Dialing for Dittos

June 12, 1994

He is the Dittohead. Not a Dittohead, but the Dittohead, the one against whom all other Dittoheads must be measured, especially after this particular day is over. The Dittohead. The term is meant to be flattering, shorthand for someone who agrees with the opinions and philosophies of Rush Limbaugh, and that, to the core, is John Cavallo, 46, white, male, husband, father, Catholic and aerospace engineer, who, at the moment, is looking over an article titled “35 New Undeniable Truths” in a publication called the Limbaugh Letter.

Truth No. 8: “The most beautiful thing about a tree,” Limbaugh has written, “is what you do with it after you cut it down.”

“He’s right,” John says. “We’ve got plenty of trees in this country.”

Truth No. 32: “The Los Angeles riots were not caused by the ‘Rodney King verdict’ but by the rioters.”

“The verdict didn’t riot,” John says.

Truth No. 24: “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.”

“No doubt about it,” John says.

Truth No. 3: “No nation has ever taxed itself into prosperity.” No. 4: “Evidence refutes liberalism.” No. 15: “If you commit a crime, you are guilty.”

“I can’t say I really disagree with any of them,” John says, finishing reading the list.

It is a Friday morning, just past 11:30. John is on the second floor of his North Potomac home. The house is quiet. His wife, Gail, a nurse, is at work up the road in Gaithersburg. She too is a Dittohead. Their 9-year-old son, Steven, a fourth-grader, is at St. Mary’s, a Catholic school in Rockville. He is a Dittohead as well. Only John is home. Earlier, he was at work, making his way down a hall at Fairchild Space and Defense Corp. in Germantown, when his boss noticed he was limping. “The gout,” John explained. Go home, his boss suggested, and John did exactly that, happy in spite of his gout, because he has come home with a plan.

He is going to call Limbaugh.

Now it is 11:35, and across America an entire Rush Limbaugh universe is about to move into gear, a universe of 642 radio stations, millions of listeners, thousands of callers, hundreds of faxers, Rush books, Rush videos, Rush merchandise, even restaurants with special Rush Rooms, including one in Gaithersburg called the Golden Bull Grand Cafe, which offers selections such as the Ditto Burger and the Hillary Crab Dip. Occasionally John goes there for lunch, but not this day. This day, he wants to be near his computer and modem, which he has set up to dial the number for the radio show continuously. Now it is 11:36 -- half an hour before the radio show begins -- and the computer dials for the first time.

Busy.

Automatically, it dials again.

Busy.

It dials again.

Certainly, there are other things John could be doing. There is the matter of Steven. He has allergies. The house, like any house, gets dusty, and John needs to change the filter in the attic. There is also the matter of Gail. Instead of working, she would rather be home, at least in the afternoon, so Steven wouldn’t have to go to John’s parents’ house every day after school. But there is the further matter of John’s job, a job in a shrinking profession, a profession of those either laid off or worried about being laid off, which is why Gail has to keep working. Just this morning, as John was limping down the hall, he heard that three more of his colleagues had gotten their notices, and the week before it had been one of his closest friends, an engineer named Bill who had worked at Fairchild nearly 30 years. John, that day, took Bill to lunch at the Golden Bull, where they commiserated over a cheese-covered chicken sandwich called the Nation’s Capitol. Bill said he had plenty of things to do, don’t worry about him, and looked at John, who momentarily had nothing to say. What could he say, actually? For the time being he’s busy finishing a report on a project he was part of, but once the report is done there’s nothing else waiting. In John’s 13 years with Fairchild, there’s always been something else waiting. Now, he figures, he has three, maybe four weeks of work left. He needs to find another project. He could be working on that.

But after a couple years of listening to Limbaugh for at least a few minutes nearly every day, and watching Limbaugh’s TV show nearly every night, and now with an afternoon off, what John wants more than anything else is to call Limbaugh and talk to him. He’s not sure what exactly he wants to say, maybe something about taxes -- Limbaugh likes to talk about taxes. But he wants to get through.

And sure enough, on the 25th try, instead of a busy signal, he gets a ring. “Son of a gun!” he says, surprised at how easy this was, grabbing a phone hooked up to the computer, ready to talk. The phone rings twice. Three times. Four. Then he hears a voice, a woman’s voice, but before he can say anything he realizes it is a recording. “Your party is not answering,” the voice says. “Please try your call later. We’re sorry, but your call will now be disconnected.”

Back to re-dialing.

“We’re going to get through,” John says.

Now it is past noon, and from the radio comes the first gust of Limbaugh: “Greetings to you, conversationalists all across the fruited plain. Time to get started with yet another excursion into broadcast excellence, and so shall it be.”

