My Emerson-Limbaugh quandary
By Lee Emerson Batdorff
My late father, Emerson Leland Batdorff was an esteemed journalist working for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio for almost 40 years. Facts mattered to him. Why did he spend his last years listening religiously to Rush Limbaugh, a betrayer of facts?
Pop was a general reporter, then movie, theater, music and record reviewer, (he said he wasn’t a critic, “because critics are trained”)—finally landing a job he did not want, entertainment editor. His colleagues called him “Bat.”
He was the president of the Cleveland Newspaper Guild Local 1 during the winter 1962 strike against Cleveland’s two dailies, the P.D. and the Cleveland Press. I remember when the strike ended.
While leaving for Harris Elementary School in Akron one morning, I encountered on the front porch, charred and dented, a 55-gallon steel drum used to burn wood pallets to keep the strikers warm.
Pop said if you didn’t have a union, the management would enslave the workers. Around this time he also told me, “If you are going to get ahead in the world you can’t be a bigot.”
“If you are going to get ahead in the world you can’t be a bigot.”
A couple years before, I discovered Pop’s books among his things in his record turntable room, library and workshop in the basement of his parents’ home where we both lived. He had a nice recliner chair there.
I was fascinated to come upon Pop’s basement space at age nine, when I joined him in Akron after living for a year with his brother Merlin, my aunt Elaine and my cousins Susan and Sandy in Tiffin Ohio. Along with the many long-playing records he received free, and kept after reviewing them, was a trunk he brought back from WW II with booty.
There was a shiny stainless steel ceremonial sword and sheath. Its quality was such—with a ball at the end of the handle containing a machined swastika—it could last at least 1,000 years. And I found a big Nazi flag, of the highest quality fabric. Nine year old me had seen movies with Nazis in them by that time and I was inspired to set up a museum in the basement.
I hung the big red, white and black flag with a huge swastika on it against the wall so it confronted someone descending the basement stairs. Pop was away at work when I did this and grandmother Edith said nothing about it. The next day Pop took me aside and told me to take the flag down because the gasman might report us for being Nazis.
Two large picture books of WW II made a deeper impression. I encountered these when I was nine or ten years old. One of them about WW II in general had photos of civilians, young and old, grotesquely tumbled and dead, in public places. The other had a cover with large stark letters: Dachau. It held images of people who looked barely alive.
I thought, “These poor people! What happened to them?” Pop never took me aside and showed me these books. Years before however, when I was six years old, he took me outside our Mogadore Ohio home, pointed to the sky and told me about “Sputnik.”
Years later, in 1966-67, during ninth grade English at Roxboro Jr. High School in Cleveland Heights, (53 years ago at this writing), the teacher Joe McGinnis had nicknames for some of his students. He called me “Emerson’s son, Lee.”
And a few more years later, during the summer of 1970 after graduating from Cleveland Heights High School, just before I went to college, I encountered among my peers three individuals, whose names I do not remember, independently of one another.
They each told me they adopted a habit of avoiding the movies Pop liked and seeing movies he didn’t like.
During that summer the U.S. Selective Service draft was conducted through a lottery. And there were no longer college deferments. The day it happened I was working in the basement of Creative Copy Associates, a ma and pa print shop at the corner of Mayfield and Lee Rds. in Cleveland Heights.
Marilyn and Noel Wines operated the place. Marilyn usually had me on the saddle-stitch machine on the first floor. If that was slow, Noel had me in the basement preparing the executive office.
I was rubbing down wood panel walls with stain on a rag, woozy from the fumes, listening to the lottery live on a radio. My birthdate came up, (I’m not including this date here), and the number assigned to that date came up, (about 350). People who drew 150 or lower had reason to worry about being drafted.
I was free to live my life! Even so I continued going to antiwar demonstrations through 1973 while in college at the University of Cincinnati, and in Washington D.C.
At about 12 years old Pop took me to an afternoon party and troika races held for the several hundred members of the Cleveland Newspaper Guild and their families. Industrialist Cyrus Eaton invited them to his old Northfield Ohio estate. Eaton was an unusual capitalist for those days. He had ties with the Soviet Union, hence the troika races.
Pop was a Republican, the kind that called Barry Goldwater and General Curtis LeMay, who ran for President and Vice President in 1964, “wild eyed rightists.”
A few years after the guild strike, Pop became angry when Democratic Senator Howard Metzenbaum, an expounder of union rights, would not allow the Sun Newspapers, suburban weeklies owned by Metzenbaum, to unionize. Was it then that Pop’s bitterness started?
In the spring of 1967 my ninth grade English teacher staged a student debate about the Vietnam War. I was pro-war. Fifteen years old, I listened to and agreed with Pop. He had been a U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division second lieutenant in World War II and led a platoon into several battles in North Africa and Italy. He was decorated with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
So I was selected to argue the pro-war view while classmate Janet Century, (we live in the same Cleveland Heights neighborhood today), argued the anti-war view.
To build my argument I asked Pop for information supporting the pro-war view, and he provided pro-war literature. Less than a year later I became uneasy about the Vietnam War and my opinion changed. It was three years before he found out that I was attending anti-war demonstrations.
Late in his time at the P.D., Pop wrote an Op/Ed piece about arriving at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in Germany on April 30th, 1945 the day after U.S. soldiers came upon it. After recovering from being wounded in Italy, he was assigned to the regimental history unit, and he visited Dachau in that capacity.
“I was a tourist there,“ he wrote. “I didn’t have to go there. It was the worst I saw in the war. I wondered why I was there. Now I know why!” It was to counter the holocaust deniers, “I can say, ‘I saw it with my own eyes!’”
Throughout most of his retirement, Pop, wearing his Veterans of Foreign Wars cap (VFW Post 10235), marched in the annual Memorial Day Parade and sold poppies to crowds in Chagrin Falls, a suburb of Cleveland.
