THE WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE.
304 pages. $22. A couple of weeks ago, while sitting for a haircut in a small North Carolina town, a man described to me, at great length, what he considered the fundamental differences between Republican and Democratic philosophy.
He provided an analogy: American capitalist culture is like a jungle. There are lions, who have the power and cunning to make the big kill, and then there are jackals, those who let the lions do all the work to find food, then pick at the leftovers. Why, he asked, should society reward the jackals instead of the lions? Republicans want to give the rich more tax breaks so they can make America prosperous again. Democrats believe in rewarding laziness.
He then pulled out the standard welfare-fraud anecdote every ardent conservative keeps handy to condemn the entire system of government social programs that have been in place since the Depression.
Somewhere during this protracted discourse, I thought I heard the voice of Rush Limbaugh. Rush is a believer in social Darwinism, and he is also long-winded. That man in North Carolina might have been recently infected with Rush Rap.
Here, for instance, is Rush Rap on the growing number of poor Americans, even, one presumes, the millions of working poor: "The poor in this country are the biggest piglets at the mother pig and her nipples. The poor feed off the largess of this government and give nothing back. Nothing. . . . It's time to get serious about raising taxes on the poor."
Was Rush serious when he said that on his widely syndicated radio talk show? According to this egomaniacal book, he was not. Rush was just joshing. Of course, a few pages later, Rush says this: "I don't say things on the air I don't believe in for the purpose of stirring controversy and making more money. I am sincere in what I say."
So which is it? Rush, the cynically calculating provocateur of America's darker instincts? Or Rush, the true believer? It's something millions of people must wonder as they listen to the nation's hottest radio talk show host, who also just started his own television gig. Conflicting statements to the contrary, Rush most definitely wants to be taken seriously, and he apparently is.
He is the current big mouth of hard-core conservatism, a wide-body bomber with his sights set on easy targets, such as the poor, the homeless, environmentalists, homosexu
als, AIDS activists and just about anyone with a problem he dismisses or a cause he finds crackpot.
Some causes -- overzealous animal-rights activists, for instance -- are crackpot and deserve to be ridiculed, and Rush Limbaugh is at his best when he is ridiculing. Rush Rap is funny. Mean and funny. And altogether remarkable.
Mr. Limbaugh is a master of the soliloquy, speaking impeccably for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. He is informed, arrogant and nasty. He is repetitive but not boring.
That last quality is the key. Rush Limbaugh entertains while he bullies, bashes and offends the same victims, over and over again. Which explains the seductiveness of his talk show, and the fast sales of this gee-I'm-great book.
What he offers -- the thing that makes him so marketable and presumably wealthy -- is a warm, fuzzy comfort zone for people who share his prejudices. He has it easy. Liberals might listen, but few ever call his show, or any talk show. (Robert Frost once defined a liberal as someone "so broad-minded he wouldn't take his own side in an argument.")
Mr. Limbaugh panders not only to an angry electorate but to people who believe that government is the great enemy of American society, that the nation's economic problems are exaggerated, that the poor are jackals, that minorities have too much power, that most environmental concerns are ridiculous, and that the Reagan years were an age of immense prosperity for all.
We never hear, of course, much about the huge federal budget deficits that undercut the prosperity he heralds, or the corporate piracy of the 1980s, or the massive concentration of wealth that occurred among the very affluent, at the expense of the middle class.
Rush Rhetoric is brutal on liberals, assertive women in general -- he calls them "feminazis" -- and "self-serving" black leaders, all the classic targets. But he goes even further, beating up on the poor and the homeless. There is no room in any of his harshly judgmental diatribes for an understanding of economic hardship, social problems, human frailty or bad luck. There is nothing wrong with the American system that an end to welfare and more tax breaks for the rich can't cure. And life looks pretty damn good from a well-insulated radio studio.
If you are comforted by Rush Rap on the radio, you will be comforted by this book. His voice rings true in print, and his unbearable ego casts a large shadow on every page.
Rush Rap has been good for business, and this book marks an expansion of the Limbaugh Empire. One warning: When you hear Ole Rusty -- that's what his mom calls him -- applaud George Bush, just remember: He doesn't mean it. He wants Bill (( Clinton to be elected president because, despite what Mr. Limbaugh says, this particular Democrat will be good for business -- especially Mr. Limbaugh's.
Mr. Rodricks is a columnist for The Evening Sun and is host of a talk show on WBAL-AM.