Rush Limbaugh: The Leader of the Opposition

Rush Limbaugh speaks at the 2019 Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Fla., December 21, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
Which is the real Rush Limbaugh — the merry prankster of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, or the unifying voice of conservatives across the country? Just tune in . . .

Editor’s Note: The following cover story on Rush Limbaugh, who died Wednesday, ran in the September 6, 1993, issue of National Review. It is reprinted here in honor of his life, his legacy, and his contribution to conservatism.

To begin with, he’s not Mr. Limbaugh. You’ve got to call the ornament of the EIB (Excellence in Broadcasting) network, the man so used to the adulation of his fans that he long ago asked them to skip the praise with which they prefaced every phone call and just say “Ditto,” the man who likes to claim he has “talent on loan from God,” just plain Rush. That’s what the ever-courtly Ronald Reagan, who has never met him, calls him. A month after George Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton last year, Reagan sent him the following unsolicited note:

Dear Rush,

Thanks for all you’re doing to promote Republican and conservative principles. Now that I’ve retired from active politics, I don’t mind that you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country.

I know the liberals call you “the most dangerous man in America,” but don’t worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear “the way things ought to be.”

Sincerely, Ron

To some of those close to Reagan, the letter is evidence that the former President is losing his grip. “If Limbaugh is leader of the opposition in the true political sense,” one of them told me, “then we’re in serious trouble.” Fred Barnes in The New Republic ended a piece on the Republican resurgence under Clinton by drawing a contrast with the Carter era: “When the GOP rose in the late 1970s, it had Ronald Reagan. Now the loudest Republican voice belongs to Rush Limbaugh.”

Passing the Torch

The unspoken premise there is that Limbaugh, unlike Reagan, cannot be taken seriously as a political leader. But to a surprising number of conservatives, there is a solemn appropriateness about Reagan’s passing the torch to the 42-year-old former disc jockey and college dropout. Certainly if any conservative is in line to inherit the mantle of “The Great Communicator,” it is the idol of the “dittoheads,” the man who presides over the country’s most listened-to radio talk-show. But his 20 million listeners a week on 616 stations also make him the 800-pound gorilla in the cage in which American conservatism is languishing. “One reason he unites the Right is that he’s the biggest kid on the block,” says Terry Eastland, editor of The Forbes Media Critic. “People don’t want to be lampooned on the air; politicians don’t want to offend him because he’s so popular.”

Certainly, of those who might themselves be considered leaders of the opposition, no one to whom I was able to speak has a word to say against him. Their compliments sound as if they have been rehearsed in front of a mirror. “When Rush Limbaugh talks, you know you’re listening to the real world,” says Bob Dole. “He’s a powerhouse antidote to the liberal cheer-leading you hear all the time from the national media. That’s why Rush is such a refreshing addition to America’s airwaves. He’s smart, he’s tough, and he isn’t going away, much to the annoyance of the liberal crowd.” In amongst such unmitigated praise, do we detect just a hint of condescension in the word “refreshing” or that mention of the “airwaves”? Is there the tiniest smidgen of resentment of Limbaugh’s popularity in “the real world” as opposed to the power in the political world that Dole wields? If so, he is not saying so. On Rush as leader of the opposition he had no comment.

Phil Gramm says, “Limbaugh has had a profound impact on conservative thinking in America. . . . He says things other people are afraid to say. As an opinion maker and thinker he is very intelligent and, like Ronald Reagan, a very effective communicator. There are many days when I think he’s doing a lot more good than the Republicans in the Senate are doing.”

Dan Quayle agrees: “He’s certainly out there carrying his fair share. I’d say he’s leading the charge right now. It’s only in the three months since I returned to Indiana that I’ve realized how big he is. . . . I know the Republican Party listens to him. He’s got the pulse of our rank and file.”

Jack Kemp, who compares Rush’s influence among Republicans to that of Will Rogers among Democrats in the 1930s, adds that “he’s certainly leading the fight against some of the far-left policies of the Clinton administration and doing it with wit, wisdom, humor, tenacity, and an irrepressible style. He shows people that the Democratic Party, and especially Bill Clinton, who ran as a centrist, are not ‘New Democrats’ at all but old Democrats who are not trying to empower people but government.”

But it is Kemp’s partner in Empower America, William Bennett, who must take the prize as the most convinced Rushophile among Republican leaders. He has gone from being a listener to the show, to being an occasional contributor by phone, to being a close personal friend and something of an intellectual mentor. Rush, says Bennett, “may be the most consequential person in political life at the moment. He is changing the terms of debate. He is doing to the culture what Ronald Reagan did to the political movement. He tells his audience that what you believe inside you can talk about in the marketplace. People were afraid of censure by gay activists, feminists, environmentalists — now they are not, because Rush takes them on. And he does it with humor. We have a reputation as somewhat prim and priggish, and Rush is absolute death to liberals: a conservative with humor.”

