I was talking to someone at lunch about the Rush Limbaugh show. My companion sneered and said, "With talent on loan from God... the audaciousness of that!" He also couldn't believe some listeners actually thought there was an EIB building, or even that an Excellence in Broadcasting network existed. Who was my luncheon companion who made those observations?
Okay, not yesterday. Or when he was all doped up on illegal pain medication. It was twenty years ago but he did say those things and not just to me but also my writing partner, David Isaacs.
In 1989 David and I wanted to do an updated version of the brilliant Kaufman & Hart play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. The problem was finding the contemporary equivalent of Sheridan Whiteside. I had heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio a few times and thought he might be an interesting candidate. So I contacted him (back in the days when you could contact him), described our project, and he agreed to meet for lunch to discuss it. We warned him up front that we were his political opposites and he was fine with that.
I was very surprised by how down-to-earth he appeared to be. Self deprecating, easy going, very candid. He revealed that originally he was very nervous about leaving Sacramento for "the big city" of New York. In fact, he offered to stay in Sacramento if the station owner merely ponied up a few extra grand a year but the owner said give my regards to Broadway.
What I liked most about Rush was that he didn't take himself too seriously. His political views (such as they were) were genuine but the rest of the show he recognized as an act. He was a showman, a radio veteran who knew how to attract and keep listeners. A lot of his schtick was lifted directly from his Top 40 disc jockey days on KQV, Pittsburgh. The only difference was he was now selling George Bush instead of David Cassidy.
But he knew the difference between being an entertainer and the self appointed guardian of Democracy. His goal was to build an audience, not overthrow a presidency. It was an act, pure and simple.
So what happened? When did Rush start to buy the act himself? At what point did he become one of his own dittoheads? When did he go from a humble radio geek to someone who thinks he can cure lepers with his urine? I hear the outrageous things he says on a daily basis and I can't believe it's the same guy. Recent random example:
"Exercise freaks ... are the ones putting stress on the health care system."
Really Rush? That's really what you think? It's not the sick and infirmed who can't afford health care, it's Jack LaLanne?
Instead of The Man Who Came to Dinner Rush is now playing Macbeth with a touch of Face In The Crowd.
At first it was amusing, but it stops once you realize that millions of people are swayed by this man's rantings - people he clearly has disdain for. I only wish his "loyal listeners" could have been with us at Musso & Frank's Grill that day.
I haven't seen him in years. But then again, neither has he. I haven't heard him in years either (I imagine it would be like listening to the book-on-tape of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) but for purposes of this article I did check him out last Friday and caught this:
"Obama has an ego and a narcissistic complex about himself that can only be described as unhealthy and dangerous."
Considering the irony, considering the parallel (which obviously Rush can no longer see), all I can do is shake my head and say, "The audaciousness of that!"
Follow Ken Levine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KenLevine