Saving America From Politics

THE MOST RESONANT soundbite of the presidential campaign thus far--a koan for contemporary politics, really--was uttered by Bob Dole in a recent fit of pique. "Everything we're for, he's for," spluttered Bob. "Why should he be president? Why shouldn't I be president?" Why indeed?

          But tough as it may be for Dole, he gets to sit down in November. These are harder times for Rush Limbaugh, a man now forced to earn his daily bread inveighing against a sitting Republican president in the name of--Republican values. I tuned in to his show for five minutes or so on Monday while I was driving. The first caller was jawing about Clinton and the teachers' unions. The second, who identified himself as a teenager from East L.A., took issue with Clinton administration figures indicating that teen drug use had gone down.

          Damn that Clinton! Damn him! The passions of shepherd and flock were undimmed by the fact that the president has never hesitated to take the cudgel to teachers himself, as he did in Arkansas in 1983 when his meager package of education reforms was threatened and he responded by scapegoating teachers. Teen drug use? Clinton is always happy for a new opportunity to rail at the sins of youngsters, no matter what his own statistics say. Just before I shut him off, Limbaugh was reduced to criticizing the hour of day at which Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act: Why at night? Why not in the Rose Garden? Why?

          I've long thought that Limbaugh serves as a useful kind of litmus test. When you meet someone capable of getting lathered up about him, fan or foe, you know nine times out of ten that you have met a dullard, someone to whom politics finally cuts no deeper than party labels; nearly everyone else gets bored silly with Rush in a matter of minutes. But Clinton's dash to the right since the 1994 elections has lent new gravity to Limbaugh's role in the political economy. Maybe it's the allergy pills, but there have been days of late when I fancied myself in an alternate political universe--along with ex-Senator Dole, now dwelling in a spot on the time-space continuum where Hideo Nomo pitches for the Brooklyn Dodgers--in which Limbaugh and his clones and acolytes are the main bulwark against popular insurrection.

          Consider the bare facts. We have, on the one hand, a restless and dispirited populace whose fortunes by and large continue to decline; and on the other, a sclerotic, insular political system offering in most cases bald-faced parodies of choice and participation. What is to keep the unwashed out of the streets? Well, you need a lot of impassioned, idle chat about choice and participation and the largely fictive differences between the candidates. You need a politics of personality with heroes and villains. In short you need Rush Limbaugh and people like him. The newspapers and the networks won't do the job; they are bloodless, and they are seen (correctly, as far as that goes) as part of the great monolith, bedded down in the Beltway and oblivious to the fates of average folk.

          To a very large extent, whatever heat, whatever pretense to drama remains in the pageant of political life for those who consume it as spectacle--which is to say, most people--is thanks to the likes of Limbaugh. Without his ilk to keep the dialogue running on the same well-oiled track, the energies of talk radio's huge and generally very angry audience might be shooting off in even more disparate directions than they already are. God knows that would frighten the Limbaugh bashers even more than Rush himself. The sort of liberal who still musters hope for the Democratic party ought to be grateful for him; he is helping keep it safe to talk about nothing of consequence.

          YOU MAY HAVE noticed the piece in last week's National Enquirer on Roger Stone, the Republican political operative caught placing ads (with photos, no less) in swinger magazines. No one cares, of course; no one cared about Dick Morris, either. Even titillation is falling on deaf ears in this campaign. There's no way to make it a cheaper charade than it already is, and there's no way to make people care.

          Except journalists. For a few weeks the rumor mill has been buzzing over two more potboilers said to be on the way. One involves Clinton's withheld medical records. The conventional wisdom has been that Bill must have been treated for the clap somewhere along the way, but Washington Times Editor Arnaud de Borchgrave was heard to mutter otherwise in an off-camera moment at a recent C-SPAN taping. He said that "a syndicated columnist" will soon be running with the story that Clinton was treated for cocaine abuse in 1984. And a Clinton campaign source recently told a colleague of mine that a tabloid piece currently in the works will definitively out Jack Kemp, who has been less secretive about his preferences since he decided not to run for president again. But the tabloids have already started burbling about Jack, to no avail, and the New York Post ran a column late last week containing speculation as to Bill's recreational coke consumption. They've gone nowhere. No one cares. A pity in a way; I'd love to see the Clinton camp handling the ricochet if they were connected to the outing of Kemp for political gain.

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