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Mark Steyn

Ave atque vale

Rush's Right-Hand Man

Kit Carson was Rush Limbaugh's Chief of Staff, so Rush dubbed him "H R" - as in H R Haldeman, who fulfilled the same role for Richard Nixon. The dramatis personae of the Nixon White House aren't quite as reflexively familiar to an unassimilated foreign guest-host such as myself, and it took me awhile to get on top of it: on one early show, I referred to him as "R F", which bemused him. "Where did that come from?" he asked. After thinking about it, I figured I must have confused H R with R F, the studio boss of "Monumental Pictures" in Singin' In The Rain.

Kit liked that. He had been an actor, dreaming of Broadway, not talk radio. But 27 years ago he accepted a job with a guy whose radio show was growing a little faster than he could handle. So Kit came on board to deal with Rush's mail, and one day he handed Rush a couple of news stories with a very slender connection between them, and Rush riffed off it for a few minutes on air. And after the show he asked Kit, "Do you have any more stuff like that?" Kit's "stack of stuff" was a big part of the show for the next quarter-century. When I guest-hosted last month, Kit was "working from home" that day - which was something of a euphemism by that stage of his illness. But he still managed to send through his stack of the morning's stories: He had a gift for taking an ostensibly dull Associated Press report and finding the one significant line deep in paragraph 27 - the carelessly formulated wording on which he'd hang a shrewd insight or a funny line, both ready to use should an ill-prepared guest-host find himself lost for words. He had a knack for ideas, and, as Rush said earlier today, he didn't care who got the credit: it was all about the show. On air, if you said something funny, or semi-funny, or just a tweak away from being funny, he'd say something through your headphones that just nudged it along and took it to the next level: one time, I was picturing a colonial-era edition of "Meet Ye Press", which is the germ of a half-decent comic premise, and Kit laughed and said something funnier over the talkback that I cheerfully purloined, and the running joke was finally off and trotting.

He was a funny guy, and had a droll view of life. On one show I was grumbling that I'd flown down from Burlington, Vermont and, when I got to the airport, US Airways had me booked on the flight as "Steyn Mark", which, under the strictures of the Patriot Act or whatever, had taken forever to straighten out - a process not aided by the supervisor, who kept assuring me "Don't worry, Mr Mark. I'm sure we can sort this out, Mr Mark." On the other side of the glass, while I was droning on, Kit had Johnny Donovan's show intro re-edited so that, when we came back from the next break, it went: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, filling in for Rush Limbaugh, here's Steyn Mark!" It makes a world of difference to have someone running the program who knows how to make even the smallest aside just a little better and sharper.

When he told me to get somewhere in New Hampshire where they could put a studio in, he was expecting me to find some sort of anonymous unit in a business park. Instead, we wound up in an old brick vault in a 19th-century building. Kit looked at it via my assistant's phone and dubbed it "Ice Station EIB". The name stuck. Last week, the plumber stuck his head round the door and said, "Hey, Ice Station EIB!" The US border guard at the Derby Line crossing a year ago looked at my ID, smiled, and then said he'd always wondered exactly where Ice Station EIB was.

Before EIB opened its Granite State branch office, I used to host from New York, and Kit would book the hotel for me. One day at check-in, the clerk said, "Mr Carson hasn't checked in yet." Odd, I thought. Kit lives in New Jersey; why would he be checking in to a hotel in Manhattan? The next trip to New York, the guy at reception asked, "When will Mr Carson be checking in?" After the third or fourth time, I mentioned it to Kit.

"Oh," he said, "I was booking you all these hotel rooms on my card, but, because I'm not the one staying there, I'm not getting any points on the guest program. So I just added my name to the reservation."

"So," I said, "they think you're staying in the room with me?"

"Well, yeah," he said.

"Oh, God," I said. "In twenty years' time I'll be running for Governor of New Hampshire, and this'll all come out, and everyone will say I'm a self-loathing deeply-closeted gay."

"Oh, relax," he said, "Next time, just tell them, 'Mr Carson will be straight up.'"

One day, for some reason I forget, I mentioned, in a throwaway line, Herbie Rides Again (1974). I think it was something to do with a Lindsay Lohan gag - she'd been in some terrible Herbie the Love Bug relaunch a few years back. And Kit said over my headphones, "Oh, my uncle was in that." Which stopped me short. Because who has an uncle in Herbie Rides Again? But Helen Hayes had agreed to be in it, so the original script must have had something going for it. And yes, the cast did indeed include Robert Carson. And Kit's other uncle was Jack Carson, who was in Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich, and Carefree with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Strawberry Blonde with Jimmy Cagney, Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Taylor, and a string of Hope & Crosby-type capers with Dennis Morgan - Two Guys From Texas, Two Guys From Milwaukee... I couldn't exactly see the family resemblance: Jack Carson was a big, heavy-set guy, Kit was tall and blonde and gangly and boyish and looked way younger than his years. But I could see why a fellow with Kit's lineage would want to be an actor. A couple of weeks later, an old showbiz pal was berating me: How could a chap who loved Broadway and music and movies lower himself to guest-hosting for Rush Limbaugh?

"Shows how much you know," I said. "The program's produced by Jack Carson's nephew."

My friend was stunned: "Really? Wow."

Kit was not, as he used to say, "a radio guy", but he was better than almost all the TV and radio guys I've worked with. When I first guest-hosted from the New York studio, he'd look through the glass from the control room and watch you sitting at the Golden EIB Microphone, reaching for papers from the stack or looking something up online or swiveling behind you to the printer. And, if you seemed to be having to reach too far or stretch, next time you went in he'd have moved something six inches to the left or three inches forward - just so it would be where you wanted it when you needed it. His whole idea was that everything should work so well you don't even notice it, and you should be free to concentrate on the content. Only the other day I was complaining about someone on an entirely different project that I wished could be more like Kit. But very few are. I owe him more than I can say.

Please keep Kit's wife and sons in your prayers - and his EIB family, too. Rush paid a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his dear friend today. I will miss his wise counsel guiding a foreigner and dilettante through three hours of radio every now and then, but for Rush and James and Mike and the rest the loss must be devastating. Rush's team is very stable, which is one of the reasons the show works so well: people join EIB, they like it, they love it, and they stay. But Kit was the very first to join - after Rush, of course - and he loved it all the way to the end, which came far too soon. Rest in peace.

from Ave atque vale, January 26, 2015

 

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