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Jewish World Review July 24, 2000 /21 Tamuz, 5760

Tony Snow

Tony Snow
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Consumer Reports

Behind those golden -- really! -- EIB microphones -- RUSH LIMBAUGH dashed out of New York just before Memorial Day, 1994, got married and turned his radio show over to some poor sucker: Me.

I am no stranger to unsettling situations. I have taught physics and East African geography in a Kenyan classroom that featured mud walls, a corrugated tin roof and arachnids the size of a catcher's mitt. I have worked on speeches for George Bush, including one that led reporters to speculate that his mind had been addled by sleeping pills. I have lodged in squalid Moscow hotel rooms, where maids killed mosquitoes with DDT. In short, I have feasted on stress, as most journalists do. But I have never experienced anything quite like the silent terror of the studio.

Imagine yourself in a room, surrounded by wall-sized posters of a smiling Limbaugh. Those cruel images mock you. For while the grinning one has retreated to a quiet beach with his betrothed, you sit and sweat in a stiff chair behind a console, with a pair of earphones snug over your head.

You run your hands over the counter, look at a large computer screen to your left. A clock on the far wall ticks off seconds.

Suddenly, a weird whoosh runs through the room, followed by a solid kathunk: Some sadist has closed a door that looks as if it were purloined from Fort Knox. Loud music courses suddenly through hidden speakers. A disembodied voice yells: "You're on!" And then you see it.

There, dangling in midair, is a microphone of actual gold -- 18 karat, maybe. Its glinting metal seems to wink and say: "Well, chump. Let's see if you can entertain TWENTY MILLION AMERICANS!"

The disembodied voice whispers through the earphones. "You're doing fine. But you really ought to breathe."

And the clock reports that you have only two hours, 54 minutes left ... Hosting the Rush Limbaugh show is like driving a car carrying a population as large as California's. The passengers want you to keep them amused for the better part of a long afternoon, but they have their doubts. They prefer their normal chauffeur.

It takes a certain twisted genius to thrive on the air waves. Limbaugh describes the secret of his survival on the electronic tightrope when he bellows: "Talent on loan from GOOODDDDDD!"

He has a point. The most popular talkmeisters have the rare ability to entertain, listen and shut up the exact second a commercial is supposed to begin.

More importantly, they provide company for people who feel lost in a world that doesn't care to listen. Think about it: You walk into a store, and a harried clerk tells you to wait. You call a congressional office and get transferred to a punky aide who scratches down your address, enters it into a computer and prints out a form letter that has nothing to do with your call. You stride into your boss' office -- and your mind goes blank.

These petty insults seldom occur in Radio Land. The world stops when you speak. And everybody gets a crack at the know-it-all behind the mike.

Listeners pick apart every word and phrase, reciting things you wrote and said ages ago. A host becomes a constant target and a practiced shooter.

After I talk for 20 minutes or so, the calls come in. One guy wants to pick a fight. He says conservatives should stop bashing Bill Clinton's performance as commander in chief.

Others want to discuss the vagaries of health care, the first lady's investment portfolio, the Endangered Species Act, the 10th Amendment and gun control. Dan Rostenkowski's name pops up a lot. Listeners want to hear about the fine details of his indictment and talk about the hypocrisy of Congress.

The torrent of talkers continues, a nova of insta-friends. Somebody from Oregon wants to talk about property rights. A woman phones from just a few blocks away to tell me I'm doing fine. A message flashes on the computer screen: Someone on line 14 says I made a big mistake when I talked about the U.S. Postal Service.

"I'm so nervous!" she giggles but quickly gets to her correction. Taxpayers do not pay for the USPS. Customers do. She gets so mad when people describe the post office as a black hole for tax dollars. Her husband works there.

She is very nice. She also is right. I thank her for not letting me get away with a whopper. She thanks me. We go our separate ways.

And the clock says: One more hour to go.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate