There is a physical thing that happens to a certain type of Famous Terrible American, and once this thing begins happening it does not stop. It does not happen to every Famous Terrible American, and the process does not begin at the same moment in their respective Famous, Terrible American lives; one of the more jarring epiphenomena of this Trump-damaged moment is encountering this particular physical thing in people who are, just in point of chronological fact, young men.
And this physical thing is just absolutely not something that should be happening to young people. It shouldn’t be happening to anyone, really, but this thing is not a young person’s thing. It’s a sort of ripening about the face, and causes subjects to become progressively more poreless and puppetish and uncanny, warming and bloating into a more perfectly honeybaked complexion and flattening into a waxen self-delight. It’s the physical manifestation of a sort of gout of the soul; it’s the result of the kinds of lives that Famous Terrible Americans live, marked as they are by irresponsibility and bad faith and boundless golf and unaccountability and hulking brown slabs of beef. It also might just be the house makeup style at Fox News, now that I think of it.
I mention this because it provides some context, here. The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, one of our foremost Famous Terrible Americans, is also one of the foremost living exemplars of this phenomenon, just in the sense that the dude looks like a candy apple that has somehow become extremely prejudiced. If you understand the phenomenon, you understand that this is accretive—Limbaugh looks more like a bigoted caramel apple every year, and will until the day that he transcends this realm and achieves his final form as a sulfurous fart haunting the business class cabin of a 6:55 a.m. flight between St. Louis and Tampa. Limbaugh’s inside-out bloat is useful, in this case, because it makes it easier, in a visual sense, to understand different iterations of Limbaugh. So: the version of Rush Limbaugh that said some wrong and racist shit about Donovan McNabb on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown show during this week back in 2003 still sort of looked like a person.
He looked weird, to be sure—like you’d painted a frowny face and an avant-garde hairline onto a cruel old man’s thumb, more or less—but Limbaugh did not yet look like the grotesque marzipan sculpture that he has become. That visual is the most obvious cue that this all happened sometime in the past, but all of it—Limbaugh’s four-week stint at ESPN, its inexplicable beginning and inevitable ignominious end—seems like something that happened in a satirical timeline running parallel to our own. It isn’t: this all really happened, long ago but not quite as long ago as it feels. It was, somehow, all even dumber than it sounds.
“Rush is a great communicator and a fan’s fan,” ESPN VP of programming and production Mark Shapiro told Variety in July of 2003. “His acute sense of what’s on the minds of his listeners, combined with ability to entertain and serve as a lightning rod for lively discussion, makes him the perfect fit for this new role.” Much of that statement is meaningless and some of it is wrong, but the shape of its meaninglessness is useful. The role that ESPN carved out for Limbaugh on its flagship Sunday NFL show was as the designated representative of The Fan, and in that role he would boom out the odd non-partisan editorial about how good the NFL is and periodically issue “challenges” to Steve Young, Michael Irvin, and Tom Jackson.
This isn’t really a great idea—this seems a nice place to mention that Shapiro later left ESPN to run Six Flags—but it was indicative of where the NFL’s broader strategy was in those pre-renaissance years. The people in charge with selling the league’s product still believed that there was such a thing as “different types of people” at that point, and was pivoting frantically in an attempt to get those people—whoever they were, whatever they liked—to watch football games. Adding Dennis Miller to Monday Night Football in 2000 was an attempt to attract, uh, fans of self-congratulatory compound jokes and the film Tales From The Crypt’s Bordello of Blood. (Limbaugh was also a contender for the Monday Night Football gig.) That ESPN would choose to give this voice-of-the-people role to a reactionary centimillionaire divorce aficionado is initially confusing, but easily explained by the fact that Limbaugh had built and has kept a huge audience of seething defective realtors in his main gig as a conservative talk radio host. The network thought that at least some of those people might enjoy watching Limbaugh complain about Marc Bulger on TV at 11 in the morning on Sunday.
