A Head for the Boomers

March 07, 1994|By PAUL H. LIBEN

YONKERS, NEW YORK — Yonkers, New York. -- Why is Rush Limbaugh so popular? Time magazine alludes to ''dark, resentful suspicions'' to which he allegedly caters. It adds that typical listeners are ''working stiffs who unapologetically enjoy action movies.''

Other critics go further, claiming that Mr. Limbaugh appeals successfully to hordes of aging, cretinous ''bigots'' who supposedly dominate Middle America.

None of these critics have listened carefully to Mr. Limbaugh's radio show. Listeners are, in fact, mostly well-educated males, along with a substantial minority of similarly educated females, almost all of them baby boomers.

Of these facts, Mr. Limbaugh seems well aware. Witness his choice of words. Boomers often use the word ''head'' as a suffix -- ''pothead,'' ''Deadhead,'' ''cokehead,'' etc. -- meaning ''fan'' or ''addict.'' Tellingly, Mr. Limbaugh calls his supporters ''dittoheads,'' adding ''ditto'' since their standard signal that they agree with him on something is a quintessentially boomeresque ''Dittos, Rush,'' or ''Megadittos.''

His overall style, moreover, is thoroughly boomer-tinged. Rock music introduces his show each day. After choosing a particularly exquisite example of liberal folly, he typically blasts his target by employing the basic stocks of boomer humor -- sarcasm, irony, ridicule, parody and hyperbole.

While most dittohead callers are baby boomers, most dittohead boomers, Mr. Limbaugh's show confirms, are under age 40. Baby boomers -- Americans between the ages of 30 and 50 -- are America's biggest age group, about 78 million strong. Slightly more than 30 million are ''older boomers,'' aged 41 to 50. The key to Mr. Limbaugh's success has been his successful wooing of the younger -- 31 to 40 -- subset of the baby-boomer generation. Long the sleeping giant of American politics, it is now being fully awakened by Rush Limbaugh.

This means trouble for liberalism. The American left has understandably relied upon older boomers for support: When they were teen-agers or young adults, their political and cultural opinions were shaped by civil rights and Vietnam protests, full employment and the War on Poverty, TV and the Pill, the Summer of Love and Timothy Leary.

Unfortunately for liberals, younger boomers clearly outnumber the '60s generation. Younger boomers were shaped by very different events -- Jimmy Carter's ineptitude and government-induced stagflation, American hostages humiliated in Iran and the culture of narcissism. All around them, they saw the failure of Big Government, the intellectual bankruptcy of liberalism and, especially, the many foibles of the '60s generation -- their older-boomer siblings who had rebelled against their parents.

The 1980s witnessed Ronald Reagan's gaining the allegiance of younger boomers. The Gipper had long mastered the art of boomer irony. The Woodstock generation had lampooned the ''Ozzie-and-Harriet'' view of American culture; Ronald Reagan embraced it with a giddy relish. He was purposely mocking the mockers, and younger boomers loved it.

In 1992, however, the outlook for liberals brightened as the thirtysomethings joined their elder brothers and sisters in voting for Bill Clinton -- albeit barely. President Bush seemed dazed by the pit-bull attacks of Woodstock-era liberals. Because of this, and because he repudiated President Reagan's economic legacy by raising taxes, triggering a recession, younger boomers perceived him not as a Reagan-like father figure, but (perhaps unfairly) a new Jimmy Carter. Now it looked as if these younger boomers were vulnerable to the Democrats' future overtures.

Enter Rush Limbaugh. Jogging the memories of his audience, he launched a lethal blast from the past: He began doing what Ted Koppel had done during the Iranian hostage crisis -- counting the days of ''America held hostage'' -- Day One being, in this case, the ascension to power of Bill Clinton and his not-so-merry band of '60s radicals.

Meanwhile, he continued his use of irony and sarcasm, much to the delight of younger boomers. Older boomers, particularly the New Left, had long slandered conservatives as ''fascists'' and -- even ''Nazis.'' Rush responded by calling the most radical feminists ''feminazis.'' Clinton-age liberals often derided committed conservatives as being ''to the right of Attila the Hun.'' Mr. Limbaugh converted the slur into a badge of honor: ''I am ensconced in the prestigious Attila the Hun Chair at the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.'' New Left Clintonites mocked the defenders of traditional morality and virtue. Rush retorted that he was and is ''the epitome of morality and virtue.''

Today, Rush Limbaugh's weekly radio audience alone exceeds 20 million. He jokingly refers to himself as ''the most dangerous man in America.'' As his audience of younger boomers swells, and as they begin drifting toward conservatism, liberals can only see this ''joke'' as reflecting bleak and painful reality.

Paul H. Liben is a free-lance writer.

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