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10.27.09

Running Away From Rush

Lately, GOP leaders are anxiously distancing themselves from Limbaugh and Beck. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer reports his boss ignored the talk radio titans—and why that was a mistake.

Like viewers learning about a mysterious civilization on the Discovery Channel, those in the know in New York and Hollywood continue to observe the inner workings of the Republican Party with fascination. I really think it is important to help those who haven’t had much experience with conservatives try to understand some of their tribal rituals and enthusiasms. Recently, in fact, I continued my modest instructional work in Hollywood as I spoke with screenwriters and producers interested in my book, Speech*less, a conservative’s coming-of-age tale in Washington, D.C. This time, the pressing issue among Those Who Want to Know was the mystifying appeal of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others like them who are now “running” the Republican Party.

For all those worried about the undue influence of these folks—some of you may want to sit down for this—their hold on the GOP is greatly exaggerated. And—as I said recently to startled folks in Hollywood—that’s not necessarily a good thing.

As an eyewitness to the final days of the Bush administration, I can report with assurance that the absolutely last people the powers that be listened to were conservative activists on radio and TV.

Washington remains such a hot topic to movie folk that time and again, producers seem compelled to greenlight an endless series of politically oriented movies—most of which, they cheerfully confess, are earnest, dull money-losers. Still, they are determined to decode our political system. So from the well-appointed garden of Spago to the sun-soaked patio of Le Petit Fours, as word quickly spread that someone with knowledge of the nation’s capital was venturing through, I soon found myself asked to explain the great curiosities of my strange city. None, as I mentioned, weightier than those about the “angry” radio and TV hosts of the right. Don’t misunderstand. Movie people like opinionated talk-show hosts fine. But just the low-key, noncontroversial ones. You know, like Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann.

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I was given a glimpse of the vision folks in the entertainment world have conjured—senators, congressmen, and Republican operatives sitting eagerly by their radios, pad and pencil in hand, as Rush dictates their next steps in global domination. I’m not sure folks in Hollywood believed me—in fact, I caught more than one polite but skeptical glance—when I told them that that’s not how things actually worked.

When I was a congressional aide, most members of the House and Senate were usually too busy passing money for bridges to nowhere to pay much heed to talk-show hosts. Sure, every once in a while, constituents would call about something they heard on Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham. Members of Congress scrambled to mollify them—by holding a hearing or issuing a press release—so they could go back to the far more important work of having taxpayer-subsidized chauffeurs take them to gas stations in their SUVs to complain about global warming. Time and again during the Bush administration, folks on talk radio warned the White House and Congress about grassroots discontent over a divisive immigration bill, would-be Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, and the administration’s spending sprees. GOP leaders didn’t listen. They should have. Conservatives abandoned the party in droves. (Of course, there are limits to talk radio’s influence on the grassroots. Just last year, Rush advised listeners that John McCain would be a disaster for the Republican Party if he was the nominee. He came just short of endorsing practically anyone else—Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, none of the above. Listeners decided differently. That didn’t mean Rush was wrong.

As an eyewitness to the final days of the Bush administration, I can report with assurance that the absolutely last people the powers that be listened to were conservative activists on radio and TV. If Chief of Staff Josh Bolten happened to catch Rush or Laura, it likely was only on his way to finding NPR. And Condi Rice wouldn’t take her marching orders from Glenn Beck if he renamed his program The Glenn and Condi Variety Hour and let her play piano concertos between segments. Meanwhile, talk radio’s remaining White House hero, Vice President Dick Cheney, was all but gagged and tied to railroad tracks while Bolten, Rice, and others did their impersonations of Snidley Whiplash waiting for a train to arrive.

It is true that White House communicators, led by clever sorts such as Karl Rove, cared about their relationships with talk radio and cable news. But as the controllers, not the controlled. Like savvy publicists stuck pitching a mediocre movie, Team Rove furnished select talkers with extravagant perks (tickets to special events, invitations to exclusive dinners, close-hold meetings with the president) to get favorable reviews. When that didn’t work, they’d use another old publicist trick of threatening to deny access to Bush, Cheney, or various other administration “stars.”

Some of the more popular talkers, like Rush, were too powerful for them to intimidate. (Rush being our equivalent of Tom Hanks.) But the approach worked on others. One well-known face at a cable network recently told me that the Bush-Rove infiltration is so extensive at their news channel that “95 percent of the building” will not to this day entertain the slightest criticism of the GOP’s inner circle—from either the left or the right—and they’d keep people off the air who offered any.

Nonetheless, top Republican strategists in Washington are now testing out the "Rush is the problem" line. Fresh from managing two mammoth back-to-back election losses for their party, these gurus recently postulated in the influential D.C. publication Politico—our version of Variety—that “angry” conservatives riled up by Rush and Glenn and other “flamboyant” talk-show hosts were the true source of the party’s woes. Ed Gillespie, one of President Bush’s top aides, bemoans the very same talk-radio crowd his White House massaged and threatened for espousing “the kind of harsh rhetoric that the left used against former President Bush.” Pete Wehner, another Bushie, blasts Glenn Beck as “a rolling mix of fear, resentment, and anger.” Yet Beck and Rush (and Savage and Levin and Laura) had virtually nothing to do with the party’s collapse. It’s like a producer blaming the disaster that was The Astronaut’s Wife on Roger Ebert and Michael Medved (although that tactic may, in fact, have been tried).

As Republican candidates look for a resurgence in 2010 and 2012, they ought to keep the talk-show world in perspective. At their best, these hosts are self-described entertainers, occasional provocateurs, and early-warning systems. They cannot guarantee anyone’s election to office. Nor are they responsible for a party’s communications failures. Sadly, it seems, candidates still have to earn support the old-fashioned way—by developing a coherent and consistent message on their own. That sort of storyline may be too much to hope for, even in Hollywood.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.