Yes, but . . . Is Limbaugh really an homme serieux, a man with the gravitas to be a — let alone the — republican leader? “A lot of very wealthy Republicans consider themselves sophisticated beyond the Limbaugh types,” Bennett goes on. “They miss the point. Rush is extremely sophisticated, extremely smart. The great thing is that, never having been through a university, he is not complicated with pedanticism. He’s very serious intellectually. He knows how to frame an issue, how to debate an issue, how to argue ad finem and ad absurdum. He does both. But he is larger than a leader of the political opposition. He represents a shift in the culture. Another ten years of the political change he stands for will take us beyond Republicans and Democrats.”

What Would Make Rush Run?

All such praise from would-be rivals for leadership depends in part on Rush’s own disavowal of any electoral ambition. Are there any circumstances in which he would be a candidate? “Maybe, but I don’t know what they are,” he told me. “I have said never to this — never, ever, I don’t want to do it. And I don’t. I have no desire. Primarily because, to do it, to be elected to anything you have to walk around like this — with your hand out. And you have to beg people to put something in it. Somebody always does, and they want repayment. And not with dollars. It’s going to be with your soul, it’s going to be with a portion of your soul. I don’t look at it as fun.” The point is that he does look at hosting the Rush Limbaugh show as fun — “more fun than a human being should be allowed to have,” as he so frequently says. And if he is to be understood at all it is in terms of what he considers to be fun.

To look at, Rush is, to use one of his own favorite words, the epitome of the successful businessman. You have to look closely now to see any evidence of the teenage prankster growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who used to con people over the telephone by pretending to be running the Baptist Church’s “Know Your Bible” or the Lions Club’s “Know Your American History” contests (he and his brother got caught in the latter case because they called the wife of the Lions Club president). The evidence is there — in the smile that is a little too cherubic, the baby face that is altogether too innocent looking — but it is obscured by the big cigar (Ashton, Jamaica leaf) that he smokes with the swagger of a Victorian captain of industry. Famous for being fat, he comes across in person rather as an imposing presence: big, but with the grace of a jungle cat — a quality that goes with his yellow-green, cat-like eyes.

It is this combination of the solid citizen and the joker that is the essential Limbaugh. His sense of fun extends also to his enthusiasm for the business side of his daily radio and television shows, his pride in having done what no one thought could be done with the quintessentially local medium of radio: syndicate a national talk show with a conservative point of view in the middle of the day. “For the moment leave the conservatism out,” he says: “just the business success of this show has been totally ignored. . . . The media cultures in New York and Los Angeles refuse to write about this precisely because it’s conservative, I’m conservative. They’re scared of it and they try to come up with other kinds of ways to explain it, like the audience is a bunch of followers . . . just a bunch of dolts. But now everybody thinks they can do it! I am a trailblazer — if I can be so bold, do you mind? — there has been a revolution in the way radio is done, the way it is sold, the way our program makes money. We have identified new advertisers for radio, we have expanded the market of advertisers. There is more money than was in network radio before and now everybody wants to do it! What five years ago couldn’t be done, everybody wants to do it.”

Certainly the ventures into radio syndication of Howard Stern, Gordon Liddy, Don Imus, and Pat Buchanan (one of the latest to try it is Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael) are a testimony to Rush’s trailblazing success. But maybe, some of his old admirers would say, he has been too successful. Now that he is beginning to be taken seriously, he may become too respectable to go in for the kind of cutting up that has always made the show so much fun. In the same way, invitations to the White House and appearances on Nightline and Meet the Press undercut his blasts at “the dominant media culture.” The source of his appeal back in the days when he developed the show’s format in Sacramento between 1984 and 1988, or when he first came to New York to go into syndication out of WABC in the latter year, was his spontaneity, his irreverence. Perhaps his most famous gimmick was the caller abortion — the sound of a vacuum cleaner and a woman’s scream in lieu of a normal call termination — which was in splendidly awful taste. He doesn’t do that any more, he says, because it takes too long to explain so that people won’t take it the wrong way. But there was a time when he didn’t care so much about the sensibilities of the sort of people likely to take it the wrong way.

