Living under Limbaugh

Before right-wing talk radio’s gaseous giant hit the big time, he was just another voice at KFBK

In his kinder, gentler days, local radio personality Rush Limbaugh waxed enthusiastic about the Sistine Chapel. No, really.

In his kinder, gentler days, local radio personality Rush Limbaugh waxed enthusiastic about the Sistine Chapel. No, really.

Illustration By Ken Magri

If Rush Limbaugh is anything, it’s predictable. Every few months he manages to get the nation’s attention by saying something extremely ungracious, cruel or racist. His latest harangue is by now familiar. Rush couldn’t be a decent sport and wish President Barack Obama good luck as he assumed the highest office in the land. Instead, Limbaugh went out of his way to make the opposite gesture.

“I hope he fails,” Rush smirked.

Rush has been spewing bile like this and getting away with it for almost a quarter of a century. Any other on-the-air personality would have been fired years ago. In fact, an ethnic joke gave Limbaugh his first shot at talk radio in 1984, after NewsTalk 1530 KFBK host Morton Downey Jr. told a politically incorrect joke on the air. The joke went something like this:

There’s a Swede, a Norwegian and a Chinaman, and they all get hired to work on the railroad. The foreman tells the Swede, “You’re in charge of setting the railroad ties.” He tells the Norwegian, “You’re in charge of hammering the ties down.” He tells the Chinaman, “You’re in charge of supplies.” They all nod in agreement, and the foreman leaves. A few days later, the foreman shows up and sees the Swede and the Norwegian. “How is everything going?” he asks. “We’re almost out of supplies, and we haven’t seen the Chinaman for three days.” So the men set out to find him, but just then, he jumps out from around a corner, yelling, “Supplies!”

In another era, it might have been funny, but City Councilman Tom Chinn immediately called to complain, mostly about use of the word “Chinaman.” He politely explained to Downey that, for Chinese-Americans, this was an offensive word comparable to the use of the N-word when referring to African-Americans.

It would have been easy for Downey to just apologize, but he didn’t. Instead he used Chinn’s phone call to set up his signature “angry man tirade,” yelling that he didn’t have to apologize to Chinn or anybody. The next day, Downey indeed apologized to Councilman Chinn at a press conference, humbly announced his resignation, then slinked out of town with his tail between his legs.

Enter Rush Limbaugh.

Rush flew in from Kansas City, Mo., to audition for Downey’s job. He was terse, quick-witted and fast-paced. He ran through callers as if he needed to catch the plane back to Kansas City, which in fact he did. However, Rush was an immediate hit with listeners, so KFBK hired him for their 9-to-noon slot.

Limbaugh’s local show back then was vastly different from today’s. Sure, he was crass, but there were no “mega dittos” or “feminazis.” There was no newsletter, no institute for conservatism, and national politics didn’t dominate the program. He talked about everyday issues like traffic, the Kings, his TV news buddies or the appliance store that sponsored him.

I used to think he was nicer back then, before his ego erupted, before he took himself so seriously. Sure, he harped on Rio Linda’s blight. The city of Davis—in Rush’s view, a bastion of leftist thinking—was a constant target. But he also had frequent, friendly debates with liberal UC Davis professor Larry Berman. On Fridays, he did football picks with a regular caller named Wash. He gushed for almost an entire show once about Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling frescos that he’d seen while on vacation in Rome. He even let the KFBK news crew interview his mom back in Missouri.

He ranted, he took crazy positions, and yes, he said feminists were ugly. But he would also treat callers with kindness as long as they had something relevant to say and could be concise. My girlfriend worked at KFBK when Limbaugh was there. “Sweet,” was the word she used to describe the private person she knew when nobody else was around. “I love Rush,” she would say. “He’s very sweet, but insecure.”

My first encounter with him was an on-the-air discussion in 1987 about colorizing classic black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s golden era. Ted Turner was doing it, many were questioning the ethics, and Limbaugh took Mr. Jane Fonda’s side. He reasoned that black-and-white is boring, and that it’s not even real art.

“I don’t care about the art form of movies!” Rush said. “I think to call movies art is getting a little overblown.”

I called and asked if he would like seeing Ansel Adams’ black-and-white photographs colorized by someone who didn’t have permission. “Yes,” he said. “It frustrates me when there’s no color.” His viewpoint was so sad, so empty, that I started writing down quotes: “My gosh, we’re treating this as though Hitler came back and he’s got control of black-and-white movies. I mean, what does it matter? I don’t want to go to movies to think. I don’t want to go to movies to watch statements. I don’t want to go to movies to be depressed.” I wrote about it in On the Wing, a locally published art magazine that was around at the time.

Several months later, I met Rush in person at Suttertown News, a tiny alternative newspaper with a sunny downtown corner office. While walking in to deliver an art review, I saw him sitting awkwardly on a short stool in the middle of the room, with sunlight blaring in on him. Publisher Tim Holt suddenly stopped his interview with Rush and introduced the two of us. As Limbaugh looked up, I extended my hand and smiled.

“Rush, you might know me already,” I said. “I’m a regular caller, Ken, from Sacramento.”

He wouldn’t say hello. No handshake. Instead he pointed at me, looked back at Tim and started talking about the On the Wing piece. “This guy wrote an article that said I don’t respect black-and-white films.” Rush was animated and sweating. Then he went right back to the interview as if we had never been introduced. I handed Tim the review and quietly left as Rush kept talking.

It’s not like I didn’t try to be friends. One day I thought I had discovered a great new theme song for Limbaugh. It was an uptempo remix of “Rush, Rush” from the movie Scarface, with Deborah Harry singing in a soft, sexy voice. I sent him a copy, and two days later he was talking up the song and playing it for bumper music coming out of commercial breaks.

I had picked his new song! That was great, until a listener called and told him what the song was about. “Hey, Rush, don’t you know that song is all about snorting cocaine?” he teased. The caller speculated that the song might be somebody’s idea of a practical joke. It wasn’t! But Limbaugh believed him and threw a fit. I wrote to apologize, explaining that I didn’t think the connection to that film should embarrass him. No reply.

The last time I called in, Rush had just announced he was leaving Sacramento for a national radio show. This was one of his last local shows, and astonishingly he decided to spend the final hour defining date rape as something distinguishable from “real rape.” He kept repeating that date rape was different because there was a “reason” for the rape. The date and the expectations it creates was Limbaugh’s “reason.”

It was over the top, even for Rush. I got through to producer Kitty O’Neal, who was screening the calls. “I want you to know,” Kitty said, “that there are some women at this radio station who are very upset with Rush right now.”

She then put me through to the big guy.

“So, Rush, now you’ve become an apologist for rapists?” I asked. “Is that how you toughen up for New York and your national audience?”

That’s as far as I got, because Rush went ballistic. He yelled for the last minute of the show, over his exit music, right up to the top of the hour.

Some locate the emergence of Rush’s ugly vitriolic side to that “date rape” show. I used to think he was a nicer guy before then. But now I think I misjudged him. That mean-spiritedness which has now come to describe both Limbaugh and his skewed ideology was probably there all along. It makes one wonder what might have happened if Morton Downey had never told that off-color joke.