Putting Rush Limbaugh into perspective

Rush Limbaugh wants President Barack Obama to fail, he has said more than once, and liberal commentators are aghast, either because they haven’t bothered to check out the context of his remarks or are hopelessly befogged by bias.

A couple of minutes of Google searches would inform the lazy ones that while Limbaugh may characteristically have found a provocative way to phrase his thoughts, he was actually saying he hoped Obama would fail to afflict the nation with horrendous policies. Not so outrageous, huh?

But if you are a liberal, this is your hour, you will tolerate no opposition, and if someone keeps popping your gaseous balloons, you will either attempt to quell that constitutionally guaranteed freedom through reimposition of the radio-regulating Fairness Doctrine or commit another act of political thuggery.

You will demonize the talk show host as a powerful, propagandistic hate-monger while making him seem the very embodiment of everything you aim to defeat. You will say, as Obama’s chief of staff did, that he is the "intellectual" wherewithal of the Republican Party, or you will call him the party’s leader, as we keep hearing from a rather silly, labor-financed group called Americans United for Change. Because polls show most Americans don’t like Limbaugh much, it’s a clever strategy.

Yet then again, there might be some who figure it can be just as clarifying to put the man himself in context as to put his words in context. They might start with the observation that his only power is the power of persuasion, ordinarily seen as a legitimate, even primary instrument for deciding issues in a democracy.

True, he reaches an impressive 13 million people a week, but they are self-selected, tuning him in because they want to. He doesn’t begin to reach as high a percentage of the population as Tom Paine did with his 18th century pamphlets urging Americans to support war against Britain. Given an adult population today of some 230 million, there are 217 million who aren’t listening regularly while in many cases accessing the near-limitless radio, cable and broadcast TV, newspaper, magazine and Internet voices offering other views.

Limbaugh is certainly not "propagandistic" in any strict sense of the word, and easily less so than many hurtling the charge, such as Al Gore, someone who recently had to change material in a climate-change slideshow because it misrepresented a study’s findings.

I do not doubt that Limbaugh has gone overboard at times, suffered lapses in taste and gotten some things wrong. Virtually everyone in the opinion business does the same to some extent or the other, and more of us would more of the time if we had to do what Limbaugh does on radio – gab almost three hours a day, five days a week.

A saving grace is that he is funny and fun, sometimes as much comedian as commentator. Maybe you won’t like it that, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, he said John Kerry would be completely colorless except for his varicose veins, but compare that to some of what we get from large numbers on the left-wing side, including from the columns of another radio personality, the likeable Garrison Keillor. When commenting on issues of the day, he routinely morphs into a verbal version of Vlad the Impaler.

Politically, Limbaugh is a limited-government guy who happens to believe more than anything in individual liberty. He says the GOP is in such a "sad-sack state" that he wouldn’t be its leader if asked, and at least some Republican spokesman have made it clear enough they want little to do with him, and that’s OK.

What will not be OK is a failure to stand up to horrendous Obama policies the president has lately told us he has in mind.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)