On the very day Rush Limbaugh was waddling to the podium to incite all those angry folks attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (Rush: “Did the Democrats want the war on Iraq to fail!” Crowd: “Yes!” Rush: “They certainly did.”), death came to Paul Harvey. That’s the kind of cheap juxtaposed symbolism that Harvey, the perennial radio gasbag, turned into cash each day in his three-quarters-of-a-century on the airwaves. In his heyday, which was the Nixon era, Harvey was quite the noisy right-wing crank, verbally beating up on hippies, and Ruskies, and what-not, on hundreds of ABC radio affiliates. Later he relocated his golden microphone from the Windy City to Phoenix, and learned to relax a little. By the time Harvey reached the ripe old age of four-score-and-ten, he had mellowed into a beloved antiquity of the wireless, celebrated as a great enduring American showman, like Bob Barker or the Rev. B. Graham. Closer to the rev.
Harvey came to Toronto one year during the Nixon era, and threw a sermon out at the People’s Church, an evangelical palace on Sheppard Avenue, not that far from my childhood neighborhood. He was a pal of the local pastor, Oswald J. Smith, who was an acclaimed radio preacher and, like Harvey, not one to make excuses for the godless. I called Wex, and he agreed that we simply couldn’t afford to miss this extraordinary moment in theological history. We found our way to the house of worship, dressed in the manner of the day, the way John Fogerty dressed. We must have been 16 years old.
Every pew in the church was occupied, but the helpful parishioners fought all over each other to clear space for us. Kindly hands reached out, extending hymnals.
Harvey strode to the dais. He boomed a variation of his traditional greeting: “Hello, Toronto-Canadians!” He was a captivating speaker. His cadence and enunciation were broadcast-quality. He’d toned down his use of the pregnant pause, along with exultant sentence ending… which was known far and wide… as his trade-mark! The congregation was in thrall, even the swinger with the rock-star hair and white suit seated a few sections away, who kept turning from facing the speaker to shoot stares at me and Wex. I guessed he was some kind of churchly special ambassador to disaffected youth. We kept our distance.
One thing I could never possibly believe is that J.R. Young was actually a teen-aged Rush Limbaugh writing under an early pseudonym, although it is a possibility not ruled out by chronology, but by common sense. As I said, these Rolling Stone pieces were pretty good, and Limbaugh’s published writing is uniformly not-good, although it would be wrong to regard him as an entirely talentless repository of illegally obtained prescription painkillers and last month’s rancid suet. Yes, he has been a malignant force on society, and, yes, for the past 15 years or so, listening to him has been an impossibility for anyone with a bare trace-amount of self-respect. However, the Limbaugh of yesterday was not always what you currently see and hear — and hear, again and again.
Before he surrendered his independent spirit for a gazillion-dollar payoff, Limbaugh was a polished radio yapper who took unexpected positions just to confound his audience, as the great broadcasters have always done. Greatness, however, was something for which Limbaugh just wasn’t cut out. I recall during the late ’80s listening to a few weeks of programs where the host refused to come out as strongly anti-abortion. Caller after caller screamed abuse and threats at their guy. He stood his ground, maintaining that he hadn’t fully formed an opinion consistent with the orthodoxy of the right, and that he was mindful of the opinions of the women in his family, whose judgment he prized. He maintained this position for several days, as the listeners cajoled and pleaded with him to proclaim his rejection of the pro-choice argument. And then he abruptly backed down, and became an anti-abortion zealot like all the rest. He never again looked forward or sideways, for even a second.
He had another great stunt around this time, doing a spoof show where he claimed he’d just started dating a liberal woman and was falling in love, and beginning to reassess his hard-line right-wing positions. Again, his audience turned on him, and became an angry mob set to first denounce their leader and then string him up in the public square. All a big joke, he predictably explained at the end of the program; no libs, no lady, and no love for Limbaugh. In fairness, it was a pretty good joke, albeit a bleakly revealing joke, and one he would never repeat. What I gathered from this was that Limbaugh wasn’t necessarily born to pander to the lowest common denominator, a status that makes him no different from his media enemies at MSNBC, the New York Times or Air America radio. They’re all slobs waiting for a paycheck and a pat on the head from the boss. It’s just that he’s a better panderer than most, and more commercially potent when propped upright in his studio.
He was still sentient enough earlier in this decade to suffer revulsion at what he’d become, requiring round-the-clock self-administered anesthesia and pastries. That possibly speaks to both his latent humanity, as well as his disfigured character and damaged judgment. Think of Rush as Hunter S. Thompson’s rusticated, half-bright, more insecure baby brother, and recall Thompson’s fondness for quoting Dr. Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Seeing him on television this weekend, egging on the rabid right, turning away from the possible consequences of inflaming his followers during a precarious time in the nation’s history, you’d be wasting your time trying to imagine what it is Limbaugh thinks he’s become. Whatever that may be, it’s clear that he’s more to be pitied than mocked. In that regard, and others, Limbaugh is no Paul Harvey.