Saturday, January 31, 2009

Father Coughlin In Our Time

"Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence....The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

January has flown by. The days have clicked off with disturbing speed. Barack Obama has been President for a dozen days. This of course hasn't prevented the end of his honeymoon among the GOP, and even among some of those groups who have great expectations for his presidency.

I'm wondering if in the age of instant information, and such vast ideological differences between one administration to the next, whether or not current and future administrations can ever be able to enjoy a bit of time to settle into the job, without immediate analysis and attempts at grassroots activism in response to the initial moves taken by the Executive and/or Legislative branches.

Gene Kinsey wondered out loud a couple of days ago whether or not Move On should be asking the question in an ad as to whether or not the public supports the President or Rush Limbaugh. I'm not so sure that Move On has the right idea here. I have issues with the essential premise of the question, which in its' simplest terms places Limbaugh on a level playing field with President Obama in terms of power and prestige. Nobody doubts Limbaugh's influence on his listeners, and in turn some of the elected officials that represent them, but let's not grant him any further legitimacy. Please.

In historical terms, Limbaugh and his imitators are creating a situation comparable in many ways to the early 1930's during the first term of FDR. In the early heyday of radio, the public rabble was roused against the New Deal and other policy decisions of the first Roosevelt administration by the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, a Roman Catholic Priest with a very popular radio following. To quote Wikipedia's description of Father Coughlin's influence:

"At its peak in the early 1930s, Coughlin's radio show was phenomenally popular. His office received up to 80,000 letters per week from listeners, and his listening audience was estimated to rise at times to as much as a third of the nation. Coughlin is often credited as one of the major demagogues of the 20th century for being able to influence politics through broadcasting, without actually holding a political office himself."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Other scholarly Internet resources think so, too. The Roosevelt administration was able to deal with Coughlin in questionable ways, first by restricting his access to the airwaves through FCC regulations, then by denying his access to the Post Office Department (now the USPS) for the bulk mailing of bulletins.

Coughlin's popularity also started to wane after he began associating himself with groups and viewpoints that espoused isolationism and antisemitism. Coughlin's broadcast career ended with a change in leadership of the Archdiocese of Detroit; the new Archbishop ordered him off the air and back to being a 'simple' parish priest. One wonders what effect Coughlin would have had with modern day computing, telecommunications, and the Internet, things that Mr. Limbaugh leverages extremely well on an daily basis.

You have to give Limbaugh a little bit of credit; his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed made for interesting reading to someone whose idea of macroeconomics is a municipal budget meeting. Based on his initial comments prior to the Inauguration, the Op-Ed made for some head-scratching on my part as to exactly where he's coming from.

On one hand he hopes Obama fails; the next minute he accuses Obama of marginalizing him, and then he is extending an olive branch to both major parties and both schools of economic thought, perhaps trying to marginalize Obama in the process. Along with Father Coughlin, it feels like Rush is channeling a little bit of
Uriah Heep and Rodney King in the process.

David Bauder of the Associated Press summed it up nicely yesterday, in reminding all of us where Rush is really coming from:

"Can it get any better for a personality whose business is built on buzz?"

"Rush Limbaugh is first and foremost a radio performer," said Michael Harrison, publisher of the trade journal Talkers magazine, which notes that Limbaugh has been the most listened-to talk-show host since at least the mid-1990s. "He's not a political leader. He doesn't make more money by turning elections. He only exists to gather large audiences and raise more advertising revenue and he does it terrifically."

I don't believe that President Obama really needs to do anything about Rush Limbaugh. Rush has the right to express himself, and the resources to do it. While the President also has those resources at his disposal, he appears to be of the temperament that will not resort to that easily.
Nor do I expect this administration to resort to regulatory tactics to make it harder for Rush to get his message out, even if the Fairness Doctrine is being discussed again.

Rush Limbaugh's need for hype and the spotlight greatly exceed the President's. In the economy of the broadcast spectrum and the blogosphere, where information and relevance are precious commodities, Rush will be human. He will eventually throw something so outrageous out there that someone will step up, channel Joseph N. Welch, and put him in his place for perpetuity.


One thing that Rush Limbaugh and I can agree on is The Pittsburgh Steelers. Many faithful of Steeler Nation are going into the big game tomorrow with the thought that Arizona doesn't stand much of a chance. Let's rethink that, please. Their coach came from Pittsburgh. Their star player in the post-season went to college in Pittsburgh. This is a year of possibilities, and we as Steeler Nation must eschew cockiness and approach the contest with the same ethic and resolve that has brought our team to this point.

If I were able to watch the game anywhere tomorrow, I'd fly to Pittsburgh, pick up Leslie, and drive an hour and a half east to Punxsutawney. That way we can celebrate a Steeler victory tomorrow night, get a little bit of sleep, and get up in time to go see Phil the next morning, which I've never done.

We will leave Sonny and Cher out of it, though.

Have a great Sunday.

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