Driving in Limbaugh

February 18, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

Glens Falls, N.Y. -- I do not own a car, which means I rent more than a few, which means I never understand how the radio on the --board works. They don't have knobs anymore, you know, and I often find myself risking my life, driving blind as the fingers of my right hand clumsily search panels more complicated than synthesizers, feeling for ''Seek'' and ''Scan'' and AM-FM.

Usually I get it wrong. My sanity rattles over the edge -- and the car over the yellow line -- as voices and sounds fly past in two-second bursts. Every fourth burst or so seems to be Rush Limbaugh or Baby Rushes, local imitators of the man from know-it-all land.

Last Monday, driving along Route 87 here, a deft pinkie flick landed me on the real Rush, who happened to be attacking me as an enemy of the republic. It was a subject I found more interesting than the day's alternative pushed by Rush and the Babies, which was: Why won't liberals push sexual harassment charges against President Clinton the way they did against Clarence Thomas, huh, huh, huh?

Somehow, as I was assaulted by a many-wheeled tractor-trailer about the size of Long Island, the big man segued into an article I had written in Money magazine about the impact of Proposition 13 and its tax-capping legislative descendants on life in California over the past 15 years. Amazingly, the populist voice of American capitalism's loser class got my piece all wrong.

The overall thrust of Mr. Limbaugh's lament seemed to be that people like me are at the valves of the flow of information to the people of the United States. Would that it were true. Someone should tell him that he, not me or a hundred other piecework scribblers, has the eyes, the ears and the minds, such as they are, of America's most whining.

Unless I'm missing something, besides seven-figure checks, Mr. Limbaugh, he of radio, television, books, newsletters and fan clubs, produces more words per day than anyone else or thing American -- with the possible exception of the federal government.

Why is this man whining? If he doesn't like the Clintons or Congress, why doesn't he just make them an offer they can't refuse? Buy them.

His take last Friday -- most days, I assume -- was that there is a liberal cabal, of which I am a mini-cog, deciding which ideas and people will be exposed to the great and angry American nation. Awaking each morning, we get signals from the Left, and march out to protect our ideology.

As I listened -- for the first time, I admit, but with the loyalty of a man just elevated into the governing elite -- Mr. Limbaugh offered an amusing tip to the Clintons on how to get past their Whitewater problems. Release everything, every paper, every shred of evidence, to the Washington Times and the American Spectator, he said. Then when those journals of the Right publish the stuff, it will be dismissed as irrelevant because the elite of the Left dismiss the Times and the Spectator as not credible.

That suggestion was followed by a commercial for the Spectator offering complete details of the president's sex life to new subscribers. I was tempted, but as a matter of fact I don't trust what I read in that particular magazine.

Mr. Limbaugh rolled on, obviously not bored at all with himself. Pleased as punch, my grandfather would have said. Listening now, I thought I could hear the man hugging himself.

I was not hostile to his evolving word-picture of an organized ideology machine that includes mutually reinforcing and promoting academics, researchers, and other intellectuals, writers, journalists and broadcasters -- many supported by sympathetic foundations and think tanks. In my mind, unreinforced by liberal talk shows (of which there are none to my knowledge), that ideology machine does exist -- but the colossus is conservative, not liberal.

In fact, I can be specific about the origins and originator of the idea-cabal of the Right. It was proposed (and later partly funded) by William E. Simon in the early 1970s in the final chapters of a book called "A Time for Truth." Mr. Simon is a private investor who served for a time as secretary of the Treasury before inventing the corporate takeover and breakup strategies that dominated U.S. business in the 1980s.

A smart boy from New Jersey, Mr. Simon argued that to rebuild itself, American conservatism had to create and nurture an intellectual network at least as formidable as what he saw as the ideological shock troops of the '60s liberals. In a book, he talked of newspapers and magazines, reporters and editors, research institutes, university centers and endowed chairs -- funded by rich conservatives and their foundations.

Mr. Simon put his money (or somebody's money) where his mouth was. He controlled a small foundation in Indiana, the John M. Olin Foundation, and over the years used it to build and support that network, providing money and other comforts for thinkers like Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, Charles Murray and hundreds of lesser-known conservatives. It worked, creating lower-down mouths such as Mr. Limbaugh and his imitators.

Enough of that. I felt for the ''Scan'' button, leaving Mr. Limbaugh and picking up a couple of local clones prattling on about the president's sex life, with a few snide asides about what Hillary Rodham Clinton was really doing at the Winter Olympics in Norway.

Finally, I stopped when I heard a show announced as coming from ''Radio Free D.C.'' in Washington. Another talk show going after the Clintons, this one hosted by that well-known liberal, G. Gordon Liddy. So it went on the road last Monday, in the right lane of Route 87.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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