By Gene Lyons
Updated November 19, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Well, think of it this way: Thirty years of sinking SAT scores, and a fair- size chunk of the American public can’t tell the difference between Rush Limbaugh and H.L. Mencken. To himself and his most fervid supporters — “ditto heads,” they call themselves — Limbaugh seems a fearless satirist, a scourge of folly, and an enemy of cant, hypocrisy, and pretentiousness. On top of that, he’s a cultural seer and political philosopher, too. Not for nothing does his latest un-book, See, I Told You So (Pocket Books), have the largest first printing — 2 million copies — in U.S. publishing history. Just ask Limbaugh himself.

Never given to false modesty, the right-wing king of AM talk radio, late- night TV monologuist, and author of last year’s best-selling unbook, The Way Things Ought to Be, has an explanation for his seemingly ubiquitous success: “I’ve conquered radio, television, the newsletter business, and the book world,” he announces in a characteristically bombastic tone. “What accounts for the unprecedented popularity of my words — whether broadcast or in print? How do I defy all the odds, again and again? It’s actually quite simple. People respond to what I say because it is right. My wit and wisdom are like a lifeline of reason tossed to a culture nearly drowning in confusion and murkiness.” By the time he gets through bashing the Clinton administration, he vows, historians will refer to ours as “the Era of Limbaugh.”

Now, it’s true that on radio and TV there’s an element of DJ-style, manic self-parody to Limbaugh’s jive that’s pretty much lost in print. But there’s a whole lot more wrong with See, I Told You So than its structureless, sledgehammer style and its author’s pompous, barroom know-it-all attitude. The Divine Rush is certainly entitled to his Manichaean worldview, in which Ronald Reagan — if not Herbert Hoover — is God’s vicar on earth and virtually every Democrat since FDR an agent of Beelzebub. (“The real issue, as far as Democrats are concerned, is the number of people receiving something from the government. This is exactly what Franklin Delano Roosevelt had in mind when he created this monster…more dependency and a bigger constituency for his party.”) But does Limbaugh advocate specific reforms in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid — the mushrooming entitlement programs driving the budgetdeficit? Not a chance. And neither does he lampoon crop subsidies, National Forest timber giveaways, nor other forms of government largesse doled out to factions that mostly vote Republican. There aren’t any votes in it.

But the real focus of See, I Told You So isn’t on politics in the ordinary sense anyway. It’s on the so-called Culture War, and here’s where Limbaugh is at his most relentless, assaulting the “fuzzy-headed academicians, the sandal- clad theoreticians, and the nearsighted pointy-heads” who allegedly make up the Clinton administration. And what’s truly worrisome about the book is its sheer indifference to facts and logic. It’s simply not true, to cite just one example out of a hundred, that Bill Clinton ever said he “loathed the military.” What Clinton wrote in his earnestly cheesy 1969 letter to a University of Arkansas ROTC colonel was what a shame it was that the Vietnam War had caused so many patriotic Americans to feel that way.

Now it’s unlikely that Limbaugh failed to grasp the distinction — which is not, after all, a terribly subtle one. Nor does it seem credible that he truly believes that Hillary Clinton’s work for the Children’s Defense Fund means she favors “the rights of children to be liberated from the shackles of their evil parents” and handed over to the government.

On and on Limbaugh blusters, page after ludicrous, inflammatory page, knocking the stuffing out of one rhetorical straw man after another. When he finds one school system that assigns the book Heather Has Two Mommies, he assumes it is the goal of all “liberals” to “teach kids moral relativism and that premarital, and perverted, sex is to be encouraged.” Purporting to deliver his readers from the omissions of the liberal establishment media, he draws the bulk of his material — suitably altered — not only straight out of The New York Times and Washington Post, but The Wall Street Journal as well — counting upon faithful ditto heads never to notice the paradox. No wonder the guy so assiduously avoids unfriendly callers. D