the news, Limbaugh must have frantically racked his brain to come up with ideas about how to undermine and discredit Obama's role in the raid.
Other conservatives might have been measured and even generous in crediting Obama with a job well done. But not Rush Limbaugh. That's not who he is. He hasn't built a vast following of dittoheads by being intellectually honest -- or by treating his ideological adversaries with respect and dignity.
True to form, from the first moment he went on-air, Limbaugh attempted to strip Obama of any military/manhood credentials that he might have earned from his leadership in the killing of Public Enemy #1. Of course other right-wing talkers like Sean Hannity and Michael Savage had a similar agenda; they all have to play to their audience of conservative white men who can't tolerate the thought that a moderately liberal Democrat can be a "real man" and a strong leader of the U.S. armed forces. (It is worth noting that countless second and third-tier talkers look to Rush Limbaugh for cues about what to say and not to say).
What follows are brief discussions of how Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio hosts framed the discussion in the hours and days after the killing in order to try and downplay Obama's accomplishment and denigrate his potentially rehabilitated manhood. These themes -- once fully fleshed out -- are sure to resurface during next year's presidential campaign.
"I, me, my." One of Limbaugh's first lines of attack on May 2nd was to accuse Obama of focusing on himself, as if the killing of Bin Laden was primarily about him. Numerous commentators across the political spectrum praised Obama's televised statement the evening of the raid as a model of dignified understatement. They acknowledged that he hit all the right notes, and spread the credit around, especially to the military and intelligence services. Many people said they felt proud and patriotic listening to him. Not Limbaugh. He counted the times Obama used words like "I," "me" and "my," and emphasized one of his running themes about this president: that he is a full-fledged, pathological narcissist. (Imagine being called a narcissist by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.)
Begrudging and qualified congratulations. Limbaugh did sarcastically "congratulate" Obama, but not for anything the Democrat did. He congratulated Obama for having the good sense to follow Bush's policies "in the Middle East." No fist-bumps from Limbaugh for the O-man. Limbaugh made a point of not congratulating Obama for his own bold act of leadership. From the beginning, Limbaugh helped to shape what emerged as one of the right's strongest talking points -- that Obama is claiming credit when it was really Bush who got Bin Laden. Bush was the decisive, risk-taking conservative who made the tough choices; it was just a coincidence that final justice came on the vacillating liberal's watch.
Limbaugh also repeatedly praised the Navy Seals and the special counter-terrorism operations run by the Department of Defense -- as if Obama had nothing to do with the real warriors who carried this out. As if he wasn't the commander-in-chief who oversaw and ordered the operation. As if he wasn't really in charge.
Obama opposed the hard-line, hyper-aggressive policies that made success possible. In the first hours after the country awoke to news of Bin Laden's death, Limbaugh and other right-wing opinion leaders quickly pivoted to the position that the al Qaeda founder's killing had been made possible by actionable intelligence the military procured from torturing prisoners back in the early 2000s. This allowed them to argue that Obama had tried actively to undermine the tactics that made this entire raid possible, which made it even more unseemly for Obama to be beating his chest in pride at the killing. Supporters of the president, on the other hand, refuted this line, and argued that the intelligence used was gathered using non-torture methods. The implication was that Obama's way was less brutal -- but more effective.
This is all part of a contentious, high-stakes political debate. But it is also a debate about presidential manhood. While Obama has been criticized by the left for largely continuing Bush's counterterrorism and national security strategy, he and Bush represent starkly contrasting masculine styles: the Decider vs. the Consensus-seeker, the leader who goes with his gut vs. the one who goes with his head, the Texas good ole boy vs. the urbane intellectual. These binaries also fit neatly into conservative vs. liberal and Republican vs. Democrat. Rush Limbaugh and a large percentage of his audience have an enormous stake in one side of that binary being the one that makes people safe in the real world -- and it isn't the side of the urbane intellectual. If Obama's style of manhood makes us safer, it's a big blow to the cultural appeal of traditional white male conservatism.
Obama had no choice but to authorize the raid. As days passed by and Limbaugh gathered steam in his continued attack on Obama, he went from arguing that Obama was claiming credit for something Bush was responsible for to an even pettier argument: that Obama never even had a choice. All the pieces were in place; there would have been hell to pay, as Rush reminded his listeners, if Obama hadn't green-lighted the operation. In other words, the president deserves no credit for this huge victory because he was pressured into approving it.
Obama's failure to release the photos of a dead Bin Laden proves that he's a wimp. Conservative talkers loved the fact that Obama deliberated on and then decided not to release the photos of Bin Laden. That gave them the opportunity to argue that Obama cared more about some potentially hurt feelings in the Muslim world than about the right of Americans to gloat. In other words, it fit neatly into the right-wing narrative, fed daily on talk radio, that Obama is an effete elitist who looks down at average Americans (who want a photo that satisfies their lust for revenge.)
Mostly, the debate about the death-scene photos of Bin Laden helped shift the conversation away from a discussion about Obama's steely and courageous leadership and back toward the president's supposed failures. As the conservative Boston talk show host Michael Graham wrote, "...the mishandling of the details of the raid, the waffling on the photo release, the pandering to the Arab street -- is enough. Americans demand better, and we will get it."
So there you have it. In the alternate universe of conservative talk radio, the killing of Bin Laden coincidentally happened on Barack Obama's watch. He had to be kicked dragging and screaming into authorizing it, and even then he made lots of mistakes. Democrats still can't be trusted on issues of national security, despite what some people believe who haven't been exposed to the kinds of brilliant analyses that can only be found on conservative talk stations. In order to get the bad guys and keep American safe, we need to elect red-blooded, red state conservative men (or the gun-toting Sarah Palin.)
2012 - bring it on.