Monday, September 21, 2009

Throwing the Book at Obama

Unlike most of my erstwhile colleagues in commercial newstalk radio, I don't pretend to understand much if any of the nuts and bolts of the current healthcare debate.

But I do understand the English language. And that's why I was so gratified to see President Obama's appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulis yesterday. Mind you, not because that element of the President's weekend media blitz necessarily made any of the complex issue's details more clear, but rather because of Stephanopolis's prop-assisted manner of interviewing him. When challenging him on whether a "mandate" qualifies as a "tax"—which it clearly does—the host trotted out Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary to cite the definition of the word tax.

Regular listeners to my KIRO broadcasts know that book is the closest thing to a Bible this agnostic ever cites. Because of all the various other Webster's dictionaries out there—there's an abundance because the Merriam-Webster company decades ago lost exclusive rights to its founder Noah Webster's name—Merriam-Webster's is the gold-standard of the lexicographer's art.

Many nights on KIRO I explained the half-dozen or so reasons why their dictionary is so superior to all others, but the most compelling is that their dictionaries feature the finest definitional writing in the entire cluttered field. Merriam-Webster's consistently offers more tightly-written definitions than any of their estimable competitors.

Thus when Stephanopoulis cited "a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes", the President was left with absolutely no wiggle room to deny that any governmentally-mandated fee indeed constitutes a tax. But he did anyway.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Get Back to Work, Rush!

Rush Limbaugh, architect and executor of the finest and most influential broadcast in commercial newstalk radio history, has become dangerously fat and lazy.

RadioactiveSeattle readers and Michael Medved Show regular listeners know that "Bryan in Seattle" doesn't do fat jokes, so I'm not referring to his girth, which he's slimmed down again anyway of late. Rather, while Limbaugh continues routinely taking days or weeks off in a fashion that might have even embarrassed Johnny Carson, a threat has emerged to Limbaugh's supremacy of my favorite media genre, by someone who's working harder if not smarter, and is closing in on his rear as the newstalk radio kingpin and king-maker.

Glenn Beck is every bit the "demagoon" that Maureen Dowd has so astutely dubbed him, but the sad fact is that his presence and popularity are each growing at a frightening rate to those of us who value quality newstalk radio and are not impressed by half-informed diatribes of the sort Beck has raised to an art form. And Beck's on a winning streak now that Van Jones is out at the White House. Limbaugh's unprecedented success with his factual approach to refuting the Clinton agenda during the 90s gave some hope to those of us who fear the masses are indeed herd-like, easily manipulated and unable to digest the type of complex political analysis that Limbaugh is so adept at streamlining. In sharp contrast, Beck's recent success with reckless populist activism is sadly confirming that emotionalism trumps intellectuality every time.

For all of the left's dismissiveness that Limbaugh is "just an entertainer" and a prevaricating one at that, the fact is, as RadioactiveSeattle has documented, that he deals in the factual, if ideologically selective. Limbaugh's only real distortions are when he exaggerates for comedic effect. But increasingly his lampooning of the Obama administration as a bunch of Marxists is increasingly less funny than it is an excuse for his critics to dismiss him as a fringe agitator.

Meanwhile, Beck, who should be so dismissed, is using his breathtaking ratings surge on Fox New Channel and the resignation of Obama advisor Jones--in the wake of Beck's high-profile television campaign against the so-called "Green Czar" with collectivist sensibilities--as a sledgehammer to try to shatter the coalition that the President has assembled for his liberal agenda.

Limbaugh, who has no regular television presence, still benefits from a vastly larger and stronger affiliate base for his radio empire, but that may be threatened as Beck continues his energetic rise on lesser stations, fortified by his tireless, if dubious, public campaigns and numerous public appearances--including an upcoming one here in Seattle in a baseball stadium, for G-d's sake. Add to that the fact that Beck has never seen a marginally-legitimate advertiser he wouldn't enthusiastically endorse, and local listeners around the nation are hearing Beck's plaintive voice these days a lot more than they hear Limbaugh's.

To someone who doesn't listen closely--and my hunch is that that's at least 80% of both Limbaugh's and Beck's audiences--the two seem almost indistinguishable, both being newstalk radio blowhards constantly carping at the leftist in the White House and his team of believers. But Limbaugh, when you filter out the jokes, is a serious conservative critic of a team he truly believes is injurious to the American capitalistic future. Whereas Beck is a shallow-thinking agitator who is using his newfound populist popularity to leverage what he freely admits is an effort to "take back the country".

