There are plenty of people who love Rush Limbaugh and plenty more who despise him, but everyone seems fascinated by him. Isn’t time to wonder why?
Last Saturday night, Limbaugh was savagely ridiculed by Wanda Sykes, the featured comedian at the nationally televised White House Correspondents Dinner.
With President Obama just a few feet away, Sykes said: “Rush Limbaugh said he hopes this administration fails. You know, so you're saying, I hope America fails. … To me, that’s treason. He's not saying anything different than what Osama bin Laden is saying. You know, you might want to look into this, sir, because I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was so strung out on Oxycontin, he missed his flight.”
That kicked off a predictable back-and-forth on cable news shows and on the Internet, with conservatives howling in outrage, liberals laughing in delight—and a few voices using the occasion to play against type.
No one seems to remember that we already went through this exact same controversy—16 years ago. It was in May of 1993, at the first White House Correspondents Dinner of his presidency, that Bill Clinton used his turn at the podium to hurl a similarly cutting broadside at Limbaugh.
The dinner came just a few weeks after the F.B.I., at the behest of Attorney General Janet Reno, tried to use force to end a 51-day stand-off with a heavily armed Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. The move backfired when the Branch Davidians set their own compound on fire, leading to the deaths of 76 people, 20 of them children. Reno’s decision was widely criticized, even by many Democrats—and in particular by Michigan Representative John Conyers, who relentlessly grilled the AG when she appeared before Congress after the siege.
So it was against that backdrop that Clinton offered praise in his monologue for Limbaugh, who was in attendance and who had rallied to Reno’s defense when Conyers had gone after her.
“Of course,” Clinton quipped, “he only did it because she was attacked by a black guy.”
There was no YouTube back then, so Clinton’s crack couldn’t go viral, but it received pretty much the same treatment Sykes’ jab has gotten this week. Liberals celebrated the spectacle of Limbaugh finally getting a taste of his own medicine, while conservatives said that Clinton had “crossed the line.” Limbaugh himself even suggested a double standard, saying of Clinton’s joke, “It’s politically incorrect if conservatives do it.” Some have claimed a similar double standard with Sykes’ joke, suggesting that likening Obama to a terrorist, instead of Limbaugh, would have produced an outcry from the press.
In other words, the terms of the conversation about Rush Limbaugh haven’t changed since 1993. The same kind of comment about the same polarizing personality at the same dinner prompted the exact same accusations and justifications along the exact same ideological fault line. No one seemed to notice that everyone was reenacting a melodrama that first played out when Obama was still a community organizer in Chicago.
In a way, this is a testament to Limbaugh’s longevity as a public figure. For two decades, he’s managed to tweak his act just enough to stay relevant. Some predicted that the end of the Clinton administration would end Limbaugh’s dominance, but he emerged from the Bush years as dominant a presence as ever.
It’s more than a little silly. Limbaugh’s relevance depends on his ability to stir up controversy, which depends on his ability to provoke outrage, which depends on the willingness of people to be outraged. He’s never had any trouble doing this, mainly because we’ve all been such willing accomplices.
But every Limbaugh controversy is really just the same old story repeating itself, just like the correspondents dinner brouhaha. Today, prominent Republicans, most recently Dick Cheney, publicly align themselves with Limbaugh, and the left expresses shock and bafflement that a party would wish to identify itself with a talk show host who scores terribly in public opinion polls and who proudly says he wants Obama to fail. “Boss Limbaugh,” is how Keith Olbermann refers to Rush on his MSNBC show.
They act like this is something new. It’s not. 15 years ago, when Republicans took back the House for the first time since 1954, the 73-member G.O.P. freshman class held a banquet in Washington and invited Limbaugh as their guest of honor. To the general public, he was just as unpopular then as now, best known as the incendiary radio host who had taken to calling feminists “feminazis.” But to the House Republicans, he was a hero. They called him a “majority-maker” and made him an honorary member of their class. “Rush is as responsible for what happened here as anyone,” Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican, said at the event. Republicans have been kissing Limbaugh’s ring for a long time.
There is, obviously, a strategic component to the left’s current fixation on Limbaugh, and you can’t really blame them for that. And Limbaugh benefits, too, because the more the left attacks him, the more the media pays attention to him—and the more loyal his audience becomes. How dumb is that?