Of course it was bad, because all studio sports shows are bad, but what stands out in reading contemporaneous coverage is the way in which it was bad, which was both dorky and boring. Limbaugh opened his tenure with the show by reading an on-air essay about how good and fun the NFL is, concluding grandly that football is a game “in which you can invest total passion without consequences. Try doing that with a woman… or a man.” Later in the show, Limbaugh threw his challenge flag and fearlessly stated that he didn’t think the Jets would do well with Vinny Testaverde at quarterback. The ex-players all agreed.
In a very narrow sense that was also the one that clearly mattered most to ESPN, it kind of worked; ESPN said that ratings for the show improved by 10 percent after Limbaugh’s addition, and the audience that watched Week 4’s show, on September 28, 2003, was the largest the program had drawn since November of 1996. It’s possible, I suppose, that this could have come to suck less over time, although it’s hard to see too much upside in the concept Blowhard Asshole Interrupts Ex-NFL Players To Say Some Stuff. Anyway, Limbaugh reverted to type before it ever had a chance. That late September Sunday was the one when Limbaugh started moaning in racial code about the liberal media propping up black quarterbacks. Limbaugh tossed his challenge flag and said this, about Donovan McNabb:
Sorry to say this, I don’t think he’s been that good from the get-go. I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.
At the most elemental level, this was wrong; McNabb played poorly over the first two weeks of 2003, but turned it around sufficiently to lead the Eagles to 12 wins and the NFC Championship game. He was chosen for his fourth straight Pro Bowl after the season, and was at that time what he had been more or less since debuting in the league in 1999: one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Everyone on the ESPN set immediately told Limbaugh that he was wrong, and a large number of writers and a smaller number of Democratic Presidential candidates followed suit. (Before you look: yes, there is a Slate article headlined “Rush Limbaugh Was Right About Donovan McNabb”) “It’s somewhat shocking to hear that on national TV from him,” McNabb said after being told about the remarks. “It’s not something that I can sit here and say won’t bother me.” That Wednesday, ESPN issued a statement in which the network said that it had informed Limbaugh that “his comments were insensitive and inappropriate.” His resignation was announced shortly before midnight.
In the immediate aftermath, Limbaugh’s former colleagues spoke of his decision to abruptly start acting like himself as a violation. “He was brought here to talk football,” Tom Jackson said. “And he broke that trust. Rush told us the social commentary for which he is so well known would not cross over to our show, and instead, he would represent the viewpoint of the intelligent, passionate fan.” While there’s no reason to doubt Jackson’s sincerity, it’s hard to credit ESPN’s sudden dismay at Rush Limbaugh, a reactionary talk radio dipshit they hired on purpose, suddenly behaving like Rush Limbaugh.
Because it is what he does, Limbaugh just kept on acting like Rush Limbaugh. “All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something,” Limbaugh said on his radio show. “If I wasn’t right, there wouldn’t be this cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sports writer community.” He later said that while he wasn’t surprised that his colleagues didn’t support him, he was “disappointed;” he blamed corporate pressure and an embedded PC culture. A week later Limbaugh told his listeners that he was addicted to pain medication and took a five-week leave from his radio show. At some point in these last four paragraphs, or throughout all of them, this may have started to feel familiar to you in a way that makes you suddenly feel totally exhausted.
It takes more than obliterative, unabashed, small-hearted stupidity to make a terrible cultural moment terrible. That all helps, that is honestly pretty key to making things shitty, but what’s most exhausting about Rush Limbaugh’s brief and unhappy time at ESPN is how little anyone learned from it. The thunderously bad thought and unrelenting bad faith, the amoral corporate cynicism followed immediately by righteous corporate posturing, the blank exploitativeness and howling stupidity, the prioritizing of attention-getting over any and every other thing—these are the sort of human weaknesses that market pressures tend to both amplify and exacerbate, and so it’s not surprising to see that they haven’t gone out of style in a decade and a half because a glazed ham full of oxycontin said “mungo fuck” to Tom Jackson on cable. But what’s queasier than the endless recursive resentment and blank backwards ugliness that fueled this whole thing, and more disheartening than the debasing transactional logic that made this all first possible and then inevitable, is the creeping feeling of recognition that comes with driving down these one-way streets and past the same corroded landmarks. It’s realizing that we’ve somehow come all the way back around again.