Never mind that no one has "stolen" our nation; Obama was freely elected, and I'm still glad I voted for him. But while I agree with a lot of the statist critiques of this Administration levelled by both Limbaugh and Beck, the latter frames everything in his cloying, recovering-drunk sanctimony. Who else regularly implores his listeners to "pray for me"? Sadly, that's a whole lot funnier than any of the forced "bits" Beck and his new on-air partner Pat Gray foist upon their long-suffering listeners.

In media, exposure is like Woody Allen's famous dictum about life: 50% of it is just showing up. With Beck's voice ascendant, if Limbaugh doesn't get back to the work ethic that put him on the top, he risks beginning replaced as the heart and soul of the conservative movement by a pretender--in both senses of the word--who has neither his intellectual heft nor his satirical gifts. Beck's true agenda seems to be to set himself up as the de facto leader of a government in exile. During the 90s, Limbaugh himself attained that through broadcast excellence, as the name of his network suggests, but Beck is just muscling his way to the top. If Rush doesn't get back to working hard, he may soon find himself playing second fiddle to a guy with none of his smarts or his principles.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Much of conservative newstalk radio this week has been savaging the President's upcoming address to the nation's students. These hosts include my hero (if not necessarily this dedicated agnostic's ideological soul-mate) Michael Medved and the delightfully acerbic Mark Steyn (filling in for Limbaugh on the Excellence in Broadcasting Network).

The charge generally is that Obama is using this as an excuse to indoctrinate our schoolchildren with his putative statism.

Notwithstanding those silly "How I Can Help the President" letters-to-themselves that second-graders are being instructed to write, I think this has the makings of a terrific Presidential tradition. And it would perfectly tie in with a radical Department of Education revamping I've advocated.

I've long argued over KIRO/Seattle and earlier stations which have aired my commercial newstalk radio broadcasts for continuation of the grand and sensible American tradition of local control of education. Locally-elected school boards and their appointed administrators, not Federal policy, should dictate curricula. But I do see a vital federal role.

Like many, I've advocated a dismantlement of the Education Department, but my idea has a twist. Medved and others want to see a total dissolution of the Federal Department.

My proposal is cleverly less sweeping. Unlike the standard conservative position, that the entire cabinet level position be eliminated first by Executive Order and later confirmed by Congressional act, I favor instead a drastic downsizing of the Ed Department, which incidentally was one of the many mistaken advents of the Carter Administration. That is, I think every position but the Secretary of Education should be abolished.

So leave the Secretary and a tiny support staff for the office, tiny for pretty much all they would have to do is schedule the Secretary's numerous appearances in each of the 50 states. For in my Administration, the Secretary's sole job would be, on short notice, to visit local school boards, administrators and even classrooms, lending the Administration's prestige and influence to further whatever general educational aims my Administration rhetorically espouses.

The threat of an occasional visit by the Secretary of Education would have a noticeable effect on local school boards maintaining their standards, naturally fearful of the national spotlight being shed on their substandard management of the locals' educational future.

This idea need not be restricted to the Secretary. If you like, also retain with the Secretary the office's various Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries to widen the reach of this approach.

In this context, an annual Presidential Address to the Students each September could set the tone for that entire scholastic year, not to mention giving at least those students paying attention to their video screens a stake in the national improvement of our much-documented failing classrooms.

One vital idea that seems lost on many marginal students is why so many years of one's youth must be devoted to education in the first place. Presidents might be uniquely positioned to explain to those disillusioned by the entire process why it's not only in their personal interest but also, appealing to the natural patriotism even lackluster students often possess, how it's in the national interest for each of them to laboriously learn how to not improperly use apostrophes and why it's—not its—important to know who our nation's 4th President* was.

Meanwhile, Obama's initiative is being lampooned as a stunt, but many Presidential addresses circumstantially have that air anyway. This one, well-executed and inspirational—two Presidential details Obama's usually got down, in sharp contrast to his earnest and principled but inarticulate predecessor—would go a long way toward sheparding our nation's students, primary, secondary and collegiate alike, toward avoidance of squandering the twin gifts of youth and education.


* That would be James Madison, so-called Father of the Constitution, for those who didn't pay sufficient attention in grade school.