The show has begun. The Limbaugh universe is open. In three hours it will close. Already, the computer has dialed nearly 100 times. It tries again. Busy. Again. Busy. “Amazing,” John says. He decides to get a second phone going on a separate line. He starts dialing that one himself, pushing the re-dial button again and again, while the computer keeps dialing the other.

Busy.

“Unbelievable.”

The Dittohead, though, isn’t one to give up.

ACCORDING TO a survey done last year for U.S. News & World Report by the Washington research firm of Mellman Lazarus Lake, the hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of Dittoheads in America fall into two main categories: “alienated, unemployed, younger men who voted for Perot” and “upper income, married, conservative Republicans who voted for Bush.”

In every way, the Dittohead is of the second type. He is indeed conservative: “We’ve got to really get off of being so liberal and come back to the center,” he says. “We’re letting the minorities -- and I don’t mean blacks and whites, but minority groups like gays, lesbians and radical feminists -- tell us how to run our lives.” He is indeed Republican: “The Democratic Party at one point stood for all the things I believe in,” he says, “but they have gotten so far to the left, so extreme, they’ve gotten away from their roots, the roots of middle America, that if you work hard enough you’ll be successful, that a good day’s work is worth a good day’s pay.” As for marriage, his is going on 13 years, and although he balks at being described as upper income, a tour of his house suggests that, so far, as he puts it, he and Gail have been “very fortunate.”

The Cavallos’ house is a roomy, four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath, brick-front colonial that sits on a quarter-acre of flat land. The driveway is long enough and wide enough to hold their van, their minivan and their pickup truck, all of which have phones. Their kitchen has every imaginable appliance. Their downstairs bath has lights that come on with a wave of the hand. Their shed out back is big enough to contain two rototillers, a gas grill, a weed whacker, a lawn spreader and an electric Nativity set. The mower, a rider, is in their garage. The NordicTrack is in their basement. Their bedroom has spotless early American furniture and a cross that hangs on the wall above their bed. And then there is their den: more early American furniture; wood paneling; lacy curtains; records, including “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” and “Feelin’ Groovy -- Terry Baxter, His Orchestra and Chorus”; CDs, including Gershwin and Disney; books, including both of Limbaugh’s, one of which is a special gift edition with gilt-edged pages; a surround-sound stereo; five remote controls; and a new, 35-inch TV hooked up to a satellite dish out back. This is the room where John, Gail and Steven gather almost every weeknight at 9 o’clock to watch Limbaugh’s TV show, plucking it off the satellite as it’s being transmitted to TV stations across the United States for later airing. Because of the satellite dish, which is anchored between the storage shed and a baby pine, they get to see it first.

“It’s a nightly event,” Gail says one evening, just before 9. She is sitting at the far end of the plaid couch, her legs curled under her. John is in the matching plaid recliner, and Steven, who has the remote, is on his feet, pacing back and forth and pressing a button to move the back yard satellite dish into position. “The satellite,” he says, “is called T2.”

“No, T1,” John says.

“That’s right. T1,” Steven says. “Telstar 1.”

“Telstar 401,” says John.

“Telstar 401,” Steven says. “Transponder 19. Okay. Here we go. Pay close attention.”

The satellite dish locks in. Steven lies down on a collapsible cot he has set up in front of the TV. John takes the remote, sees something on it, licks a finger, dabs it off. And here’s Limbaugh, big smile, nice suit, great tie, impressive gut, a millionaire many times over, chauffeured wherever he needs to go, walking onto the set with something in his hand. It’s some kind of catalogue. He is looking amused. “Come get a shot of this,” he says, and as John, Steven and Gail look on quizzically, the camera zooms in on a photograph of a man in women’s lingerie. “This,” he says, “apparently was left here by some guests on a most recent Sally Jessy Raphael show.” He laughs. So does the studio audience. So do John, Steven and Gail.

Now Limbaugh holds up a copy of a recent Esquire magazine. Inside, in an article that takes note of his approach to women, an approach that seems to divide all women into either “femi-Nazis” or those for whom he can gallantly hold open a door, he is described as exemplifying the Male of the ‘90s.

“He does,” says Gail, quite seriously. “He goes a long way toward it.”

“Better than the guy in the catalogue,” says Steven.

Now Limbaugh talks about a few other things and goes to a commercial, and when he comes back he is holding the catalogue again, this time turned to a photograph of a man wearing a bra, garter belt and stockings.

“I got to say,” John says to Gail, “you look better in that than he does.”

