Out of the West: Candidates court the demagogues of the airwaves

WASHINGTON - When Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton are currying favour with the same people, it's worth paying attention. Thus it was the other day, at the fourth annual convention of radio chat-show hosts. Some 250 of this quintesentially American species had gathered in the Mayflower Hotel here. The Vice-President was present in person, the Democratic candidate by satellite link.

Once upon a time, radio chat-shows provided just blather, the wallpaper sound of America on wheels, whose sole function was to while away the hours on the Interstate. The topics were money, sex, death - or rather infinite permutations of all three.

But in this bizarre election year where the New Media rule, the chat-shows suddenly matter. We are witnessing the politics of anger - and anger is the stuff of life for the merchants of phone-in, whose main business is to rant away against the system for hours on end. There are 600 of them, dispensing righteous indignation across the country. Their common lodestar is Ross Perot, the people's fury made flesh. Mr Perot is even promising to employ an 'electronic town hall' to help govern America. Past presidents, notably FDR and Ronald Reagan, have made skilful use of radio, but Mr Perot would be the art's apotheosis. Many chat-show hosts behave like presidents; Mr Perot could be the first president to behave like a chat-show host.

The breed, as displayed at the Mayflower, is remarkably homogeneous. The hosts tend to be white, in their mid-forties, slightly overweight, hyper-patriotic and conservative. They can be unbelievably rude: pity the caller who attempts to dispute the dogma of the day. Their journalism, if such it may be called, is neither investigative nor analytical, merely demagogic. Their preferred targets include liberals, Congress, homosexuals, Bill Clinton, feminists and foreigners. Dan Quayle elicits an odd ambivalence. His misspelling of 'potato' still has them rolling in the aisles. But when the Vice- President gets on his 'America First' tack, and weighs into the liberal 'cultural elite', he is one of their own.

Around these parts, the star is the one-time Watergate 'plumber' Gordon Liddy, who dispenses three hours of wisdom daily from a station in Virginia. But the unchallenged monarch of the ether is one Rush Limbaugh, who tips the scales at 16 stone and is said to earn dollars 1m ( pounds 526,000) a year. Every weekday at noon, Limbaugh is out there scorching the airwaves live from New York City, heard by an estimated 12 million listeners to more than 400 syndicated stations around the country. There are Limbaugh T-shirts, golf balls, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. A little while ago came the ultimate proof of Limbaugh the political force: an invitation from George Bush for dinner and a night at the White House, in the Lincoln Bedroom no less. The word is, the President even carried his bags inside, a calculated attempt to humour an individual who calls himself 'the most dangerous man in America'.

And for carnivorous conservatism, Limbaugh takes some beating. Global warming, he avers, is an anti-American plot cooked up by communists and their sympathisers in the environmental movement. His description of radical feminists as 'Femi-Nazis' has entered the language. Real fans (and precious few others get on his show) call themselves Dittoheads, denoting their unquestioning agreement with every lunacy that gushes from their hero's mouth. 'The worst thing in life,' Limbaugh says modestly, 'is that I can't listen to me.' Soon though he'll have a chance to see himself. This autumn he begins a nightly television chat-show, just in time for the climax of the presidential campaign. Will the first guest be George Bush?

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