He still does his condom update theme (the Fifth Dimension singing “Up, Up and Away”) and his animal-rights update theme (Andy Williams singing “Born Free” to a background of machine-gun fire) and his homeless update theme (Clarence “Frogman” Henry singing the wonderfully wacky Sixties novelty, “Ain’t Got No Home”), and he has even introduced a theme for his Carol Moseley Braun updates (“Moving On Up” from the old Jeffersons television show) whose delightful offensiveness made it “Outrage of the Week” for Mark Shields of The Capital Gang. But his reaction to Shields’s attack was instructive. Clearly stung by the suggestion that it might be considered racist to make fun of Mrs. Braun’s peculiar sort of upward mobility, he defended himself on the air by disclaiming responsibility because he didn’t write the song. If anyone’s a racist, he said, Norman Lear is for attaching the song to The Jeffersons in the first place. He has also been defensive about the animal-rights and homeless update themes.

Is the class clown starting to care too much what the goody-goodies in the front row think of him? Rush acknowledges that there may be less irreverence these days, but he adds that “that goes in cycles. For the past six months there has been a pretty serious devotion to the Clinton economic plan, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of irreverence. I think the show has moved up a couple levels in importance, I think it’s a natural evolution of things. But now today, for example — this week — there has been more irreverence and more of an off-the-wall spontaneity and humor than there has been. I don’t know why this is; I just follow my instincts. And they’ve gotten me to where I am now.” So far in the era of Clinton, which Rush calls “The Raw Deal,” his instincts have apparently continued unerring. Audience figures are up, and the class clown’s more than occasional resemblance to an economics lecturer seems not to bother his listeners at all.

JFK as Dittohead?

In fact, he has proved to be an adept popularizer, often in advance of the serious press, of such economic arcana as the reading of the bond market and federal accounting by “current services baseline.” His principal economic advisers are Lawrence Kudlow of Bear, Stearns and Thomas W. Hazlitt of the University of California at Davis, but a great many other people provide him with material that he proceeds to adapt to a popular audience. These include not only intellectual heavyweights like Bennett and George Will but the thousands of ordinary listeners who write to him, most of them via electronic mail. When a listener earlier this summer sent in a tape of a speech by John F. Kennedy to the New York Economic Club in 1962 in which Kennedy spoke of the economically stimulative effect of tax cuts, Rush played the tape with his own annotations on the air and retroactively proclaimed Kennedy a dittohead.

He himself disclaims any pretension to being an intellectual, and in fact feels humble and “in awe of many of them” who have been toiling away in obscurity for years. He once went to William Bennett and asked him for a reading list (Bennett set him to reading C. S. Lewis). “I am nothing but a regurgitation of what these original thinkers have labored all their lives to produce,” says Rush. But the same could be said of Ronald Reagan or any other leader bright enough to see (as intellectuals often are not) what ideas will move the popular imagination. It was a feat not only of the loudest voice but also of a keen political brain to round up, as Rush did, the media herd and drive them into the conservative corral over the Clinton budget. Weeks after he began playing on the air tapes of the claims of Bush, Panetta, Sasser, and others for the 1990 deal and comparing them with what was being said about the Clinton budget, the mainstream media began making the same comparison. Tim Russert did it on Meet the Press and Joe Klein did it in Newsweek. But imagine Rush’s gratification when the New York Times ran as its lead editorial “A budget worthy of Mr. Bush.”

He does all this on his three-hour daily radio program with a tiny staff, consisting principally of the broadcast engineer, Mike Maimone, and two others: James Golden, his call screener, known on the air as Bo Snerdley, and his grandly named “Chief of Staff,” Kit “HR” (for Haldeman) Carson. He sometimes makes reference to “the EIB memory division” or other (non-existent) research help, but the show is, as William Bennett says, basically “just Rush reading the papers and cutting things out, carrying on a conversation with the American people.” That, Bennett adds, “is talent on loan from somewhere.” The problem is to tell how, or if, this conversation can translate into political potency. Fred Barnes makes the point: “Rush Limbaugh has a political-like following. He’s not like Leno or Letterman. But one of the things that makes you think about his influence is the outcome in 1992 — Bush’s bad showing after Rush Limbaugh had been boosting him day after day. It makes you wonder if he’s just preaching to the faithful.”

That suspicion is reinforced in a way by Jack Kemp’s comparison of him to Will Rogers. Rush himself considers the comparison a compliment, but it does rather put him in his place. It is a place which he is mostly happy to occupy, and he himself sometimes insists that he is an entertainer as a way of putting off fans who, perhaps under the influence of the Perot phenomenon, seem to want to regard him as a politician because he comes across well on radio and television. (It is a powerful argument in favor of the mental acuity his admirers attribute to him, by the way, that he has never mistaken Perot for a politician for the same reason.) But there are traces of ambivalence about being “just” an entertainer when the leader of the dittoheads is asked to think of being leader of the opposition.

