A Breath of Foul Air :...

Tom Carson is a free-lance writer based in Washington DC

Oh, get those pickle-tasting expressions off your faces; maybe you're missing the point. Here we are in the 1990s, with the publishing industry inches from becoming road kill on the information superhighway. Yet two busy and successful radio and TV personalities have each gone to all the old-fashioned trouble of concocting best-selling books. Shouldn't bibliophiles feel gratified that Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh still consider print a higher self-validation?

Instead, books such as Limbaugh's "See, I Told You So"--a follow-up to his Bible Belt bible "The Way Things Ought To Be"--and Stern's shock-jock autobiography "Private Parts" make the genteel minority want to holler rape, and with cause. What we're seeing is a cultural version of the displacement that so flustered our political owls last year, when Dan Rather learned with consternation that he now counted for less than some nattering CNN shill with a phone bank in the all-important business of helping voters understand their own priorities.

In fact, the Limbaughs and Sterns were always out there--or down there, in the rank pop undergrowth that cultivated folk once didn't mind letting grow wild. However many millions of fans swore by them, at them, or both, such performers weren't supposed to matter, because higher-minded media mavens still got to shape the public's impression of which of its own cultural interests were worthwhile: OK to the Beatles and even "Dallas," but thumbs down on dwarf-tossing and "The Gong Show." What's getting people upset now about the likes of Stern and Limbaugh isn't just their noisy, vulgar prominence but their new consequence. It's one thing if the hoi polloi prefer Howard Stern to the news: nobody cares. But once they decide Stern is the news, it's Katie Couric, bar the door.

By definition, in both men's books we're getting at best a bastardized version of what they really do. That's also true of their TV work--Stern's E! network dinner-theater of cruelty, Limbaugh's syndicated half-hour harangues. Their metier is radio, where both are--it would be stupid to deny this--superlative craftsmen. Many who can't stand Limbaugh's politics, but love the art of radio, admit he's one of the best; as for Stern, to preside over the audio melees he instigates day after day takes phenomenal technique. The books they put their names on, by contrast, are assembled rather than written. Stern, whose charm is in what he shrugs off, is cheerfully frank about this. Limbaugh, whose first book (according to Michael Arkush's useful quickie bio "Rush!") was largely the work of Wall Street Journal writer John Fund, stays more coy. His acknowledgments thank over half-a-dozen helpmeets for structural pointers, research and unspecified "assistance"--all the accepted euphemisms.

In Limbaugh's book, the seams show. For plodding pages at a time, most of its chapters clot into doggedly argued, reasoned if not reasonable tracts against familiar Limbaugh goat-getters such as feminists or the environmental movement. This is leavened only occasionally by interjected trademark Rush-isms--"Thank goodness I'm here to straighten all this out"--as if someone had suddenly remembered to stick in some of the act. From a man who's made no bones about putting entertainment value first, "See, I Told You So" doles out the fun in skimpy doses.

But in Stern's case, the assembly format suits his style, because he loves the seams. His book's a slapdash collage of transcribed reminiscences, bits culled from his radio show, mock quizzes and spur-of-the-moment random rants, its text broken up with reproduced hate mail and boxed comments from colleagues and family--even in print, his yen is to get a conversation going. If "Private Parts" weren't so distended--446 pages gilds the lily, and a good many weeds along with it--it might be a classic of disreputable American humor. As it is, it's a mess that's often howlingly funny.

One way both men benefit from print is that, on paper, their targets stay more abstract. You don't have to actually hear or see the hapless stooges, from hookers to doddering dignitaries, whom Stern enlists as fodder for his act. In his book, he hurls the epithet "humorless" at those of his verbal hit-and-run victims who don't immediately consent to being treated on his terms, which means to be degraded for his benefit. (Still, David Letterman is just as brutal when it comes to treating handy "little people"--immigrant cabbies, shopkeepers--as human props; is it Letterman's salary, or his suit, that makes his behavior more acceptable?) And since one of Limbaugh's purposes in "See, I Told You So" is to appear more temperate, thoughtful and substantive than he's perceived to be, you won't catch him outright ridiculing the homeless, say, or mocking Chelsea Clinton's looks, as he often has on his show.

Debunking Limbaugh the thinker won't break many sweats. But in his true role as a pest, he's often first-rate. Only the most blinkered liberal could fail to recognize, if not rollick in, Limbaugh's bumptious catalogues of the left's vanities, presumptions and idiocies, which if nothing else invariably juice up his book's energy level. Since he's out to nail the enemy, he can be counted on to dig up the worst: Al Gore's dumb metaphor of "an ecological Kristallnacht," a fatuous Hillary Clinton quote about learning to see her cleaning lady as a human being. Even his assaults on the authoritarian streak in the progressive mind set ("Liberals like to think you can't make it without them" is one of the milder ones) are hardly baseless--though in Limbaugh's view, it's no mere streak, but liberalism's whole secret motive and purpose. To use liberalism's follies to prove that liberalism itself is folly is as unfair as it would be to treat some of Dan Quayle's better-known gaffes as an index of the merits of Republicanism. Yet caricaturists shouldn't be fair; if they are, they're falling down on the job.

