- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008


Last summer, as the debate over illegal immigration legislation simmered in Washington, I found myself focused more and more on conservative talk radio.

Rush Limbaugh was doing a daily number on the immigration bill, as was Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, and that was really swimming against the political tide because everyone from President Bush to Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy and, for that matter, the Wall Street Journal editorial page were backing the legislation.

But the more I listened the more I recognized Mr. Limbaugh et al. were absolutely annihilating the intellectual case for the immigration-reform legislation. It was amnesty — a reward for illegal behavior. Simpson-Mazzoli, that original immigration reform measure of the 1980s, had proven to be a disaster. Why would not Simpson-Mazzoli II be even worse?

As the summer wore on, it became clear to any Limbaugh listener that talk radio was turning the conservative ranks (their numbers swelled by moderates) into an army against the immigration bill. It amused me to see official Washington was oblivious to the near revolution in opinion that talk radio was generating. Because I was so tied into talk radio, for me it was like witnessing an exercise in early 21st century democracy. And the White House and Congress and the Press Club didn’t know what was about to hit them.

So talk radio turns out not to be the driving force behind 2008 Republican primary results — though history may judge that talk radio grasped a far bigger picture.

But that hardly justifies a truly outrageous Wall Street Journal column by contributing editor Mark Helprin, condemning talk radio, comparing its hosts to “hairdressers… whose major talent is that they can talk all day long to one client after another as they snip.” Explains Mr. Helprin: “For by their neglectful forfeit they have lost the battles of culture and education, and to remain other than an occult force they must express their beliefs through politics, from which, after November, they may be for a time excluded.”

What drivel. Where on Earth are Journal editors when we need them most? For all his stature as novelist and original thinker, Mr. Helprin cannot hold Rush Limbaugh’s coat when it comes to understanding, as someone used to say, the way the world works.

At its best, conservative talk radio serves, as did National Review in the 1950s or the Journal editorial page in the 1970s, as the breeding ground of conservative truth. Republican politicians come and go. We tend to forget that had he not got a divorce to marry the aptly named Happy, Nelson Rockefeller would likely have been the Republican nominee in 1964. But conservative truth is a constant.

As he has proven through the administrations of former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and now that of George W. Bush, Mr. Limbaugh needs no particular season in Washington to maintain the greatest audience in modern radio history. He represents conservative thought. People like Mr. Helprin, for all his brilliance, should not think they are on top of what is happening in America if they do not listen to Rush. That is why this elitist bashing of talk radio is outrageous to those of us who listen to it.

You don’t have to hate John McCain — or even oppose his candidacy — to appreciate Rush Limbaugh. As Rush is fond of saying, Mr. McCain can’t make peace with him now. He would lose his moderate and independent supporters.

In recent days, columnist Michelle Malkin demolished nationally respected conservatives who believe they are helping Mr. McCain by assaulting talk radio. How can Phil Gramm grouse: “They [talk-show hosts] say they have principles, but some of it is their ego and power, too. They’re well-known, and they’re used to having power.” That is almost as thoughtless as what then-Sen. Trent Lott said about talk-radio hosts during the immigration debate: “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.” Problem? It’s the political types who do not appreciate talk radio who have a problem.

Kenneth Tomlinson, former editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest, was chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in the Bush administration.

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