Rush Limbaugh died last week.
No prayers and very few thoughts (at least not positive ones) or as my favorite blogger Eden Baylee noted to me “tots and pears.” Not so sure about pears but I’m always up for some Tater Tots – with a splash of ketchup of course.
It’s said that we aren’t supposed to speak ill of the dead but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak the truth about them, and if the speaking is ill, well… Those who do damage in life and leave that damage after life deserve accountability. The devastation that Limbaugh left requires due commentary.
Limbaugh birthed the collapse of discourse. He was a mean spirited man who tossed out scurrilous comments with aplomb.
In 1992 he called then 12 year old Chelsea Clinton a “dog.”
In 2006 Limbaugh accused Michael J. Fox of “exaggerating the effects” of Fox’s Parkinson’s Disease.
The targets of Limbaugh’s slanders are legion:
He called Kurt Cobain “a worthless shred of human debris.”; Sandra Fluke a “slut.”; Iraq War vets, “phony soldiers” and mocked victims of AIDS.
While much of the world either sloughed off Limbaugh’s death, breathed a sigh of relief or reminded itself of his toxicity, Fox News reacted as if Jesus had just died (again).
A few days ago I read a Facebook comment denying that Limbaugh was racist. The commenter had clearly missed such Limbaugh gems as:
Calling President Obama the “house negro.”
A blanket denigration of the NBA, “I think it’s time to get rid of this whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call ’em gangs.”
A barb aimed at Mexicans (and I imagine the Latinx community in general) “Let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do — let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.”
I was tempted to respond to the commenter but realized that there’s no end game there. Arguing with someone drunk on Limbaugh’s brand of snake oil is as rewarding as arguing with any other drunk. Drunk is drunk, doesn’t matter the intoxicant.
It was in the mid-1980’s that I met Rick. He was a new hire at work and we quickly found that we had things in commons; sports, fishing and a disdain for our goofy boss. It was hard not to gravitate to Rick. He was charming, gregarious and carried a big smile. He walked with a conspicuous limp, the result of a car accident during his younger days in his home state of Maryland.
I was in purchasing and Rick was a salesman by trade. I guess you could say he was the quintessential salesman; the epitome of the legendary peddler who, as the saying goes, “wears out the shoe leather.” He was the guy who carried around a pocketful of quarters to make calls from phone banks located in airports and lobbies. He was Willy Loman without the self-destructive bent.
Rick had a big heart. On weekends he made a few extra bucks working as a deckhand aboard his brother’s salmon boat. Early on in our friendship he surprised me with a salmon. “For your family’s table,” he said.
Years later, when my dad was in a nursing home Rick would stop by the home to visit my dad. Nobody asked him to do that. He barely knew my dad. That was just the way Rick was.
Early on in our friendship, Rick shared part of my season ticket plan for the San Francisco 49ers football team. The Joe Montana years when local football success squashed political differences. We shared tailgate barbecues and talked politics, sports and work over grilled steaks and too many beers.
When I met Rick, Limbaugh was just a twenty-something college dropout working out of a radio station in Sacramento, California. Rush wasn’t yet RUSH and Rick was just your basic run of the mill Ronald Reagan Republican. Pre-Rush was a far different landscape; a serious one, where political discourse dealt in veracity and reason. Rick was a conservative in a time when conservatism wasn’t automatically equated with the Klan, and I was a liberal when liberalism wasn’t automatically equated with Stalin.
We disagreed on politics but it was polite discourse with occasionally raised voices and maybe an expletive or two and some head shaking. Limbaugh hadn’t yet become big enough to inject his jet fuel of viciousness into the national debate.
In the early 1990s Rick tasted of the Limbaugh communion and became a believer; a devout Dittohead (the term for a Limbaugh acolyte). Our own political debates grew more animated as he inserted Limbaughisms into our debates. Still our friendship never wavered. We never let politics derail our relationship. We always managed to turn off the heat.
I clearly remember one incident during one of our pregame tailgates when the subject of the Pledge of Allegiance came up. Rick was upset that some local schools were dropping the requirement for reciting the Pledge.
When I reacted with a “meh,” and dismissed the Pledge as not much more than a mindless loyalty oath foisted on kids who didn’t even know what they were reciting, Rick came off the wall.
“YOU, a degree holder in history. I can’t believe that just came out of your mouth.”
We argued, we called each other names, we screamed at each other, caused a scene in the stadium parking lot – and then we reached into the cooler, clinked our beer bottles together and switched the conversation to sports.
That was how our political discussions/arguments always ended whether it was during the pre-Rush or post-Rush days.
After a few years, we drifted apart. We’d both moved to different jobs and Rick started going to games with his brother. Our separation wasn’t over politics. It’s hard now to recall what caused the rift.
A friend of mine, my closest and dearest, once told me about her estrangement from a friend of hers. She told me that sometimes friendships just get old and organically just dissolve. A few years ago she moved about 60 miles away and got a job as a V.P. in a startup and her time is mostly taken up with work. We often go for long periods without communicating. Every now and then I text her to see how she is. I guess part of it is to check for friendship spoilage. We end up with a long conversation and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Maybe Rick and I had a friendship that was just destined to curdle.