And so go most nights in the Cavallo den. It is always just the three of them, insulated, shades drawn, happy. Now, several days later, upstairs in the office, as the computer keeps dialing Limbaugh’s radio show, John gets up and looks out the window. The street is silent. The sky is blue. The lawns are green and freshly mowed. It is a view sure to comfort a man who has made the transition from “Feelin’ Groovy” to a 35-inch TV, who’s going gray, who’s getting a midlife belly, a belly he patted approvingly the other night after Gail had agreed that Limbaugh was a Male of the ‘90s. “I still got hope,” he said, laughing. It’s the laugh of a man who hopes others will join in. Now he looks at his watch. It’s a digital with a calculator on the band. It says 12:11:04. He resumes dialing.

Busy.

“Well, well, well,” Limbaugh is saying to his listeners. “This is tough for me, because you know I don’t like to be the harbinger of negativism . . .”

Busy.

“I like to try to go about this job every day as the essence of good cheer . . .”

Busy.

“But you have to balance that with honesty. And if nothing, the Rush Limbaugh program is a daily, relentless pursuit of the truth . . .”

Busy.

“What is it that has me facing this conundrum today of not knowing quite how to approach you? It’s the economy . . .”

Busy.

“I think it’s understandable that people are not feeling good about the economy . . .”

Busy.

“You go back to the ‘80s. You go back to a period in this country of real genuine prosperity. You didn’t have to take polls to find out whether or not people felt confident about the economy. You could just see it all over everywhere . . .”

Busy.

“You saw buildings going up. You saw smiley faces. You saw busy people . . .”

The doorbell rings.

It’s an electronic doorbell that chimes out “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” John installed it himself. One of the things Gail likes about him is that he can do things like that. “If anything breaks,” she says, “he can fix it.” He gets up, goes to the window, sees who it is, makes kissing noises. “Come on up,” he calls and goes back to dialing as someone opens the front door, climbs the steps and comes down a hallway decorated with pictures of John and Gail as newlyweds, John’s parents, Gail’s parents, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Steven in his Little League outfit.

IT’S ANOTHER DITTOHEAD, Bruce Panagos.

John explains what he’s doing, and for some reason the room suddenly seems noisy and urgent with mission. Beeps are coming out of the computer as it re-dials every 15 seconds. Different beeps are coming out of the speakerphone that John is re-dialing every five or six seconds. Limbaugh, meanwhile, is talking steadily on: “. . . While Clinton was claiming credit for all the great economic news caused by his plan, who was it telling you the plan hasn’t been in effect long enough to have had any effect at all? It was I. Rush Limbaugh. Leading scholar, Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies . . .” And now there is the additional sound of Bruce pulling up a chair and asking John what he’s going to say when he gets through.

John shows him an article that has left him incredulous. On its face, it is about an IRS program that would make restaurant owners, under threat of audit, responsible for getting employees to accurately report their tips. But to John’s way of thinking it is about much more than that. It is about the big, nosy, obnoxious, flatulent, ever-expanding institution of government, and that, he is thinking, is what he wants to bring up with Limbaugh. Bruce looks at the article, but only for a moment. He is familiar with it. It appeared in a magazine he owns, a Gaithersburg-based trade publication, which is how he and John met. He hired John, who has a consulting business on the side, to install the magazine’s computer system, and since then, what began as business has turned into a friendship.

“There’s not much we disagree with,” Bruce says. It is another day when he says this, a day when he, John and Paul Klaasse, Bruce’s advertising director, are at the Golden Bull, studying their menus. It is Bruce’s and Paul’s first time in a Rush Room. They may be Dittoheads, but they aren’t the Dittohead.

“I’m getting Tipper’s Tuna Melt,” John says.

“I won’t ask,” says Paul.

“The Nation’s Capitol is good too,” says John.

“Well, I’m going to get a Ditto Burger,” says Paul.

The Rush Room is a dozen tables, a horseshoe-shaped bar, two TVs and seven speakers that are hooked up to a stereo receiver and are spaced along the perimeter of the ceiling. Normally, this is the restaurant lounge, but every weekday at 12:05, or a little later if no one remembers to turn on the stereo, it becomes the Rush Room. This day there are half a dozen customers in the room, including the three people eating their Ditto Burgers and tuna melt at a far table, all of them white, all of them male, all of them middle-aged, all of them born in a time when being a white male gave you an automatic leg up, all of them now uncertain about what might be coming their way next.

