The death of Rush Limbaugh, overlapped on the energy crunch, takes me back exactly 20 years, to the nationwide electrical crisis in the winter of 2001, when the “Doctor of Democracy” awarded me my allotted 15 minutes.
I was a reporter at the Seattle Times, and electricity prices had spiked, driven by winter demand, an extended drought, and by changing national energy markets that eventually led to the collapse of Enron. Seattle City Light was having to buy power on the national market at crippling prices.
My editors asked me to do a piece on the biggest users of electricity in the Seattle area. City Light didn’t want to tell us, but complied with our freedom of information request. I did the story, naming the individuals, businesses and public agencies that consumed power. They included homeowners who used as much as 50 times the average household consumption.
Two days later, I sat down at my desk and logged into my computer, which dinged to tell me I had an email. It dinged again, and again, until it sounded like a coffee percolator.
I clicked on one: “Your paper is a liberal rag.” Another: “Disgusting.” Another identified himself as “Rightwinger” and wanted me to know I was a “Commie Bastard.” And those were among the few that could be printed in a family newspaper.
I watched amazed as the emails scrolled down until I spotted one from my sister in Texas.
“Gosh, little brother, I am sooooo impressed,” she wrote. “You made the Rush Limbaugh Show!”
Wow. I found a radio and tuned it to KVI. Alas, he had gone onto something else. I had missed my own moment of infamy.
Limbaugh had been furious about what he called “one of the most outrageous articles I’ve seen on any subject.” Wealthy homeowners in “the Soviet of Seattle” are portrayed “as though they’re guilty of something for buying power,” he had said. “These people pay for every kilowatt they use…. We’re told to blame the eeeevil rich owners of big houses for this fix. We’ve got to string them up or send them to sensitivity seminars.”
The nationwide power crunch, he said, had been caused by “environmental wackos” who “have insisted that not a single power plant be built.”
And then he added a link to my story and my email address.
The emails continued to light up my terminal, hundreds of them from California and Maine, Florida and Minnesota, and a few from Seattle.
“Heard Rush talking about your rag today and your slanted/stupid/liberal article,” wrote a North Carolina fan. “Thank God for the Internet. Hopefully it will allow people more access to the truth and eventually eliminate papers like yours.”
Caleb, an 18-year-old college student from Texas, had just read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and sized me up as “one of those weak-minded people who are always supporting the actions of the weak minds in power, blaming industrialists for everything,.”
I decided to respond – not in the paper, but by emails to a few of my new correspondents.
Limbaugh’s blast was fair comment, but it was not journalism, I argued. He made no attempt to walk through the issue, and certainly never called me. It was clear he had not read my story, in which some of the big energy users acknowledged that they were using it wastefully on huge hot tubs or whatever.
“The issue of privacy is legitimate, and we debated the issue before going to press,” I wrote. “But we decided privacy was outweighed by the nature of our regional electricity shortage.”
Seattle, I explained, is unusual in that we own our own electric utility, which provides clean hydropower at the lowest rates in the nation. But we were in the midst of a drought, reservoirs were dry and there wasn‘t enough hydro, so City Light had to buy replacement power on the market at up to 100 times the price. So, when our neighbors waste energy, we all end up paying for it.
Some wrote back, many of them aggravated that I would dare email them.
But there were a few healthy exchanges. “Thanks for a humbling lesson,” wrote Caleb from Texas. “I guess a kid like me shouldn’t be writing vehement letters when we have heard only one side of the story.”
I was emboldened, and fired off a letter to Limbaugh: “Dear Rush: We’ve never met, but I am a now-and-then listener and, more to the point, the object of your wrath the other day.” Then I walked briefly through the argument – the regional energy shortage, the city-owned utility, empty reservoirs, costly replacement power, rights of the individual vs. rights of the community. But, if people know that wasting energy may lead to pubic embarrassment, maybe they’ll rethink firing up their hot tubs.
I didn’t hear back, and didn’t expect to. As I told him, I might have chosen another way to spend my 15 minutes of fame and to impress my sister. But I’d spent 30 years dishing it out, and I’m accustomed to taking hits.
Twenty years later, I’ve migrated from the Soviet of Seattle to the Soviet of Port Townsend, where the climate is much the same. Today’s energy crisis can be traced to the same causes as the 2001 version. One of the big power users died a few years later in his hot tub.
Limbaugh is dead, but he died with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and there are thousands out there who learned at the feet of the master and carried their anger to the halls of the Capitol.
The aspirations of my North Carolina correspondent have been realized. The Seattle Times continues to practice fine journalism, but with diminished resources and a diminishing audience. Hundreds more newspapers are gone altogether.
We cling to many of the same slogans. But, more than ever, “Power to the People” means fundamentally different things, depending on and where people perceive, consume and exercise power.
“Rush Limbaugh – Caricature” by DonkeyHotey is licensed under CC BY 2.0
You ROCK Ross! Loved this piece – but then I love them all. So glad you traded Seattle for PT!!!!
I wrote a piece in Huffington Post, at the suggestion of prog radio star Thom Hartman, exposing the real story of Limbaugh’s supposed huge ratings, which were bogus. It shot to the top of HuffPost’s most-read postings rankings for a few days, Basically, as Hartmann said, his rating numbers were bogus because, except for a few major markets where his Premiere Radio Networks sold the show, it was given away to moderate and smaller markets — on a barter basis, Meaning they did not have to pay for it. It allowed these stations to lay off air staff and save money with free programming in exchange for leaving windows for Premiere’s national advertising. The station in Port Angeles that still carries the show gets it on that basis, a freebie.
In exchange for writing the story, Rushbo insulted me on the air.
What you miss Bill, is that as one drives across the State and the country, outside the major metro areas, the only voice they heard for decades was Rush or the echo chamber of his duplicates. There are virtually no indepedent stations left in the hinterlands. Consider the Peninsula! KPTZ and what? Rush was an ugly major force, regardless of “ratings” which we all know are struggling to make sense of the world of online. I have a radio show myself, and there is no way we can truly understand how many people are listening. “smaller markets” are the voters in all those red states that some folks call “Fly over” states that elected a demagogue in 2016 and almost did so again last year. His ratings, though I am sad to say this, in my opinion, were not “bogus”.
Funny how our past sometimes come crashing into our today’s. Rush Limbaugh was a very popular radio personality, which is a sad statement on who our country is. He died of Lung Cancer, his favorite cigar magazine wrote a lovely eulogy but failed to mention his cause of death. I believe in Karma and I feel Rush deserved his.
Ross, great story. I think you were a bit of a lefty in those days but have been edging to the right ever so slowly. Happy to have you as a middle man these days, and ever a great writer.
Oh Ross I’m humbled in your presence. I bequeath to you the Cape George Medal of Esteemed Writerhood. Thanks so much for this piece. I loved it. xoxo MK
I very much enjoyed reading this well told memory of Ross and Rush!
For a “weak minded” person, you sure can scribble good.
Hadn’t heard this one, Ross! Good column.
I listened to Rush when he first started out in Sacramento. I wrote my column in the Oakland Tribune that was mildly complimentary. This was before he became a heartless prick. He sent me back a thank- you letter, which I still have, for some reason. I should sell it on Ebay.
You have such a wonderful way with words! This article hits on so many aspects of what has transpired over 20 years. Thank you for your personal approach to massive issues. Regardless of one’s opinion of Rush, it is undeniable that he was a major influence on our society.
Excellent! Ross and Rush, who knew? Rush would be too rotund to spin in his grave, but hope he’s at least thrashing about in his silk-lined sarcophagus — “more power to him,” down there….