BALTIMORE, DEC. 10 -- House Republican newcomers made Rush Limbaugh an honorary class member tonight, a symbol of their gratitude for conservative talk-radio hosts who championed their campaigns.
Limbaugh was presented a "Majority Makers" pin, the emblem of the newcomers who have given their party majority status in the House for the first time in 40 years. Six GOP women in the class added their own special thanks, presenting Limbaugh with a plaque that said: "Rush was right." And Rep.-elect Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) added: "There's not a femiNazi among us."
Limbaugh, who was greeted with whoops and hollers from the newcomers, was one of the featured speakers at the closing dinner of an orientation for new members sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and Empower America, two organizations that promote conservative viewpoints. The dinner was held at a reception hall in the B&O building adjacent to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. No Democratic freshmen-elect attended the three-day conference.
For some of the GOP freshmen-elect, Limbaugh is a symbol of their birth into politics and a reminder of their victories. "Wherever there was a 'Rush is right' bumper sticker on a car, we would put a brochure underneath their windshield that began, 'Dear Rush fan,' " recalled Rep.-elect Jon Christensen (R-Neb.). "My interest in politics was partially fueled by people like Rush Limbaugh. . . . Tonight it is a real opportunity for me to say thank you."
Limbaugh's three-hour radio call-in program, broadcast five days a week on more than 659 stations, is said to reach as many as 4.5 million people. His late-night television program is on 225 stations. And he has spawned a slew of imitators on talk-radio in many of the districts in which there were Republican victories.
While many conservative Republicans worship at his altar, Limbaugh is a constant irritant for liberal and moderate Democrats. He and other conservative talk-show hosts have devoted listeners who have been known to flood congressional phone lines. Democratic congressional leaders have complained that the voters often get a distorted picture of issues by these talk shows.
For his part, Limbaugh the entertainer tonight served up some of his trademark raw-meat attacks on liberals, the news media and the Clinton administration. And the audience roared with laughter.
"I've heard they've come up with a new nominee for surgeon general," Limbaugh said. "Pee-wee Herman."
At another point, he held up a white sheet of paper and said: "Did you know the White House drug test is a multiple choice?"
Limbaugh also warned the newcomers not to be fooled by those in the liberal media, even though some female reporter will inevitably approach them and "bat her eyes" and want to take them to lunch. He mentioned NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts by name. "You will never ever be their friends," he said.
But when it came to taking credit for talk-radio's success in the 1994 elections, Limbaugh tried to be humble, saying hosts such as himself "only validate what's in people's hearts and minds already."
"I'm in awe of you," he said of the freshmen-elect. "You took the risks. You are the ones who engaged the opposition. . . . You actually went out and did the work."
Earlier this year, President Clinton unleashed a tirade aimed at conservative talk-show hosts and some religious-right commentators, accusing them of using disinformation and "demeaning attacks" on him to thwart his efforts to govern. He cited Limbaugh by name and said much of talk radio "is just a constant, unremitting drumbeat of negativism and cynicism."
But that is not how many Republicans see it.
"He's a symbol of encouragement," said William J. Bennett, the former drug policy director and education secretary who spoke at the conference tonight. "He's a pretty reasonable read on what a lot of America thinks. Rush is a way conservatives know they are not idiosyncratic."
House speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has suggested he plans to have regular sit-down sessions with talk-radio hosts because he does not think he can depend on the mainstream news media to get his message out. Some of the Republican freshmen newcomers have expressed similar concerns about the traditional news media. An informal survey they conducted at the conference found that the editorial boards of their hometown newspapers were not very supportive of their candidacies. According to preliminary findings, GOP freshmen-elect received 45 newspaper endorsements while their opponents received 169.
"Rush got it right. A lot of other media got it wrong," said Rep.-elect Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.).