“When I was in a corporate structure, I was told to hire certain people to make quotas,” Bruce is saying, talking about a time a few years ago when he was making a good deal of money as the associate publisher of a large legal publication in downtown Washington. He is also talking about why he is now making a good deal less money running a small publication in Gaithersburg. “The minute things went wrong, it was because of race, it was because I’m a white male, and I would become the victim.

“What does that cause?” he goes on. “It causes a white guy to move out to the suburbs and start his own business and not hire any blacks, which is what I’ve done.”

“As a practical matter,” adds Paul, who is listening closely. “Not out of racism.”

“Right,” Bruce says, and goes on talking.

John, meanwhile, also listening closely, says nothing at all. Later, he will acknowledge that what Bruce was saying made him a little uncomfortable because it went so far out on a limb. Nonetheless, he will say, he could understand what Bruce meant. Things, he will say, are changing. He knows this. He feels it. Younger Dittoheads, it has been said, take to Limbaugh because they are angry over what they can’t attain in a changing world, while older ones take to him because they feel frustrated over what they are losing. That’s John. He was raised to believe in a social order that turns on the notions of right and wrong and no excuses allowed, of “God, family, and country”; he grew up feeling assured that the world belongs to those with such beliefs; now he looks around and sees confusion, hears excuses, feels erosion. What once was simple, he says, now is complicated. For instance, on another day, at another lunch, this one with colleagues from Fairchild, the talk turns to how, in a time of continuing layoffs, a woman was hired not too long ago, a woman who, as far as anyone can tell, used to be a man. “So, it uses the women’s room?” someone at the table wonders. “So, we don’t have any work, and they’ll hire somebody like that?” wonders someone else. So, things change. One day you’re at work, the next day you’re in a work environment. Personnel becomes human development. Coffee breaks become seminars on diversity training and sexual harassment. Incompetence becomes a social issue.

So, now, in the Rush Room, as Bruce starts talking about how his father came to America with nothing and made millions, John begins to nod, and when Bruce talks about going downtown on weekends and noticing, of all things, who is always working at the hot dog carts lined up near the museums, John is ready to rejoin the conversation.

“There’s not a black person working at a hot dog cart,” Bruce says.

“They’re all Asian,” John says.

“Right. They’re all Asian,” Bruce says. “They’re working hard. They’re working their way out. They don’t want their solutions legislated.”

“Just excel at what you’re best at, and you’ll get along great in this country,” says John.

“No matter what race you are,” says Paul. “No matter what sex you are.”

“If I lose my job, and the guy next to me, who’s black, keeps his, you know what I’m going to do?” says Bruce. “I’m going to go out and kick ass and overcome it. I’m not going to call my congressman or a lawyer and complain.”

“You scramble and claw,” says Paul.

“Scramble and claw,” says John.

“And you fix it,” says Paul. “Without suing. Without the EEOC. You just do it.”

“I’m scared every night when I go home,” confides Bruce. “Not about race. About my business. About making it work. About making enough money to keep my wife home with our baby . . . I work seven days a week. I haven’t had a vacation in four years. I don’t care that some black guy down in the street can’t make a living . . . I’m concerned with making it because I have things in the back of my mind, my wife and my baby at home.”

“If I had to work 10 jobs to keep my kid in private school, I would,” says John. “They’re way too liberal,” he says of public schools. “ ‘Don’t worry about reading and writing. Just feel good about yourself.’ “

“Afrocentrism,” Paul says.

“Afrocentrism,” Bruce repeats. “Rewriting history to make a group of people feel good about themselves.”

“History is history,” says John. “You can’t change it. I’m sure if Christopher Columbus was African rather than Italian, you’d still be reading about it in the history books.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with adding black culture to it,” Bruce says. “But rewriting history?”

“That’s a big deal,” says John.

“That’s a big deal,” says Bruce.

“It’s liberalism run amok,” says John.

“It’s liberal guilt,” says Bruce.

“Sure,” says John.

“Sure,” says Bruce.

“It’s liberalism run amok,” John repeats. “It’s liberalism at its finest . . .”

A ring!

Back in John’s office, there’s a ring! The computer has gotten through!

“Hello?”

A man has answered. His voice is coming through the computer speaker. John is stunned. He has made more than 200 tries. He grabs the phone.

“Hello?” he says.

He hears nothing.

“Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Hello?”

Silence.

“He hung up?” Bruce asks.

“No,” John says.

Slowly, he puts the phone back.

“Stupid me,” he says. “I forgot to click the modem off.”

Now, he hangs his head.

“I made it. I made it. I blew it,” he says.

“Well, I’m going to head back to the office,” Bruce says, getting up, but John barely notices. He is setting up the computer to start dialing again.

