There was a time when I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh. All the time. And not ironically, either.
As a junior high student in the thick of the '92 presidential election season, I'd stay up way later than I was supposed to so I could watch his short-lived TV talk show every night on Channel 66 out of Chicago. I'd even look forward to every day I'd have off from school so I could tune in to his radio show on WLS-AM.
And even though I was only in junior high back then, I still look back and feel like a bit of a chump for the amount of sway Limbaugh held over my nascent political identity before things like a high school education convinced me to widen my worldview.
In fact, I have a friend from back then who is about as hardcore a conservative as I know today, and thumbing through my senior yearbook recently, I saw a note from him thanking me for first introducing him to Limbaugh -- despite the fact that my own ideology had long since parted ways with Mr. Excellence-in-Broadcasting. As I read that inscription again after these many years, I could feel a chill down the length of my spine as I realized that I may well have been the Emperor Palpatine who helped deliver him to the Dark Side.
Given my voluminous (and slightly embarrassing) history with the infamous radio talker, I found myself not at all surprised at the amount of media bandwidth that has been expended lately over the latest stupid comments made by the professional stupid comment-maker on his show last week. The short version: Limbaugh used his broadcast perch to take Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke to task in about as impolitic and repulsive a way as possible for trying to get her university's private health plan to cover prescription contraceptives.
Having danced this jig several times in the past already, I don't really have the time or inclination to dive whole hog into a dissection of how Limbaugh is ignorant and ill-informed -- in addition to obnoxious and insulting -- on this issue (and Jon Stewart did a much better job than I could, anyway). But this does seem to be at least one instance where Limbaugh has done the job of graciously engineering his own petard-hoisting, with condemnations coming from most quarters, and advertisers fleeing at a rapid clip.
Now, as far as I'm concerned, the lion's share of blame for the current level of abject toxicity in our societal and political conversation can be laid directly at the feet of Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk, so I'm sure I'm not the only one reveling in just a teensy bit of schadenfreude right now. However, whenever a new Limbaugh controversy erupts, as they do with a fair amount of regularity, I'm reminded of this quote from a column that former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in '09:
Rush knows what he is doing. The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.
That's a helpful thing to keep in mind as this most recent Limbaugh-induced panic inevitably winds down, and as the next one inevitably cues up. More importantly, however, it's helpful to view this whole thing as a very valuable "gut check" moment for those of us who value actual substantive discourse, demonstrating the dangers of overreaching rhetorically -- as Limbaugh did when he launched his initial volley at Ms. Fluke -- and the dangers of digging in when called out on that overreach.
The only reason the Limbaugh-Fluke thing has gotten the mileage it has is because Limbaugh is seemingly incapable of reading the social temperature, and is so lacking in self-awareness that he was absolutely clueless when to hold and when to fold. I've said elsewhere that, on some level, I don't even fault Rush for doing what he does, however intrinsically destructive I may well find it to be. That's his job. He's paid to be that person. But what excuse for the people who are actively defending and "ditto"-ing him?
A lot of people are calling this Limbaugh's "Imus moment," in reference to talk show host Don Imus landing in hot water in '07 after insulting comments about the Rutgers' University women's basketball team cost him his job. I don't think that'll happen here. Rush is simply too entrenched in too many radio lineups across the country to ever disappear completely, and I'm certainly not naïve enough to think this will prompt El Rushbo himself to reevaluate how he goes about doing what he does. But if nothing else, this whole kerfuffle signals the first substantial chink in his once-impenetrable armor.
And I suppose that's something.