The more interesting war on Limbaugh comes from the right. My National Review colleague John Derbyshire has written a thoughtful article for the American Conservative disparaging the "lowbrow conservatism" of talk radio. His brush is a bit too broad at times. Some right-wing talkers, such as Bill Bennett and Dennis Prager, can be almost professorial. Michael Savage, meanwhile, sounds like the orderlies are about to break through the barricaded studio door with sedatives in hand. Derbyshire is nonetheless right that conservatism is top-heavy with talk-radio talent, sometimes giving the impression the right is deficient in other areas and adding to the shrillness of public discourse.
Another point of attack comes from "reformist" conservative writers, such as blogger Ross Douthat of The Atlantic and former Bush speechwriter David Frum. They argue that conservatism is too attached to talk-show platitudes and Reagan kitsch. They want conservatives and Republicans to become more entrepreneurial, less reflexively opposed to government action. Hence, the New Reformers object to Limbaugh's role as an enforcer of ideological conformity. What's good for Limbaugh, many of them argue, guarantees that the GOP will become a powerless rump party only for conservative true believers.
I'm dubious about that, but I do have a suggestion that would help on both fronts. Bring back "Firing Line." William F. Buckley Jr., who died almost a year ago, hosted the program for PBS for 33 years. He performed an incalculable service at a time when conservatives were more associated with yahoos than they are today. He demonstrated that intellectual fluency and good manners weren't uniquely liberal qualities. More important, the "Firing Line" debates (models of decorum) demonstrated that conservatives were unafraid to examine their own assumptions or to battle liberal ones.
As Democrats try to ram through the "remaking of America" (Obama's words) by exploiting a financial crisis, we need those debates. PBS could actually live up to its mandate to educate and inform the public. It would be the kind of entrepreneurial government innovation even right-wingers could get behind.
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