“Now I’m confident,” he says. “We’ll get through.”

NOW THE OTHER phone rings. At the moment, John isn’t dialing. Someone is calling him. It’s another Dittohead.

It’s Gail.

“I got through. Can you believe it?” he tells her. “Well . . .” He tells her the rest, hangs up and goes back to dialing while Limbaugh chatters, chatters, chatters on. “As listeners to this radio show, you know how I feel about my family,” he is saying, “and you know how I feel about my mother. I try to let my mother know that I’m thinking about her each and every month by sending her a letter. The Limbaugh Letter . . .”

It’s not that no one has gotten through. A caller from California has. So has one from Nevada. So has one from just down the road in Salisbury, Md., someone named Ken who began his call by saying, “Mega-dittos from Salisbury, Rush.” That’s what callers say -- “dittos,” or “mega-dittos,” or “quintuple-dittos” -- to show their solidarity with Limbaugh. “Dittos from North Potomac,” John intends to say, but now it is 1 o’clock, and now there’s a break for the news, and now the show’s announcer is saying, “From our studios in New York, the man who never sleeps, Rush Limbaugh,” and now John is mumbling, “He never answers the phone either,” and now John is hollering, “Answer the phone, Rush.”

Busy.

He keeps at it, though, not even stopping for lunch.

Gail, meanwhile, does. It’s time for her break. She has been up now for 8 1/2 hours, since 4:30 a.m., because that’s when she exercises, because, when she looks at the way her life is at the moment, what other time does she have? She exercises for an hour, showers, dresses, wakes Steven, makes him breakfast, takes him to his grandparents (who will later take him to school), comes home, wakes John, finishes getting dressed, does the dishes, picks up around the house and is at work by 8:10, 8:20 at the latest. She is 43, has a master’s degree in cardiovascular nursing, helps run a doctor’s office, works 45 hours a week and wishes she didn’t. All morning, there is never a break. Then 1 o’clock comes and she gets in her minivan -- seals herself in, really -- and listens, alone, to Limbaugh. Sometimes she stays in the parking lot. Sometimes she runs errands. Sometimes she just drives around.

One day, her route takes her back and forth along Montgomery Village Avenue, past the lake, past the mall, past the mall, past the lake. “It took me a couple of times to realize what he was all about,” she is saying, talking about the first time she heard Limbaugh. A braggart, is what she initially thought. But she kept listening because John was so taken with him, and after a while, she says, she felt “a kinship,” especially when Limbaugh began thundering about the National Organization for Women. “I think one of the things that turned me around is he was talking about the NOW gang and some of their antics and how they were actually doing a disservice to women, and that’s something I agree with,” she says. “I’m not one of these feminists. I don’t have a problem with male-female roles. There are certain things men do better than women and certain things women do better than men. There are certain things I do better than John and certain things he does better than me, and you put all of this together and they complement each other.” As she keeps driving, she considers Limbaugh’s list of 35 undeniable truths, especially No. 24, the one that says, “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” “I think that’s so funny,” she says, laughing. She has a big, clear laugh. It is one of John’s favorite things about her. He’ll tell a joke -- for instance, “How can you tell when the president is lying? When his lips move” -- and her laugh will fill the room. “That doesn’t mean they’re physically unattractive,” she says. “It could mean they’re unattractive from the inside out.”

Another day, her route is through downtown Gaithersburg and up Route 355, past the Golden Bull. This day, she is talking about a patient she saw just before lunch, a woman who works in a local obstetrician’s office. The woman was telling her about a delivery a few days before, one in which the mother was a cocaine addict and the baby died, and now Gail is wondering what has happened in the world since the time when she was a child. “When I was growing up, I remember walking to school, riding bikes to school, walking to the mall,” she says. This was in the 1950s, when she was in Florida, long before she moved here, enrolled in graduate school, went one weekend to a self-enrichment seminar where she met John, married him and gave birth to a son she can’t imagine allowing to walk alone to school or the mall. “On Saturdays, I’d eat breakfast and I’d be out the door, and I wouldn’t be back until it was time to eat again, and you can’t do that anymore,” she says. “It’s not the same world.” She says, “I don’t know what happened. I really don’t.” She says, “People are so lackadaisical, so irresponsible, so totally irresponsible.” She says, “It’s like an anarchy of morals.”

