It is not a pleasure to write about Rush Limbaugh and my guess is if you have found your way to this substack you really don’t want to read about him either.
But before you put him out of your mind forever please think about this:
In America’s long march to Donald Trump and its current state of Cold Civil War, Limbaugh was the representative of forces that are still rampant.
Sorry for using a Titanic analogy but Limbaugh was the visible tip of an iceberg that holed the ship of state below the waterline.
He was the frontman for revenge.
One of the inciting events of America’s slide to its present condition was the resignation of Richard Nixon. Avenging that event motivated self-styled “conservatives.” In their analysis of Nixon’s downfall, the “liberal” media - meaning the three major broadcast networks and the New York Times and Washington Post - was to blame for overturning the will of the people and creating the Watergate scandal out of nothing, thus ending Nixon’s presidency.
These conservatives concocted a persecution narrative of a liberal, vaguely socialistic, New York-based newsmedia that was shoving its world view down American throats. They were not satisfied by the measurable fact that most broadcast media in America was already “conservative”.
A single broadcaster: Paul Harvey had more listeners than any individual network television newscast and his daily audience in the tens of millions from coast to coast far exceeded the reach of the Times or the Post. Right-wingers ignored the fact that evangelical preachers dominated the air waves in the old Confederacy and Midwest. Their sermons were less about the Gospels and more about anti-communist political indoctrination. Their definition of “communist” was broad to the point of meaninglessness … except to their listeners.
And there were syndicated hard right television programs from high-brow, like William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, to low as low-brow gets, like Joe Pyne.
But no matter. The hard right felt dissemination of their political points of view was constrained by an FCC regulation called the Fairness Doctrine. The Doctrine required holders of broadcast licenses to “present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced.”
Throughout the seventies and early into Ronald Reagan’s first term, right-wing think tanks devoted some effort to figuring out how to overturn the Fairness Doctrine. Eventually Reagan appointed a man named Mark Fowler as head of the FCC. Fowler worked diligently and with bureaucratic subtlety to remove the Doctrine from the statute book.
At the same time this piece of Reaganism was in process, two other parts of his program were proceeding: de-regulation of media ownership rules and de-regulation of capital markets.
Cap Cities was an owner of small market radio and tv stations. The men who ran the company were not of a liberal bent. The company used mergers and acquisitions to grow itself rapidly and then, in the 1980s way, used leverage to buy the ABC network, with $3.5 billion of borrowed money. At the time ABC’s revenues were four times bigger than Cap Cities. Leverage is great if you can get some.
And while all this was going on, out in Sacramento California, Rush Limbaugh was a disk jockey spinning platters and making humorous right-wing chatter at KFBK in Sacramento CA. The DJ thing was an attempt to slide around Fairness Doctrine rules. He wasn’t discussing political issues, you see, he was joking about them.
He caught the ear of ABC radio exec Ed McLaughlin. In Limbaugh’s words, “He was one of us.”
The merger of Cap Cities and ABC came together in 1985, then the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 and within a year McLaughlin had rescued Rush from small market obscurity and brought him to New York, making him the linchpin of a package of radio talk from ABC delivered to a ready made network of 56 stations.
Very quickly the network grew to hundreds of stations taking the show. For this Limbaugh deserves much credit. Speaking as a professional broadcaster, I can say, Rush was a great broadcaster. Limbaugh had the gift of speaking intimately to the listener, making the listener feel like this was a private conversation.
In 1993, the BBC World Service sent me back to the US for a fortnight to explore the Midwest for a season of programs they were doing about America including one on Limbaugh. In just five years his show had become internationally infamous. Midway through the journey I spent a couple of days in Limbaugh’s hometown, Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
I spent too many hours on the road listening to right wing talk. Most of it was mere ranting by amateurs who had no place behind a microphone. Limbaugh was different. He was a skilled speaker, cool, not a ranter. His show had exceptionally high production standards including amusing features. I found myself laughing in spite of myself.
In Dayton, Ohio I went to the Urban Suburban Tavern for lunch. The place was part of an organized nationwide group of lunchtime hangouts—Rush Rooms they were called— whose draw was putting the Rush show on for patrons while they ate. Business was good. This was all part of the superb marketing the show had. Cap Cities/ABC money backed the show with marketing and publicity, cross promoting it with ABC news properties, and the company was getting value for its dollars in the form of ad revenue and carriage fees.
A year after my Midwest trip, the Republican’s regained the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades. They made Limbaugh an honorary member of their caucus in acknowledgement of his on-air propagandizing on their behalf. Propagandizing is exactly the right word. Limbaugh had the day’s talking points faxed to him by Republican leaders so the message could be coordinated.
Exactly 20 years after Richard Nixon had resigned—because of the “liberal” media—Republicans had their revenge. They used “conservative” media to take back control of Congress. They would use that control from that day to this to eradicate the necessary customs of bi-partisanship that make governing in America possible. And at every step of the way, they had their chief propagandist, Rush, pushing their message out.
Eventually Roger Ailes, an early media adviser to Richard Nixon, would complete the revenge for his former boss’s disgrace. He convinced Rupert Murdoch to start a right wing 24-hour “news” station, Fox News. My guess is that the pair of them saw how much money there was in right-wing talk radio and thought they could make at least that much in television. They were right
Fox News would supplant Rush as the galvanic force of so-called “conservative” politics. In later years, his humor would curdle and be replaced by raw hatred. He sounded more like the drunk at the end of the country club bar boring on about immigrants and homosexuals and women and just about anyone else who didn’t know their place in the right-wing order of things. Limbaugh’s audience would shrink but the damage was done.
So please remember, as you put the man out of your mind, hopefully forever: the damage he was able to inflict on America was the product of a concert of interests. Rush was just the front—a talented front—but nothing about his baleful role in America’s calamity would have been possible without more powerful interests clearing the way for him and marketing him and then using him as a conduit for propaganda and making lots of money while doing so.
Rush is dead. Those interests are not.
I will be telling the story of my visit to the Rush Room and my journey around the Midwest including Cape Girardeau, in a later chapter of History of a Calamity, the book I am publishing on this substack, chapter by chapter every other week. But if you want to know more about the history above, I made an hour long program about it for the BBC. You can listen here.