Like most tragic love stories, it began with instant, passionate attraction, though the end of the affair was a long, tortured decline filled with recriminations and shattered illusions.
And now, author Jim Derych holds forth on his former objet fixe with the grim frankness of one who's moved beyond the drama to make peace with his tumultuous past: "It's high time I finally confront the chubby, drug-addicted, matrimonially challenged elephant that resides in the living room of my political past," goes the first sentence in his Confessions of a Former Dittohead. "Rush Limbaugh."
In response, any savvy reader would be justified in saying, "Hold on a sec, Sparky, I don't need another whiny political book." Derych's Confessions, however, is a unique and unusually frank mea culpa concerning one of the most enduring mysteries to the American left: Why do otherwise smart and respectable citizens listen to Rush?
The Tennessee-based financial adviser says that he was hooked once he got his first earful of Limbaugh. "I was the perfect target for Rush," he says, explaining that the right-wing mouthpiece's unwavering assurance and conviction resounded strongly with Derych's teen-age ignorance and insecurity.
In fact, Derych was a budding "theo-conservative" or "theo-con," which he defines as someone ascribing to ideas such as: "Sex shouldn't be taught at all, but if it is, it'd better be of the abstinence-only variety. Foreign policy? It's our God versus their god. ... Science is relative! Morals are absolute! Women should quit their jobs and homeschool! Screw civil liberties, as long as I'm safe ..."
Limbaugh's beliefs on everything from abortion to AIDS reinforced Derych's nascent purview, and he became not just a regular listener (or a "dittohead") but what he calls a full-blown "dittiot," one of those who live "entirely inside the closed circle of Rushspeak, who are so tired of what they perceive to be a liberal bias in the mainstream media that they have stopped getting their news from anyone but Rush."
Derych describes his gradual disillusionment with his right-wing worldview, and its radio-wave embodiment, as "a thousand little cuts." Thus another noteworthy aspect of Derych's account: He goes beyond the Limbaughs-of-the-left who shriek, "Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot" to describe with precision the intellectual and emotional deflation that caused such a dramatic change of heart.
For example, he tells how the tragic story of a friend's youthful abortion made him realize that simplistic credos of blame ... such as that only glib hedonism or irresponsible self-destructiveness led to abortion ... ignored the complexity and the web of responsibility in such situations.
Derych's ideas about homosexuals started to change when a friend in college abruptly admitted to a mid-diatribe Derych that he was gay. "This guy didn't fit the stereotype of what a 'queer' should look like," he recalls ... a stereotype that itself was an outgrowth of Rush-inspired rants against gays in the military, with visions of "Big Gay Al running limp-wristed across the battlefield to plant kisses on a fallen comrade."
As to doctrinal deflation, Derych writes that "there are only so many cuts a conservative belief system can endure." He highlights with specifics and facts the folly of specific Rush-endorsed pieties, such as the notion that tax cuts boost federal revenue, and the need to wage war on Iraq.
But again, and uniquely, Confessions is suffused less with grade-school partisanship than with resigned exasperation. "[Rush] portrays himself as someone with sound and unshakable principles, though he's violated every one of them," says Derych.
And regarding his former comrades, Derych often seems not to belittle as much as pity the closed-circuit philistinism into which they've been subsumed. "You may have noticed that dittoheads are capable of incredible feats of mental gymnastics when it comes to defending Rush's beliefs," he writes.
He also describes how to best break through the ignorance ... a skill that's just as needful as ever. In red states, "Rush still very much dominates the culture and politics," says Derych. "The drug scandal did not knock down his credibility one bit." This might indicate that reaching any of the dittoheads is a lost cause. But Derych points to himself as proof that it can be done.
"I crossed that line," he writes, "but I've crossed back."