Another day, her route is west, out of town, out to where the old farms of Montgomery County have been turned into subdivisions with new trees and big houses, past one big house after another until she stops in front of the one that is hers. When she walks in, the first thing she hears is Limbaugh, on the stereo. John is home. He’s in the kitchen, going through the mail, and when he sees her he holds up a magazine. “Just came,” he announces. It’s the American Spectator, which has another accusatory cover story about Bill Clinton. Gail looks at it for a moment. Then she looks at the electric bill. Then she looks around the house. The carpet has fresh vacuum lines. The pictures hang straight. As always, it looks clean, smells new. She sits in the den with John for a few minutes listening to Limbaugh, and then she looks at her watch. “I’m going to have to run,” she says, and she kisses John, gets in the minivan and heads east.

Back at her office, she turns off the ignition but leaves the radio on. She doesn’t say anything. Maybe she’s listening. Maybe she’s just tired. Maybe she’s thinking. There are, at the moment, any number of things to think about.

There’s John. Gail can remember a time when his work seemed endless, so much so that one night, when Steven was a baby, on one of the rare evenings when John was home before midnight, she tried to hand Steven to him so she could run out, and Steven clung to her, crying and crying as if his father were a stranger. Now John comes home from work in the middle of the day to check the mail and doesn’t have to hurry back. She says she is sure he will find a new project to work on, that “it’s a matter of belief,” that it’s “a faith in God,” but just that morning John had told her there was nothing promising in sight. “I mean, he said he checked everything,” she says, “and his bosses have checked, and they both think they’re going to be on the unemployment line soon too.”

So there’s that to think about, and then there’s Steven, for whom she wants to be home, just as her mother was for her and John’s was for him. “Like Tuesday,” she says, “he had a game, and I couldn’t get out of here . . .” And, of course, in the back of her mind is the indelible image of her mother, always around, always available. John too wants her home. He too has clear memories of his mother being around, ones that go back to childhood afternoons when he came home from school. This was when he was growing up in Galloway, W.Va., a town so small John can’t remember if it had a speed limit sign. There was one main road in town, and every day the school bus would roll to a stop in front of his grandmother’s house, and he’d go running inside, asking where his mother was. “She’s at your house,” his grandmother would say, always answering as if she had never heard the question before. He’d run down the street to his house, push open the door. And there his mother would be. “He would love to have me stay home,” Gail says of what John has told her, of what she won’t be doing any time soon. “He would really love it.”

So there’s that too, as well as her home itself, which is so much a reflection of her life. “It’s a nice house,” she says, “but it could be a nicer house.”

She checks the time. It’s 1:55 -- five minutes until the next cycle begins: Work until 5:30, then home, then dinner, maybe something she cooked and froze over the weekend, maybe takeout Chinese, then the dirty dishes, then maybe some laundry, then Limbaugh on TV, then a little reading, maybe a historical novel, maybe the American Spectator, then bed. She listens to Limbaugh for another minute and thinks about whether she does this every day because she likes Limbaugh or because she loves John.

“I like Rush because I like Rush,” she says. “He epitomizes what we believe in, and what we cling to.”

She turns off the radio and gets out of the car. She locks the door and hurries inside. Her break is over.

OVER THE YEARS, there has been a continuing debate over what exactly Limbaugh does epitomize, whether his message is enriching or dangerous and whether the result is entertainment or demagoguery.

He used to cut off bad calls with “caller abortions,” which consisted of the sound of a vacuum cleaner followed by a tiny scream. Was that amusing or just plain maliciousness?

He has been quoted as saying, “All those femi-Nazis out there, demanding their right to an abortion as the most important thing in their life, never ever have to worry about having one because who’d want to have sex with them?” Is that a joke or an example of what his critics contend is misogyny?

Does he simply engage in “a daily, relentless pursuit of the truth,” or is he harmlessly distorting the truth, or are there deeper, more hateful distortions going on? Does he truly care about his political message, or is he just someone whose talent is to get rich by tapping into people’s fears? Is he a homophobe, as his critics suggest? An antisemite? A racist?

No, no, no, Limbaugh says, but as his success grows, so does the debate, and now, as his radio show continues and John keeps dialing, Limbaugh starts attacking a proposal that would allow Death Row inmates to challenge their sentences as racially biased, which was raised in Congress two days before. “We’re more concerned in this country about what whites may be doing to blacks than what’s happening to blacks,” he is saying. “We’re more concerned about what whites are doing, and, believe me, it’s not useful. But because of the way liberals have defined racism, and non-racism, and enlightenment, and compassion, we are trapped in this lack of sense of proportion.” Is this truth? Something more? Something subtler? Something sinister? “Here’s Archie, in Vermillion, South Dakota,” Limbaugh says, dropping the subject, and whatever questions might occur get lost, at least momentarily, as the show moves on.