During our friendship It was Rick who convinced me to listen to Limbaugh, reasoning that I couldn’t criticize the man without at least hearing him out. I did and my opinion of Limbaugh as a jerk was confirmed and never changed.
Years after Rick and I went our separate ways I occasionally tuned to KSFO, the local right wing outlet. The station tags itself, “Hot Talk.” More like, hot mess.
On days when I was stuck in traffic I would tune in to KSFO. Out of boredom? Curiosity? No car wrecks to gawk at, might just as well listen to a dumpster fire. In the mid-1990s KSFO hired a guy named Michael Savage (Savage is his nom de guerre. Real name Weiner).
Savage was so far out there that he made Limbaugh seem like Bernie Sanders by comparison. I couldn’t stomach Savage, Limbaugh or any of the other KSFO hosts for more than a few minutes. I was left with that feeling that I needed to shower or go visit a confessional.
Bless me father for I listened to Hot Talk.
You’re going to hell, my son.
While I found their vitriol to be vile I dismissed much of it as just schtick. That’s long been my theory about most talk/commentary radio, both liberal and conservative. If you want to make a splash, you need to be noticed. If you aren’t willing to espouse extreme balderdash, be it far left or far right, you might find yourself making your living as a barista. Outlandishness is something that Limbaugh may not have invented but it was something he certainly enhanced.
And so I long considered the Limbaugh/Savage brand of commentary to be just right wing repertory. How could anyone be so empty of decency and fill the void with so much rage and hatred? They couldn’t really believe that shit. It’s salesmanship, I thought, and so I dismissed it. I didn’t listen, paid it no mind and so it was easy to ignore. Out of earshot out of mind.
My dismissive attitude about Limbaugh was wrong of course. If you’re peddling venom the motivation, whether money or mandate, is irrelevant. Venom is venom. I suppose that it was easier for me to dismiss the malevolence a decade ago when it seemed to only appeal to the small fringe that existed in hushed secret basement meetings or in some compound in an Idaho forest.
And then one day I looked and listened and there it was. It had caught fire and was raging (in both senses of the word).
What we’ve found of course, especially with the influence of a no holds barred internet and volcanic rhetoric is that the Limbaugh/Savage following has long been larger than we thought. It just wasn’t so evident. It became crystal clear in June of 2015 when Trump declared his candidacy in a speech that was a precursor to years of malice. Limbaugh set the table for Trump’s vulgar main course.
Now it’s all just a screaming match. The motivation isn’t to progress; to do what’s good for the country.
Heated rhetoric has led to the abandonment of the search for compromise. We’ve become content with my way or the highway, resulting in broken friendships and fractured families. But that’s not the real danger. The real danger is that the rhetoric and inflexibility has infected Congress and we’ve seen what that’s led to.
We’ve come to a point where the nation is mud wrestling over science, a pandemic and an ice storm.
Limbaugh has been lauded from the right as being entertaining; a funny guy. One commenter described him as a mixture of news and vaudeville. Is this what we want? To carry on Limbaugh’s legacy of taking news commentary from the sublime to the ridiculous; find anything to criticize with a few yuks no matter how trivial.
Remember when President Obama had the audacity to wear a tan suit at a press briefing? One would have thought that he’d burned the American flag at the podium. The tan suit drew more response than the subject of the briefing, which was the U.S. military response against Syria.
Before Limbaugh, normal political commentary dealt with such uninspiring topics as, the economy, wars, crime, corruption and Congressional legislation. You know, all of those tedious important things.
Limbaugh created a media atmosphere that looks for the smallest, most insignificant speck of dirt.
We’ve literally gone to the dogs. Trump was lambasted for not having a dog in the White House and recently Joe Biden’s dog was taken to task on Newsmax for not being a “presidential dog” (ignoring the fact that we just completed four years without a presidential president). And finally as part of the Ted Cruz, Cancun-gate affair, a reporter insinuated that Cruz had fled to warmer climes and left his dog home to freeze. That the story is false didn’t matter. It grew legs and raced around social media with the speed of a greyhound.
Limbaugh and those of his species planted the seeds of belligerence into mainstream soil. When they started they might never have dreamed of the impact they would have. I wonder, do you get satisfaction from knowing that the seeds you sowed so long ago sprouted the weeds that have choked the American garden?
Limbaugh and those who’ve adopted his brand of commentary remind me of the guy who takes a walk in the woods, lights a cigarette, flicks the match and then walks away, unconcerned while the forest burns down.
After Limbaugh’s death, I heard reports, even from the mainstream, about his impact as if it were harmless, almost avante garde; words like “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary.”
“He left his mark.” Well, so do dogs.
Limbaugh’s lasting legacy is this. He created the Frankenstein monster of modern commentary (left and right) and it’s doubtful that all the torches and pitchforks in the world will be able to burn down his creation.
Limbaugh left a legion of apprentices who continue the damage. Savage, Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham and all the rest are drunk on their versions of the Limbaugh cocktail. They’ve never stopped to consider what they’ve wrought. Apparently it’s never occurred to them that maybe they should take a breath, reverse course.
I wonder if in 2021, Rick and I would be able to have a political discussion and then set it all aside and clink beer bottles.