The Silent Crisis of a First-Time Caller

(A version of this essay was originally published by National Review Online, Aug. 1, 2003)

They say that fewer than 5% of people who listen to talk radio ever call into a show.

Regrettably, I am among the few, the loud, the disgraced.

It happened back in 1997, when I decided Rush Limbaugh and his 30 million listeners needed to hear my opinion on child care.

Hillary Clinton had recently said that the lack of affordable, high-quality day care was a “silent crisis” in America, and as someone who could barely afford low-quality child care, I agreed with her on this, if little else. When Rush Limbaugh railed against her, I took offense and decided to call. (Being a long-time listener, I knew the number by heart.)

The line was busy, of course.  But my children were in the back yard with my grandmother, and I was inside, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. I turned the page, resumed reading and hit “redial” a couple of times.

 If I’d thought about it for a while, it might have occurred to me that I had no actual, reasoned argument to put forth if I were to wind up on the air.  But what were the chances of that?   I listened to Dr. Laura back then, too, and I’d tried unsuccessfully to get through to her for a year.  Besides, even if I did get through, I figured I’d have an hour on hold to collect my thoughts.   Limbaugh’s show starts at noon, Eastern time, but the lines were already full by 11 a.m., with people hoping to be his first caller.

But I wasn’t thinking.  And I was paying so little attention to what I was doing that I was startled when the caller screener picked up, rudely interrupting my perusal of my horoscope for the day.

 “What’s your first name, and where are you from?” he barked.

 Blessed Mother,  stumped already. Did he want to know where I was born? Where I lived? Or where I was right now, right at this moment?

 “Uh, my name is Jennifer, and I am calling from Columbia, South Carolina,” I stammered. I started to say more, to explain that actually, right at the moment, I lived in a very important ZIP code in Westchester County and was just visiting my hometown. But Bo Snerdley, the screener, would have none of it and cut me off.

  “What’s your point?” he asked.

 Point? Point?  I gotta have a point, when I can’t even clearly articulate where I live?

I wanted to say,  Hey, I’m a first-time caller, cut me some slack here.  Instead, I blurted out something about day care — something witty and erudite and thoughtful, like “It is TOO a crisis, so there!”  —but, as I fumbled around for a point, he interrupted again.

 “You’re on next,” he said, and disappeared from the line.

 It turns out, when Limbaugh is looking for people to disagree with him — as he says, callers who make him look good — he wastes no time putting them on the air.

 I felt a thin tremor of terror, but it was dwarfed by irrational giddiness:  I was about to be on the Rush Limbaugh Show!

It was ironic that I was at my grandmother’s house, because she was the person who had first told me about him.  The radio on her kitchen island was always tuned into the EIB Network from noon to 3.  Rush, “such a nice man, with such a nice voice,” kept her company, and confirmed things that she already believed.

 She and I had even seen him speak in person once, at his “Rush to Excellence” tour, a few years earlier. She was going to be so happy about this.

 I leapt up, and sprinted through the house, trying to find my grandmother, to tell her I was about to be on the radio. There was no sign of her, or my kids. And because of my ill-timed exertion, I found myself out of breath.

 Then, suddenly, El Rushbo himself was in my ear.

Even if you wait on hold for an hour, with a pre-written speech in 14-point Arial type, nothing prepares you for this:  the deep Limbaugh baritone, for a time, the most famous voice in America.   Suddenly, he was on the line, connected to me through the combination of coaxial cables and  incredibly poor judgment. Suddenly, Rush Limbaugh was speaking to me.

“And, now, Jennifer in Columbia, South Carolina. She wants to talk about day care,” Rush said cheerfully and turned the show over to me.

Twenty million — 30 million? — people were listening, and I was panting like a Labrador who has run too far in the heat. Rush probably feared his call screener had inadvertently let a sex offender on the line.

 There was too long a pause.  Then, “You” – gasp – “are” – gasp – “wrong” – gasp – “about day care.”

Lamaze, I thought frantically. Take cleansing breaths! Cleansing breaths!

Mercifully, Rush took pity on me. Either that, or he needed time to call the police. “I think it’s time for a break,” he said kindly. “Can you hold on through the break?”

“Yes.”  Gasp.

Well, this is nice, I thought. Maybe we’re going to have a  private conversation; he’s going to reassure me and pump me up. Wrong.  I found myself back on hold, nothing but dead air on the line.

Briefly, I thought of hanging up. But, pacing,  I finally located my grandmother and the kids, who were sitting on the front porch, examining a caterpillar, oblivious to the crisis inside.

“Get the radio!” I hissed. “I’m on the phone with Rush Limbaugh!”

My grandmother looked uninterested. “You know, even if you get through, you might not get on the air,” she said.

“I AM on the air!” I shrieked.

Unconvinced, she trudged into the house with the kids, retrieved her battery-powered radio and retired to the backyard, where the reception was better. I sat down on her living-room couch,  moaning and clutching my head.   Then, all too soon, Rush was back, inviting me again to make my case.

I blathered.  I sputtered. I vacillated.  I questioned his knowledge of day care, then apologized for the offense. He was kind, speaking slowly and enunciating carefully, as one talks to a frightened child.

I managed to tell the nation that I had been a stay-at-home mom for a year, and had employed a nanny and used day care before that, providing me with experience that he, Rush Limbaugh, lacked. But beyond that, I could not muster any articulate defense of my position, proving only that I spend way too much time with preschoolers. I never wandered far from my original position: “There is TOO a day-care crisis, so there!”

I was dying, but Rush seemed in no hurry to get off the line.  Then, because things can always get worse — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise — both my children flung open the kitchen door, ran to me, clutched my legs and burst into tears.

“What IS that noise?” Rush asked.

“That’s my children crying. My grandmother is supposed to be watching them,” I said helplessly.

I looked out the window, where my grandmother was sitting in her lawn chair, radio to her ear. A seven-second tape delay later, she looked alarmed, leapt to her feet and hurried toward the door.

At this point, I got off my only good line of the day. With my son still crying on national radio, I said forlornly, “See, I DO need government day care.”

I found this wildly funny. Rush, he did not laugh. After a few more stilted exchanges, he put me out of my misery and let me hang up the phone.

 “You’ve been a good sport, Jennifer,” he said.

 It was a cryptic adieu, notifying me that, sometime in the past five minutes, apparently I’d been cruelly insulted.

Whatever.  I sank into a chair, grateful the ordeal was over. “Well,” my grandmother said brightly. “That was something!”

Later, I found out that, of all the people of my acquaintance, only my brother-in-law had been listening. The damage was slight, but for one thing.

In my favorite poem, “Snake” by D.H. Lawrence, the narrator encounters a magnificent snake at a watering trough and feels awe and reverence until, inexplicably, he throws a stick at the creature and is consumed with shame. It ends: “And so, I have missed my chance with one of the lords of life. And I have something to expiate: A pettiness.”

I know just how he feels.

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