Unlike Limbaugh, Stern has no detectable mission. (In his book, whatever he does gets, and apparently requires, only one justification: "Great radio!") His politics, however vague, are probably no less reactionary--he admires both Ed Koch and Al D'Amato, no doubt because, like him, they're strident personalities. But he does have a function, which is to mock a whole gamut of middle-class inhibitions and taboos by being a gleeful yahoo about violating them.

Only someone who's no stranger to middle-class hang-ups himself could have such a brilliant intuition of just which gross-out, sleaze and warped-sex buttons to push, a point Stern is shrewd enough to underline with funny stuff about his own sub-Portnoy upbringing. (Nothing could be more middle-class than his rump fetish, with the possible exception of boasting, as he often does here, that years of persuading strange women to get naked for him--on radio!--haven't made him technically unfaithful to his wife.)

It is, as he suggests, very much the sort of thing Lenny Bruce used to do--which only sounds heretical if you buy the posthumous legend of Lenny Bruce, liberal saint. (In death, he became bohemia's J.F.K.) Bruce's routines about sex and race, like Stern's, may well have been liberating--but not in the therapeutic sense imposed on them by his more unctuous admirers after the fact. They were liberating because they were scurrilously irresponsible, a holiday from decency and manners.

Fretters have reason to worry that now the holiday lasts forever. But that isn't Stern's responsibility; responsibility isn't his responsibility. A fairer yardstick for him and Limbaugh is how well they serve their fans--who make up, in Stern's case no less than Limbaugh's, not just a following but a constituency. No doubt the two camps overlap in the young-white-male demographic, but if this isn't too fancy, Stern's audience is probably hostile without being truly resentful, while Limbaugh's is resentful without being truly hostile.

Although Limbaugh derides the emphasis on "self-esteem" in the struggles of inner-city African-Americans, parts of "See, I Told You So" amount to a self-help book for white, conservative Middle Americans. Sounding curiously like the New Age gurus he scorns, he's always using himself as a example: "I began to think I was worthless and could never be attractive to anybody. . . . I didn't like myself." And cannily, he constantly cites his own success as a validation of his audience's dignity.

There's some justice in that. It may seem ludicrous that the white right wing considers gays, blacks and women unfairly privileged groups. But prominent people, from the President on down, are constantly expressing concern about gays, blacks and women, and in a Media Age attention equals privilege. What makes conservative middle Americans feel cheated is that they're never the topic of the national discussion, always the listeners. They have to join Operation Rescue to be the topic, and even then, only Rush will tell them they're its heroes.

Even so, I think Limbaugh has already betrayed his constituency. One pitfall of wanting to make yourself somebody, as he did from adolescence on, is that you come to crave the approval of other somebodies more than the devotion of a bunch of nobodies. That's what happened to Limbaugh in the '92 election. The story is well told in Paul D. Colford's "The Rush Limbaugh Story"--a more substantial book than the Arkush bio, partly because Colford, a radio columnist for Newsday, knows and loves the medium, and can tell readers plenty about Limbaugh's bread and butter.

During the '92 primaries, Limbaugh--disenchanted with Bush, like most of the hard right--had boosted Pat Buchanan. More worrying to the White House, his following looked like a hotbed of potential Perot votes. So, in one of its few savvy moves all year, the Bush campaign courted Limbaugh; he was invited to Washington, where the President himself carried the guest's bag into the Lincoln bedroom--from which Limbaugh promptly began making giddy guess-where-I-am phone calls. That, and a VIP seat at the Houston convention, were all it took. Limbaugh spent the fall beating the drums for Bush while denouncing Perot. Flouting his usual no-guests rule, he brought the President on for a chat. Twice.

Whatever his moral laxities, I doubt Howard Stern could have been bought off so easily. (True, any President mad enough to give him the run of the Lincoln bedroom would be impeached on the spot.) Stern doesn't even need bribes to, for instance, make nice with Donald Trump. His audience already admires Trump, so what's the beef? But even though, in Limbaugh's cosmos, Bush has once again become the baddie who stabbed Reaganism in the back with the 1990 budget deal, the commentator has never fully recovered from having been seduced. That was obvious from his support for NAFTA, which was a duel between the Establishment and the common people if any issue ever was; it didn't say much for Limbaugh's populist credibility that he was on the Establishment side. In "See, I Told You So," he can make like an Establishment's cat's-paw, offering sententious comments such as, "We must not ignore the Perot voters"--a formulation that must mystify his fans, so many of whom, in spirit if not fact, are Perot voters.

Stern's compact with his audience is simpler. It's also a great Media Age joke: his fans live vicariously by listening to him live--vicariously. It's an open question whether Stern uses his power for good, for ill, or, my own guess (and vote), for doodley-squat. But power it remains, because, like Limbaugh, he's riding the curl of a cultural metamorphosis. After half a century of acquiescence, the mass audience has launched a sort of unruly equivalent of the Protestant reformation--ridding itself of priestly middleman (Didn't Alistair Cooke leave just in time?), denying special dispensations (Who cares what David Brinkley thinks is going on?), exercising the id of free will. Curiously, it's the culture's nabobs who now feel like beleaguered Huguenots. But don't worry, George Will--that cross chalked on your door is just a gag.

"See, I Told You So" by Rush Limbaugh is also available on cassette from Simon & Schuster Audio.

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