John, meanwhile, is talking about what Gail has said. “I just think it would be better for Steven,” he is explaining. “You know, when he comes home, it’s to his grandmom’s, and that’s good, but I just have a feeling it would be better if he were home. You know, it’s not my mom’s responsibility. It’s ours.”

“Mike, from Pittsburgh,” Limbaugh says.

“Hi there, Rush. Thanks for taking my call,” Mike says. “I got for you today a tale of two economists.”

“Good!” Limbaugh says.

“It was the best of economists, it was the worst of economists,” Mike says. “Start with the worst, Robert Reich, secretary of labor . . .”

Now John is talking about family values and the changing definition of what a family is. “The government can try to redefine family however it wants to, but a family is the traditional family, and nothing else works,” he says. He lists the components of such a family: a father, a mother, one or more children; a single parent if there’s a separation or a divorce or a death; a relative raising the children if both parents have died; and that’s it. There’s no room for unmarried mothers with children, or unmarried fathers with children, or parents who are gay. “How can they instill any normal values in a child if they’re warped themselves?” he says. There’s no sneer in the way he says this, he is simply stating what he believes. “Somewhere along the line, something snapped in these people. Certainly not what God intended us to do . . .”

“Camille, in Madison, Alabama,” Limbaugh says. “Glad you called, Camille.”

“Hi,” Camille says.

“How are you?” Limbaugh says.

“Oh, I’m just great,” Camille says. “It’s so good talking to you. You know, my son and my husband are going to be just green.”

“What are they, Martians?” Limbaugh says.

“No,” Camille says. “They’re going to be green with envy . . .”

Now John is talking about how he would react if Steven one day came home and said he was gay. “I’d ask him what made him think this,” he says. “I’d send him out for help.” Now he is thinking about whether he could ever accept such a thing. “No. No. I couldn’t.”

What if Steven announced he was marrying someone of a different religion?

“Whatever,” he says.

A different race?

“Presuming he’s old enough to make the decision, that’s his problem. I mean, his choice, not his problem.”

If he came home and said he was a Democrat?

“He can vote any way he wants.”

If he came home and said he wasn’t a Dittohead?

“That’s all right too.”

If he came home and said he was a liberal?

“That would never happen,” John says. “I mean, I can’t predict the future, but I doubt it because he’s being raised with a good sense of family values, and a good sense of what it is that’s made this country great: hard work, strong family ties, and, whatever you do, give it all you have, give it the best you’ve got, and you’ll make it. Never give up. Never, never give up.”

All through this, he keeps dialing. He’s now past 300 attempts.

“We go to Santa Rosa, California, next for Jana,” Limbaugh says. “Hello, glad you called.”

“Hi, Rush,” says Jana. “I’m so glad to talk to you. I just thank you for being such a good voice for what I believe in, and what so many people I know believe in.”

“Well, thank you very much,” Limbaugh says.

That’s one of the things about Limbaugh -- he is always polite to callers who agree with him, and often polite to callers who don’t, and that’s why, one evening, as John sits in the den with Gail and Steven waiting for Limbaugh’s TV show to begin, he seems surprised that anybody would describe Limbaugh as a misogynist.

“On the contrary,” John says. “I think he adores women.”

“That’s what I think,” says Gail. “He appreciates women.”

Or a homophobe.

“He’s like me,” John says. “He doesn’t condone that lifestyle. That’s all.”

“Yeah. He doesn’t hate them,” says Gail.

Or a racist.

“Rush? No,” says John.

“I mean, he believes what we feel,” says Gail. “Why does there have to be special dispensation for blacks? Live in the world like everybody else. Take care of yourself. Support yourself. Take responsibility. Speak well.”

“The people who say that haven’t listened to him long enough,” says John.

“No. He roasts far more whites than he does blacks,” says Gail.

“I don’t think it’s an issue,” says John.

“No, it’s not,” says Gail.

“If you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” says John.

“And if you’re right, you’re right,” Steven chimes in.

“Like people from Venus,” says John, turning toward Steven. “They got three pointy fingers. And green spots. And four eyes. And a big snout. And they’re all born with” -- and here he launches into an old song he has sung to Steven before -- “a big Panama with a purple headband!”

He finishes with a flourish, and Steven laughs and laughs, and so does Gail, and so does John, and now Steven, who owns a Dittohead sweat shirt, is saying of Limbaugh, “He seems like a nice guy,” and now he is saying of Clinton, “He’s a liar, a cheat and anything else you can think of. An idiot. A jerk.”

