Here are some random observations on talk radio hosts I have heard over the years.
Michael Medved. Highly intelligent religious conservative. He likes to get the enemy on his show for long, calm conversations. He is a master at letting leftists hang themselves.
Laura Ingraham. Movement conservative with legal knowledge. Attuned to popular culture; plays hip music and talks about the latest TV. Shmoozes with D.C. insiders. Too much joking around for my taste. She can talk for two minutes about Donald Trump’s hair. Who cares?
Mike Gallagher. Limbaugh Lite. Reflects the thinking of the man on the street.
Sean Hannity. Intellectual lightweight, conservative attack dog. The ultimate polemicist, he tirelessly attacks liberals with what I call “hypocrisy gotchas.” When he explores his values he cannot rise above bromides.
Jon and Ken. Local Los Angeles hosts. FM shock jocks in over their heads doing AM talk. This is what happens when a couple of non-ideological radio guys try to do AM talk. They listen to Rush talk about feminazis and conclude that the key to success is being outrageous. They don’t understand that Rush’s success is based on his articulation of conservative ideas.
Phil Hendrie. Satire of talk radio. It takes a long time to figure out that he is doing ALL the voices on his show -- he’s talking to himself! Oddly fascinating, like watching housecats do circus tricks, but it gets old fast.
George Putnam. Local Los Angeles host. He’s 91 years old and has covered every presidential administration since Hoover. That is phenomenal. Like Reagan, he started as a liberal, then became conservative. Not intellectual.
Putnam used to have Larry Nichols on during those amazing Clinton years. Nichols would hint darkly about secrets of Bill and Hillary that would soon come out -- but that he was not free to divulge at that moment. It was the most dramatic radio since The Shadow. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Clintons? Larry Nichols knows! Then he and George would ask listeners to send Larry money because he was poor and being persecuted by the evil Clinton political machine. It was all such nonsense. I have not been able to take Putnam seriously since then.
Hugh Hewitt. The ultimate party man. Puts advancing the Republican cause WAY above anything else.
Dennis Prager. The most intelligent talk radio host in America. He defends his faith with sophisticated philosophical arguments. But as the most intelligent, he is in some ways the worst. When he talks morality, he sounds like Immanuel Kant.
Bill Bennett. Intellectual neoconservative. Low-key, rational tone. Not abusive. Loves old time Rock’n’Roll.
Bennett was pilloried by the left recently because he said that if you aborted all black fetuses, there would be fewer criminals. The statement was taken out of context, yes, but it was still a stupid statement. He committed the rhetorical error of giving a controversial example. When you do that, then people forget the point you’re trying to make. It’s like saying, “If you aborted all Jews, there would be fewer moneylenders.” You can’t just throw out a racial stereotype like that and expect people to ignore it.
Michael Savage. He rants. Five minutes into any rant about “red diaper doper babies,” he turns to the subject that fascinates him most: Michael Savage. He makes some interesting points, but a little Michael Savage goes a long way.
Ray Taliafaro. Local San Francisco host. Ray is a guilty pleasure of mine when I’m up in the middle of the night. He is a far leftist. He is so nutty and so dishonest that I get frissons of delight listening to him. Who can resist someone who rants in high dudgeon about the evil neocon fascists destroying America? Okay, to tell the truth: like Savage, a little Taliafaro goes a long way.
Al Franken. Heard him once or twice. Liberals love him. He’s everything you would expect a liberal to be: urbane, witty, a little unfair, self-depreciating humor, not a sound thinker. Like Boortz, I want Air America to thrive; its existence keeps Democrat politicians from going after conservative talk radio with the Fairness Doctrine.
[Note: Yes, I wrote “self-depreciating.” I’ve followed John Simon in using that instead of “self-deprecating.” I’ll have to write a post sometime on Simon’s book on English usage, Paradigms Lost.]
Neal Boortz. Individualist. Knowledge of free market economics. Probably the soundest thinker I’ve heard among the big radio hosts.
Bob Grant. Used to listen to him when I lived in New York City. Known as the King of Talk Radio, he is one of the founders of the form. Acerbic conservative, not terribly intellectual. Like listening to a crotchety uncle.
Dr. Laura. Can’t listen to her. The yenta from hell.
Rush Limbaugh. El Rushbo. The Babe Ruth of talk radio. He is a radio pro who wanted to be a DJ since childhood and he is also a sound, sometimes brilliant, conservative thinker. The combination makes him unmatched in radio history.
The astonishing thing about Rush is that he learned his conservatism mostly from listening to his father and reading magazines such as National Review. Like Bush, he is not a guy who reads thick books. I’ve heard him mention Atlas Shrugged twice on his show. Both times he said, with trepidation in his voice, “the print is small.” I don’t think he can bring himself to read it. He mentioned once how intellectual Commentary is. I don’t think he reads it either.
I have soured on Maharushie. He is the master of the “hypocrisy gotcha.” He thinks that proving liberals are boobs is the most important task; well, after some 15 years, we get the message. I wait for him to go deeper, but I don’t think he’s capable of it.
He is at his worst when he is at his most philosophical. I heard him once try to prove the existence of God. He asked, “Where is the universe?” He left the question hanging, as if one would have to conclude from it that God exists. (For the record, the question is invalid. The universe is everything. To ask “Where is x” is to ask “At what place is x in relation to other places?” The universe is not in any place; it is all places.)
For all of that, Rush is capable of penetrating insights now and then. The emphasis is on polemics, but as polemics go, they’re pretty good.
Interesting moment in Limbaugh history. I’m writing from a memory that is some eight years old now; I hope I remember well. On the Friday before the Starr Report came out, Rush said that when the American people learned the truth about Clinton, they would be so disgusted that his poll numbers would go down. The implication was that this moment could be the end of Clinton’s presidency. The Starr Report came out over the weekend. The next week Clinton’s poll numbers… went up.
I remember this dramatic period because it was the first time I had ever heard Rush be out of touch with the American people. As I recall, he really seemed to be thrown off his game for a few weeks. He was stunned. He wasn’t the only conservative to be rocked by Clinton’s poll numbers. Paul Weyrich was so shaken that he wrote a piece declaring the culture wars over and the liberals had won.