The death of Rush Limbaugh, overlapping on the Texas energy crunch, takes me back exactly 20 years, to the nationwide electrical crisis in the winter of 2001, when the self-anointed Doctor of Democracy awarded me my allotted 15 minutes.
I was a reporter at the Seattle Times, and electricity prices had spiked, driven by winter demand, an extended drought, and changing national energy markets that eventually led to the collapse of Enron. Seattle City Light was having to buy power on the national market at crippling prices.
My editors asked me to do a piece on the biggest users of electricity in the Seattle area. City Light didn’t want to tell us, but complied with our freedom of information request. I did the story, naming the individuals, businesses and public agencies that consumed the most power. They included homeowners who used as much as 50 times the average household consumption.
Two days later, I sat down at my desk and logged into my computer, which dinged to tell me I had an email. It dinged again, and again, until it sounded like a coffee percolator.
I clicked on one: “Your paper is a liberal rag.” Another: “Disgusting.” Another identified himself as “Rightwinger” and wanted me to know I was a “Commie Bastard.” And those were among the few that could be printed in a family newspaper.
I watched amazed as the emails scrolled down until I spotted one from my sister in Texas.
“Gosh, little brother, I am sooooo impressed,” she wrote. “You made the Rush Limbaugh Show!”
Wow. I found a radio and tuned it to KVI. Alas, he had gone onto something else. I had missed my own moment of infamy.
Limbaugh had been furious about what he called “one of the most outrageous articles I’ve seen on any subject.” Wealthy homeowners in “the Soviet of Seattle” are portrayed “as though they’re guilty of something for buying power,” he had said. “These people pay for every kilowatt they use…. We’re told to blame the eeeevil rich owners of big houses for this fix. We’ve got to string them up or send them to sensitivity seminars.”
The nationwide power crunch, he said, had been caused by “environmental wackos” who “have insisted that not a single power plant be built.”
And then he added a link to my story and my email address.
The emails continued to light up my terminal, hundreds of them from California and Maine, Florida and Minnesota, and a few from Seattle.
“Heard Rush talking about your rag today and your slanted/stupid/liberal article,” wrote a North Carolina fan. “Thank God for the Internet. Hopefully it will allow people more access to the truth and eventually eliminate papers like yours.”
Caleb, an 18-year-old college student from Texas, had just read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and sized me up as “one of those weak-minded people who are always supporting the actions of the weak minds in power, blaming industrialists for everything,.”
I decided to respond – not in the paper, but by emails to a few of my new correspondents.
Limbaugh’s blast was fair comment, but it was not journalism, I argued. He made no attempt to walk through the issue, and certainly never called me. It was clear he had not read my story, in which some of the big energy users acknowledged that they were using it wastefully on huge hot tubs or whatever.
“The issue of privacy is legitimate, and we debated the issue before going to press,” I wrote. “But we decided privacy was outweighed by the nature of our regional electricity shortage.”
Seattle, I explained, is unusual in that we own our own electric utility, which provides clean hydro power at the lowest rates in the nation. But we were in the midst of a drought, reservoirs were dry and there wasn‘t enough hydro, so City Light had to buy replacement power on the market at up to 100 times the price. So, when our neighbors waste energy, we all end up paying for it.
Some wrote back, many of them aggravated that I would dare email them.
But there were a few healthy exchanges. “Thanks for a humbling lesson,” wrote Caleb from Texas. “I guess a kid like me shouldn’t be writing vehement letters when we have heard only one side of the story.”
I was emboldened, and fired off a letter to Limbaugh: “Dear Rush: We’ve never met, but I am a now-and-then listener and, more to the point, the object of your wrath the other day.” Then I walked briefly through the argument – the regional energy shortage, the city-owned utility, empty reservoirs, costly replacement power, rights of the individual vs. rights of the community. But, if people know that wasting energy may lead to pubic embarrassment, maybe they’ll rethink firing up their hot tubs.
I didn’t expect to hear back. As I told him, I might have chosen another way to spend my 15 minutes of fame and to impress my sister. But I’d spent 30 years dishing it out, and I’m accustomed to taking hits.
Twenty years later, I’ve migrated from the Soviet of Seattle to the Soviet of Port Townsend, where the climate is much the same. Today’s energy crisis can be traced to the same causes as the 2001 version. One of the big power users died a few years later in his hot tub.
Limbaugh is dead, but he died with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and there are thousands out there who learned at the feet of the master and carried their complaints to the halls of the Capitol.
The aspirations of my North Carolina correspondent have been realized. The Seattle Times continues to practice fine journalism, but with diminished resources and a diminishing audience. Hundreds more newspapers are gone altogether.
We cling to many of the same slogans. But, more than ever, “Power to the People” means fundamentally different things, depending on where people consume, conceive and exercise power.