By Ellen Goodman
I was going to give this a good leaving alone. But there I was flying home from a mellow family visit when El Rushbo filled—and I do mean filled—the screen before me, delivering what he called “my first ever address to the nation.” Who knew there’d been a coup while I was gone? Hail to the Chief?
Dressed in a style David Letterman later labeled as “Eastern European Gangster,” Rush Limbaugh delivered a rousing 85-minute sermon to conservative true believers that included an unapologetic hope that President Obama will fail. Ah yes, a talk radio host who’d rather be (far) right than have his country rescued. Charming.
Limbaugh was not only a counterpoint to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who delivered the hapless Republican response to the president. He managed to bully the Republican leadership, including its party chair, the misnomered Michael Steele. After saying Limbaugh was “incendiary” and “ugly,” Steele turned to mush and groveled about being “a little bit inarticulate.”
Despite watching Limbaugh’s rant at 30,000 feet, I read glowing reviews saying that “it will be talked about for years and even decades.” And so I am forced to return to the subject our man Rush implied just days earlier: “Why don’t women like me?”
This question came after Public Policy Polling showed a gender gap of massive proportions in his approval ratings. Doing approval ratings of talk show hosts is pretty weird, but it turns out that 56 percent of men view him favorably compared to only 37 percent of women.
Pew Research folks have charted an even deeper divide in the audience—72 percent of his listeners are men, only 28 percent are women. Nevertheless, with the deepest of faux sincerity, Limbaugh announced a Female Summit on his favorite subject: Rush Limbaugh.
As he framed it, “ ’Cause I’m just a harmless little fuzz ball. I’m the sweetest, the nicest, most generous, compassionate, confident, cocky, I-know-what-I-want-and-I-know-what’s-right-and-I’m-going-to-say-what-I-think kind of guy you could run into, and I’m saying to myself, ‘What could be the explanation for the gender gap?’ ”
Gosh. Was it something he said? Could it have the teensiest bit to do with all those “feminazi” cracks? Was it his warning that “the last place you want to be is between a liberal who gets herself pregnant and a morning-after pill”? Was it his crack that Hillary would lose because Americans didn’t want to see a woman age in office? Or his description of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as “marginally hotter than the former senator.” If that were the only problem we could cure it with duct tape.
Now a touch of reality here. Women don’t tune in to talk radio as much as men. Talk radio has been the forum of the “angry white man” since the 1990s. Women have had quite enough men yell at them, thank you, and Rush is more than vaguely reminiscent of the boss from hell. This one can fire.
But Rush, who brags “I own the men,” asked “what must I do now to own the women?” Well, sweetie, Oprah owns the women. If Rush talks at women, Oprah talks with women.
Just imagine Limbaugh in marriage therapy letting his wife speak for an uninterrupted five minutes. You don’t own women unless you can listen to them.
More to the point, remember that Oprah is all about change. Rush, however, is the prototype of the Man Who Won’t Change.
What finally happened at that Female Summit? When women callers who love Rush told him how to woo women who didn’t, he balked. Pompous? “I’m not changing that.” Stop with the “babe” talk? “Why do I have to change who I am?” Be more vulnerable? “You’re trying to emasculate me here.” He was the commander in chief of the conservative crouch.
None of this is world-shattering. Let him entertain us. What makes it notable is that the Man Who Won’t Change has used his ample body to fill the vacuum of Republican leadership. And the biggest gap in his public approval is among exactly those who left the party in droves: independent women.
Yes, our pinup boy has a following of about 20 million listeners. But last time I looked, Obama won with nearly 70 million voters. At this rate, The Party That Won’t Change is going to have to rename itself the Grand Old Ditto Heads.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group