Rush Limbaugh has been, undeniably, an enormously influential opinion-maker for many years now. A 2008 Zogby poll reported that Rush was the most trusted news personality in the country, with 12.5% of those responding so stating.
A few years ago, after a court appearance in Harrisburg, PA, I got in my car and drove three hours back to New York City. I put the car radio on “scan” and was stunned to discover that, until hailing distance of the George Washington Bridge, a large majority of stations on the dial carried Limbaugh’s program during the noon to 3 p.m. time period.
He has an eight-year contract that reportedly pays him $50 million a year until 2016 and- despite a recent fall in the ratings- continues to have the top-rated talk show in the country, drawing a reported 15 million listeners daily.
Many who do not share his views think he has been a phony and a hypocrite for years; for example, railing against drug users while illegally doctor-shopping for prescription drugs.
But those who are powerful and have the public ear are often allowed lots of space, and the reaction of the Republican presidential candidates to Limbaugh’s flagellation of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, who he called a slut and a prostitute for publicly advocating for health insurance coverage for contraception for women, is illustrative. That Rush continued his brutal verbal assault of this young woman for three days evidenced his confidence that he would find the usual tolerance and support from his listeners and advertisers alike for his treatment of Fluke. No way could it be a threat to him, or his future.
Back in June 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin- smug, brash and arrogant- felt the same way.
For years, McCarthy had the ear of the country, first claiming in 1950 that Truman’s State Department was harboring Communists. When Eisenhower was elected and the Republican Party won control of Congress in the 1952 elections, McCarthy became Chair of the Government Operations Committee and its Subcommittee on Investigations and, counseled by the infamous Roy Cohn, expanded the scope of his targets. McCarthy and Cohn took on the Army after a subcommittee staffer, David Schine, was drafted and denied the favorable treatment they requested for him.
ABC televised what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings. On what became the most memorable day of those hearings, Army Counselor John Adams, testified that Cohn threatened to “wreck the Army” and see to it that Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens lost his job if Schine were not granted the New York posting sought for him. Cohn then became a witness to deny the statements Adams had attributed to him, which permitted the Army’s Special Counsel Joseph N. Welch, a senior litigator at Boston’s Hale & Dorr, to cross-examine Cohn about the exact number of subversives loose in defense plants around the country.
Cohn first said he did not know, and then agreed that there 130. Welch continued to bait Cohn as to why the names of the 130 had not been immediately reported to the Army and put under surveillance by the FBI and sought a commitment that Cohn would do that by the end of the day.
This was too much for McCarthy. He tried to strike back at Welch, and picked on a young associate at Welch’s firm named Fred Fisher. Fisher had graduated summa cum laude from Bowdoin College, served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, gone to Harvard Law School and then joined Welch’s firm, where he had labored in relative obscurity for the previous six years.
In law school and for some period thereafter, however, Fisher had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, which the Attorney General had labeled a Communist-front organization. Although Welch had originally brought Fisher down to assist in representing the Army at the hearings, he sent Fisher back to Boston when Fisher told Welch about his prior Guild membership.
Senator MCCARTHY: ...in view of Mr. Welch’s request that the information be given once we know of anyone who might be performing any work for the Communist Party, I think we should tell him that he has in his law firm a young man named Fisher whom he recommended, incidentally, to do work on this committee, who has been for a number of years a member of an organization which was named, oh, years and years ago, as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party, an organization which always swings to the defense of anyone who dares to expose Communists.
I certainly assume that Mr. Welch did not know of this young man at the time here commended him as the assistant counsel for this committee, but he has such terror and such a great desire to know where anyone is located who may be serving the Communist cause, Mr. Welch, that I thought we should just call to your attention the fact that your Mr. Fisher, who is still in your law firm today, whom you asked to have down here looking over the secret and classified material, is a member of an organization, not named by me but named by various committees, named by the Attorney General, as I recall, and I think I quote this verbatim, as “the legal bulwark of the Communist Party.” He belonged to that for a sizable number of years, according to his own admission, and he belonged to it long after it had been exposed as the legal arm of the Communist Party.
Mr. WELCH: You won’t need anything in the record when I have finished telling you this. Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us.
When I decided to work for this committee I asked Jim St. Clair, who sits on my right, to be my first assistant. I said to Jim, “Pick somebody in the firm who works under you that you would like.” He chose Fred Fisher and they came down on an afternoon plane. That night, when we had taken a little stab at trying to see what the case was about, Fred Fisher and Jim St. Clair and I went to dinner together. I then said to these two young men, “Boys, I don’t know anything about you except I have always liked you, but if there is anything funny in the life of either one of you that would hurt anybody in this case you speak up quick.”
Fred Fisher said, “Mr. Welch, when I was in law school and for a period of months after, I belonged to the Lawyers Guild,” as you have suggested, Senator. He went on to say, “I am secretary of the Young Republicans League in Newton with the son of Massachusetts' Governor, and I have the respect and admiration of the 25 lawyers or so in Hale & Dorr.”
I said, “Fred, I just don’t think I am going to ask you to work on the case. If I do, one of these days that will come out and go over national television and it will just hurt like the dickens.”
So, Senator, I asked him to go back to Boston.
Little did I dream you could be so reckless and cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale & Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale & Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I will do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.
Senator MCCARTHY: May I say that Mr. Welch talks about this being cruel and reckless. He was just baiting; he has been baiting Mr. Cohn here for hours, requesting that Mr. Cohn, before sundown, get out of any department of Government anyone who is serving the Communist cause. I just give this man’s record, and I want to say, Mr. Welch, that it has been labeled long before he became a member, as early as 1944—
Mr. WELCH: Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild, and Mr. Cohn nods his head at me. I did you, I think, no personal injury, Mr. Cohn.
Mr. COHN: No, sir.
Mr. WELCH: I meant to do you no personal injury, and if I did, beg your pardon. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense ofdecency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
In fact, Welch had himself revealed Fisher’s prior Guild association publicly in a New York Times article prior to the hearing. But the perception that Joe McCarthy was unfairly bullying a young man on national television was enough to dislodge McCarthy from his public support, and not long after, he was censured by the Senate and gone from public life.
Rush may not meet the same fate, but it may well be that his best and most influential days on talk radio are behind him.