Zev Chafets has written many books on many subjects, and he has a very juicy subject in Rush Limbaugh. “El Rushbo” has figured hugely in the political culture of this country for the past 20 years. And he offers a highly interesting personal story. Chafets’s book grew out of a piece he wrote about Limbaugh for the New York Times Magazine. That was in the summer of 2008. The subject cooperated for the article, and he cooperated again for the ensuing book — “cooperated” meaning that he sat for interviews and permitted his family, friends, and associates to do the same. Chafets had an excellent opportunity, and he didn’t waste it. Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One is a spiffy, instructive, and absorbing read.
Chafets was born and raised in Pontiac, Mich., outside of Detroit. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he moved to Israel. There, he was director of the Government Press Office (no less). And he started to write his books. In 1986 came Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men: Inside the New Israel. (This book was known to some as “the four-H book.”) If I may speak personally for a second, the book in question had a considerable influence on me. I had been afflicted with an anti-Israel virus; I thought Israel existed mainly to oppress Arabs. Chafets’s book helped to teach me about the country, and to humanize it for me. One of his later books was Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit. It is the only honest book I have ever read about Detroit (in whose orbit I myself grew up). Writing about this city takes racial insight, sensitivity, candor, and nerve. Chafets has those qualities.
Somewhere along the line, he moved back to the United States, though he divides his time between the two countries. From 2000 to 2004, he had a column in the New York Daily News. Now he writes anywhere and everywhere, on whatever strikes his fancy.
His politics have always been somewhat hard to discern. I have always considered him a “liberal with sanity,” to use the phrase that Ed Koch, the former New York mayor, coined for himself. (This coinage drives liberals “without sanity” crazy.) In his Limbaugh book, however, Chafets often sounds like a conservative — in his understanding of Rush and his fans, in his understanding of those who despise them. The “despising” side will surely consider this book a brief for Limbaugh. Never does Chafets sound more like a conservative than when he is describing and analyzing our media culture. Here he is talking about Walter Goodman, the New York Timesman who reviewed Limbaugh’s 1992 book The Way Things Ought to Be: “To Goodman, Limbaugh was merely a demagogue, devoid of ideas worth considering. Like most liberal intellectuals, the reviewer knew next to nothing about American conservatism, and it showed . . .” Chafets later observes that, in the presidential campaign of 2008, “mainstream reporters functioned as Obama bodyguards.” Who can argue?
On the first page of his book, Chafets recalls the first time he heard Limbaugh. It was the fall of 1989 and he was cruising down Woodward Avenue in Detroit in a black LeBaron convertible. He could hardly believe what he was hearing — a brazen man, informed to the gills, making “raucous fun” of “liberal axioms and icons.” “It is hard to describe how transgressively original Rush Limbaugh sounded” in the long-established media environment. “Listening to him on the radio reminded me of the first time I saw Elvis on TV with my father sitting in the next room — a feeling that I was witnessing something completely different and possibly even dangerous.” He did not believe Limbaugh could last. “He was too irreverent and subversive, too bold. The keepers of the culture would never let him get away with it. Somehow, they’d find a way to shut him up and make him go away.” They have long tried, they have not yet succeeded.