AT SOME POINT -- perhaps midway through the broadcast, as John nears his 400th attempt -- it becomes apparent that he’s probably not going to get through. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Lee Vanden Handel, Limbaugh’s director of affiliate relations, says he remembers seeing a phone bill last year “that showed 500,047 attempts to get through to the 800 number in one month,” and Kit Carson, Limbaugh’s chief of staff, says perhaps 12 callers a day actually get on the air.

Nonetheless, ever so subtly, as the show nears the two-thirds mark, the mood in John’s office shifts. Now the question doesn’t seem to be what he will say to Limbaugh, but whether he will keep going until the end of the show. Unavoidably, perhaps, a dullness settles in. Conversation ceases. Limbaugh talks on, but John’s not really listening, he’s just dialing, over and over, right hand, left hand, right, left, until the opening strains of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” snap him back into consciousness.

At the door is Joe Gannon, who lives in the big house across the street, who bounces in full of energy, who works in real estate, who describes himself as someone who would rather be called a John Bircher than a liberal, who says the U.S. criminal justice system is in chaos because of too many “so-called rights” like the Miranda Rule, who blames America’s economic decay on unions, which coerced management into paying automobile workers $20 an hour to tighten bolts, which made American cars too expensive, which enabled Japan to become an economic power and turned the United States into a pathetic mess.

Joe is a Dittohead too.

“What are you up to?” he asks, and when John tells him everything he’s been doing, including the part about nearly getting through, he decides to stick around to see what happens next. He pulls up a chair.

Two o’clock comes and goes. John passes 500 attempts.

Now it’s 2:30, and he’s past 600.

Now it is 2:52, and, for the first time in quite a while, he stands.

“I’ve got to run to the little boy’s room,” he says.

“What if he answers?” says Joe.

John shrugs, takes the chance, disappears, comes back, resumes dialing.

“What time’s the show end?” Joe asks him now.

“Two minutes.”

“Oh, you won’t get through,” Joe says.

But John keeps dialing, and now Limbaugh takes another call from a man in Louisiana who is saying, “Giga-dittos, Rush,” and now there is one minute, and now John is making his final attempts, and now, amazingly, unbelievably, instead of a busy signal, there is a ring.

And an answer.

It is a woman. A woman with a cold voice. A woman who says, “Your party is not answering. Please try your call later. We’re sorry, but your call will now be disconnected.”

And that’s that. The woman is gone. So is Limbaugh. It’s over.

“What time did the show start?” Joe says.

“Noon,” John says.

“And you’ve been dialing since noon?” Joe says.

“Yes,” John says.

“Wow,” Joe says.

The room, now, is silent. John thinks. What should he do next? What can he do next?

Finally, he decides.

“Let’s go get a beer,” he says.

And so that’s what he and Joe do: They go out for a beer, and there they have the conversation that John could have had with Limbaugh if he had gotten on the air.

They talk about domestic problems, such as homelessness.

“Most homeless people are bums,” Joe says.

“Most of them are,” John agrees.

They talk about world problems, such as whether the United States should do something about Rwanda.

“If they want to throw spears at each other, let them,” Joe says.

“The same for Bosnia,” John says. “There are no vital U.S. interests there. None. There’s no oil. There’s no gold. There’s no chrome.”

They move on to welfare reform, and the need to make English the official national language. The afternoon passes. They order another round.

Back at home, any number of complications await John’s return. There is the matter of the air filter, which he still needs to change. There is the matter of a new project to work on, which, as it turns out, he will find a few weeks later. There is the matter of Gail, not so easy to work out, who will come home so tired that instead of her making coffee for John, as is usually the case, he will make it for her. He will also take her out for Chinese food, and he will pay particular attention to her as they sit in the den and watch Limbaugh’s TV show, he in the rocker this night, she on the couch, he rocking, she yawning once or twice, as Limbaugh attempts once again to explain how rotten things have become. At one point Limbaugh will get so wrapped up that he will have to pause to catch his breath. “Hang on, folks,” he will say. Which, of course, is precisely what John and Gail are trying to do.

All that is to come, but for now, in the midst of an afternoon when everything seems simple, John and Joe are having a discussion about what they would do if they were marooned on a desert island with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I’d put my arm around her,” John says.

“I’d say, ‘Hillary, it’s just you and me. Bill will never know.’

“I’d take off my shirt.

“I’d take off my pants.

“I’d put them down on the ground.

“And I’d say, ‘Hillary, press them.’ “

Joe laughs.

“I got that from Rush,” John says.

Of course he got that from Rush. It’s where he gets most everything these days, from jokes, to opinions, to any hope that the world still might be his to inherit. That’s what being the Dittohead is all about.

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