During his last five years the subject of the Vietnam War came up between us. He volunteered, “I was never for that war.” I did not have the heart to remind him of our history together concerning the Vietnam War.
Pop had been consuming Rush Limbaugh broadcasts for some time by then. Still my father didn’t completely follow the homophobic Limbaugh message.
In the early 2000s Pop told me that gay people should be able to marry on the pretext that married people are more stable for society than unmarried people.
Some things were all personal with Pop. His liberalism on this issue may have been due to a specific situation within the Batdorff family that you can read about in Appendix 1 following this story.
While a brief ray of light occasionally came through, Emerson steadily listened to Limbaugh. (It was years after Pop died when Limbaugh, a renowned draft dodger, once called U.S. troops “welfare queens” and “moochers,” (which Snopes labeled as satire.))
His wife and my late-stepmother Judith and I agreed that Limbaugh was too cynical and angry for us.
He and I talked regularly throughout most of my adult life. Once he said something to the effect, “All we are getting from the Federal government are curb cuts on street corners!” He was vehement, speaking in a wounded (petulant?) tone not unlike Limbaugh’s tone.
Pop told me, “While there are some very intelligent black people, most of them are not smart,” and “Humans are not causing global warming.” Decades before, he told me, “There are too many people in the world.” In his last years he did not recognize he was engaged in cognitive dissonance.
A veteran Ohio journalist, Mary Anne Sharkey, recently told me she knew Limbaugh in the early days of his broadcast career. She said it was a joke-filled period before the discussion on his show turned bitterly serious.
My father retired from the P.D. in 1985 and The Rush Limbaugh Show hit AM and FM radio in 1988. Did Pop catch Limbaugh’s initial joking-around period, then get swept along with Limbaugh’s plummet into bitterness?
During three sweet years from 1985 when my father retired and the onset of Limbaugh in ’88, Pop wrote and published two stitch stapled copier printed memoirs of his early days in Cleveland and Akron titled, Life Through the Eyes of Emerson Batdorff, volumes one and two. It is unlikely that any public library has these volumes.
In 1994 the Smithsonian Institution planned an exhibit about the nuclear bombings of Japan that played up that this was only the start of nuclear weapons capacity around the world and the threat that posed. Some members of Congress and many U.S. veterans groups criticized it.
The Smithsonian responded by removing the part about the nuclear arms race and removing some photos of humans done-in by nuclear blasts in Japan. The exhibit was reworked with a “vastly revise(d) estimate of how many casualties might have resulted if the bombs had not been used had the United States had invaded Japan (with the U.S. military) instead,” according to an Oct. 1, 1994 New York Times article.
For his part Pop, in a fit of pique that I witnessed in my early 40s, canceled his subscription to the Smithsonian Magazine.
On his 86th birthday in late Dec. 2004, I gave Pop a copy of Kevin Phillips’ book American Dynasty, about the Bush family. I said that Mr. Phillips was Richard Nixon’s political strategist in 1968 and had since become an Independent, breaking off from the Republicans.
Pop started suffering debilitating strokes one week into January 2005. He could no longer link printed words together and arrive at meaning. I borrowed comic books from a public library and Pop still couldn’t make head-nor-tail of the stories. When I looked at the book after Pop died on May 14, 2005, his copy of American Dynasty held a bookmark at page 62.
Every time I visited Pop during his last months, he sat hunched over in the living room, an earphone from his Sony Walkman radio in one ear, listening to Rush Limbaugh.
At my eulogy for him in front of a crowd of about 100, mostly co-workers, at his funeral at the Federated United Church of Christ in Chagrin Falls, I did not speak of this.
Instead I told of Pop’s last ride, to a hospital in an ambulance—which happened to the day—60 years after VE Day.
Pop was in Stuttgart Germany on Victory in Europe Day. He and some U.S. army buddies commandeered a jeep and drove many miles to get into the Bavarian Alps and visit Adolph Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, (Kehlsteinhaus), where the German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler vacationed and posed for photographs. On May 8, 1945 it was a bombed out shell.
There, Pop drank wine, found in the “servant’s wine cellar,” with American and French soldiers while looking out from the famous Eagle’s Nest veranda, at spectacular mountain peaks!
Lee Batdorff is a retired newspaper reporter, freelance writer and custodian; Joyce Brabner is the IT consultant; and Douglas Wist is the copy editor. They live in Cleveland Heights.
Appendix 1 of 3
In about the year 1903 near Akron Ohio my late grandfather and Emerson’s father, Thomas Batdorff, at 10 years old, was employed as a “shabbos goy.” He lit kitchen stoves for Jewish families in his neighborhood on Saturday mornings.
It so happened, as custodian of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland on Lancashire Rd. in Cleveland Heights in 2003, I was employed to wheel in and out of the church sanctuary a tall, curtained, glass-front repurposed dish display cabinet on casters. It was an ark that contained a Torah.
I was hired as a “Shabbos goy” for Chevra Tikvah, a synagogue that rented the UUSC’s sanctuary every other Friday night. (I called it, “the only gay and lesbian temple for miles around.”) When I told him, Pop became proud that, in my early 50s, I was a Shabbos goy as his father had been a century earlier.
Eventually Chevra Tikvah became part of the reform synagogue Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Fairmont Blvd. in Beachwood.
Appendix 2 of 3
June 6, 1951 – Report of Separation From the Armed Forces of the United States for Emerson Batdorff.
Appendix 3 of 3
A link to a story commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau concentration camp: https://www.army.mil/article/235005/nys_42nd_infantry_division_liberated_dachau_75_years_ago
A link to a Web Page about the Eagle’s Nest, including photos from May 1945 and from recent years: