Love him or hate him, Rush Limbaugh is one of the most significant political figures of the last two decades. With the passage of the great William F. Buckley from the scene, Limbaugh is arguably the thought leader of the conservative movement.
But despite having redefined talk radio, and exerting such a dramatic impact on American politics and culture, there has been surprisingly little written about the man. And often, what people think they know about Limbaugh is over-simplified or distorted. Zev Chafets' new book, "Rush Limbaugh, An Army of One
" seeks to provide a more thorough explanation for the phenomenon behind "the most dangerous man in America."
To be sure, the notion of Rush Limbaugh as a leader of conservative thought is vexing to some. In his book review for The Washington Post, David Frum
lambasted the very idea, writing, "It might seem ominous for an intellectual movement to be led by a man who does not think creatively, who does not respect the other side of the argument and who frequently says things that are not intended as truth."
When Limbaugh labeled Obama's stimulus a "porkulus" bill, and said congressional Republicans should oppose it, they all did. When the conventional wisdom among Republicans was to avoid making waves during the president's honeymoon, Limbaugh said, "I hope he fails." Despite the simplicity of those words, defying conventional wisdom, charting a different path, and getting others to follow it, is the definition of a leader.
Congressional Republicans aren't the only ones taking their cues from Rush Limbaugh. As Chafets writes, "Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor at National Review. For many years he was in charge of hiring at the magazine, and he noticed something interesting. 'We'd get really bright kids, graduates of elite schools, young people with really fancy educations. I always asked, 'How did you become conservative?' Many of them said, 'Listening to Rush Limbaugh.' And often they would add, 'Behind my parent's back'."
In a sense, Limbaugh has become the Johnny Appleseed of the Right, inspiring young people to embrace his conservative ideas. Chafets goes on to compare Limbaugh to other "self-educated American iconoclasts" such as H.L. Mencken, Lenny Bruce, Eric Hoffer ... "subversives who challenged the certified pieties and academic orthodoxies of the day."
William F. Buckley
, the eloquent enfant terrible of the conservative cause, took Limbaugh seriously. Ronald Reagan once joked that liberals like to call Limbaugh "the most dangerous man in America," adding: "Don't worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me."
Putting aside the question of Limbaugh's status as an idea man, readers of this new biography will learn that Rush Limbaugh's political education started at home. Young Rush's childhood friends would often go over to his house, just to catch a glimpse of his father watch the six o'clock news -- while yelling at Dan Rather. Rush's dad also reportedly once got beat up in a bar for slamming FDR.
It's also interesting that Limbaugh was 35 before he even registered to vote. Before then, as Chafets told me
, he basically "joined the circus," working as a radio drive-time disc jockey under the stage names Rusty Sharpe and "Bachelor Jeff" Christie. Limbaugh's big break came in Sacramento where he was finally given a license to do what he does best -- be himself. For the first time, he would not be using a "DJ" name or doing a "Top 40" drive-time shtick; he would do what came naturally -- gab about conservative politics on the air. Only two years later, he was in New York, broadcasting to a national audience.
Limbaugh's meteoric success almost guaranteed that he wouldn't be popular with his fellow broadcasters. Compounding the resentment was the matter of his conservatism. (Interestingly, Chafets notes, "the only mainstream broadcasters who were even remotely welcoming were Tim Russert and Ted Koppel.") The rejection of his peers seems to have reinforced his status as a "loner," although as Chafets wrote in his New York Times Magazine
article in 2008 that led to this book, Limbaugh was embraced by conservative icon William F. Buckley
While not an authorized biography in the sense that Limbaugh had say-so over its contents, Chafets was understood by the subject to be a sympathetic chronicler, and he was afforded lengthy interviews and a great deal of access to Limbaugh. As a result, the author has produced a book that is both interesting and personal. Chafets uses his exposure to do something that liberal writers would neither be inclined nor able to do: He seeks to explain the source of Limbaugh's appeal. This is a phenomenon that eludes Limbaugh's critics while making possible his tremendous commercial success.
As Chafets writes, "Limbaugh understood that cool music could make a conservative message seem contemporary and energetic." This rings true to conservatives of my generation. We are usually dismissed as uncool, but Limbaugh's irreverent style allows us to be anti-establishment outsiders, even if only for three hours each afternoon.
The author also points out that Limbaugh breaks with the conservative stereotype in that he has never portrayed himself as especially pious: "He regards homosexuality as, most probably, biologically determined, and while he opposes gay marriage as culturally subversive, he has no problem with gay civil unions -- which is the stance of President Obama and Hillary Clinton," he writes. "He drinks adult beverages, smokes cigars, and is not exactly a shining example of family values."
As Roger Ailes told Chafets, "Rush lives the way Jackie Gleason would have lived if Gleason had the money."
Perhaps a more apt analogy is with the only person in the world of broadcast who is Limbaugh's equal in terms of influence and audience: Oprah Winfrey. And Chafets makes this comparison.
"There are obvious differences between Rush and Oprah, but also some striking similarities," Chafets writes. "They are both innovators who have built and kept vast audiences who idolize them. Rush and Oprah are cultural and political figures as well as entertainers, courted and embraced by candidates and presidents. And both use their personal stories and travails to forge emotional bonds with their listeners."
Oprah might wince since she was influential in helping Obama become the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee, while Rush is the man who famously growled on-air: "I hope he fails
!" Yet regular listeners know about Rush's boyhood upbringing in Cape Girardeau, Mo., just as Oprah's fans know her story as the daughter of a teenaged single mother. Rush's "ditto-heads" know about the many times he was fired from jobs, and how his pursuit of broadcasting disappointed and worried his lawyer father, who feared his son had become a loser. And they embrace the Horatio Alger-style advice he gives out -- some of which is counterintuitive for a "conservative" -- such as the importance of following your dreams.
As I've written before
, this is aspirational stuff, and it's not terribly different from what Oprah offers her audience. Demographically speaking, he may be the male "Bizarro world" version of Oprah. The book also provides some clues into what makes Limbaugh tick. "The thing that drives me is that I have no college degree," he said in a 1988 interview. Clearly, some of what drives Limbaugh is a desire to show all the college-educated folks that he can out-think them, as he often says of liberals, "with half my brain tied behind my back."
Chafets' portrayal of Limbaugh is going to be panned in places, and even ignored, because of its generally friendly tone. But it is not a purely positive portrayal, and at times the author can't help but stick a discreet needle in the balloon. Chafets describes Limbaugh at a CPAC event as looking like "John Goodman playing a Vegas lounge singer." And he tells us that he personally overheard Limbaugh saying of President Obama, "He's a f___ing liar." The author also writes that he thinks Limbaugh has a "blind spot" when it comes to the issue of race.
On the positive side, we also learn that Limbaugh was known as the biggest tipper in New York. We also discover that early on in their association, Limbaugh gave his call screener a $5,000 gift when he learned that he was struggling to pay his bills.
"Like all originals, Rush Limbaugh contains multitudes," Chafets writes. "There is some Sunday School boy in him, left over from the Centenary Methodist Church, and a fair amount of Hugh Heffner, Bo Diddley's swaggering guitar, and Bill Buckley's drawing-room harpsichord."
But in the end, the author notes, "If Limbaugh had been all bombast, his act wouldn't have lasted very long."
How long he will last is a subject that gives Limbaugh himself pause. Chafets also shares an e-mail he received from Rush the night that Limbaugh was mocked at a White House Correspondents dinner by Wanda Sykes, who said she hoped his kidneys failed (Obama smiled). Limbaugh told him, "I know I am a target and I know I will be destroyed eventually. I fear that all I have accomplished and all the wealth I have accumulated will be taken from me, to the cheers of the crowd. I know I am hated and despised by the American Left."
This weekend, according to Chafets
, Limbaugh will marry for the fourth time
when he ties the knot with Kathryn Rogers (after his third marriage ended in divorce, he begged his friends to never let him marry again). As Chafets told me, "he likes good looking women and he's about to get married to one -- this weekend."
On Wednesday's show, Limbaugh announced he would be off the air for a while, saying "folks, we are out of busy broadcast moments for this segment, but I have to share with you some news -- and that is that I'm going to be gone from tomorrow until the 15th ... We're picking up a new puppy -- another old English Sheep dog -- to create even more havoc in the household for Punkin (his cat
He is a complex man.