“I think that’s temporary. I think that comes from the fact that within the Republican Party there’s no unified voice. They can’t even come to an agreement on taxes. The one thing I’m not is indecisive. I think this is one of the reasons people don’t like me — those who don’t: I am so cocksure. I don’t say, ‘Well, I think maybe that . . .’ I tell people: ‘Here’s what is.’ And I think that is naturally going to draw people. In the 1970s Reagan came along and gave conservatives confidence that what they believed was good, right, wholesome, and worthwhile. And so they were able to publicly be and act who they were . . . I have, I think, done that aspect of what Reagan did.”

Two Midwestern Boys

There are other similarities to Reagan. Both men grew up in small Midwestern river towns, and both got their start in radio. Both are religious believers who rarely attend church. Both combined careers as entertainers and salesmen, and both have enjoyed the success of all salesmen who believe in their products, whether commercial or political. Both are raconteurs, rather than intellectuals, who combine a tendency to think in terms of personal anecdotes with remarkably shrewd political instincts. But Limbaugh is as unmistakably of the baby-boom generation as Reagan was of the generation of the Depression and the Second World War. Some liberals, like E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, think that this is the real secret of his success: namely, “using the enemy’s methods to his own ends” by hijacking the counterculture for conservatism.

“His message is traditional but his means are modern,” says Dionne. “The implicit message is that rock and roll and other pop cultural artifacts are OK, which is appealing along the lines of a class split and a sensibility split to people who are uncomfortable with the Robertson/Buchanan rhetorical style.” But conservatives are more likely to see another split: between game and earnest. How seriously can we take what one calls Rush’s “cartoons on the air”? It may be, as Adam Meyerson, editor of Policy Review, says, that “only comedians can say a lot of the things that are on people’s minds these days. Limbaugh can say the things he does because people don’t take him seriously.” One who disagrees is R. Emmett Tyrrell, editor of The American Spectator and author of The Conservative Crack-Up. He sees Rush’s playfulness as being, along with his generosity of spirit and willingness to promote other conservatives, a matter of great hope for the unity of a movement hitherto fractured by personal jealousies and intellectual inertia: “We need to have people who can dramatize ideas. You need that literary spark. Luigi Barzini had it; Buckley has it. And, though he’s a great talker rather than a great writer, Rush has it too.”

But to his critics, Limbaugh’s literary imagination is mainly employed in dramatizing himself. He is certainly right to say that the source of animus against him, even among conservatives, is the booming, boisterous self-confidence of his public personality — referred to in these pages by Florence King, not disapprovingly, as “The Vain Brain . . . male ego personified.” Typically, Rush himself took up the joke the next day: “You are listening to the Vain Brain,” he told his listeners, “Rush Limbaugh: redefining masculinity for the Nineties!” A more sober conservative, however, decries “his incredible vanity and pride. Some of it is self-mockery, I know, but not all of it.” Others who recognize that the mock braggadocio of his on-air persona is just part of the show wonder whether the show is ever quite over.

What those who accuse him of vanity seem to want is some kind of guarantee that there is a real person behind the public persona, some glimpse of a sense of irony about himself. But it is hard for either admirers or skeptics to be sure that there really is a private Rush Limbaugh. Paul Colford, a media reporter for Newsday, is about to bring out an unauthorized biography based on investigations into Limbaugh’s personal life and interviews with, among others, one of his two ex-wives. Colford will purport to show, as Peter Donald tried to do last year in the New York Observer, that Rush, though not himself a draft dodger, was less than straightforward in his account of his own dealings with his Vietnam-era draft board at a time when he was accusing Bill Clinton of draft-dodging. It is a weak case that seems to boil down to the charge that he describes his classification as 4-F at a time when it was 1-Y. The task is not made any easier by Rush’s elaborate leg pulls, as when he told a caller that his father had paid $3,000 to the draft board to get him classified unfit. His father, who was still alive at the time, was furious with him. So was his uncle, who had just been appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan.

Colford himself admits he is chasing a phantom. One of the most striking things revealed by his researches, he says, is how many people Limbaugh has worked for over the years who have no personal recollection of him. One station manager who both hired and fired him and worked with him daily was flabbergasted when Colford informed him that the man who had broadcast for him under the name of Jeff Christie and Rush Limbaugh were one and the same. “He had noticed something vaguely familiar about Rush but he’d had no idea. It was as if the band playing in the next apartment had turned out to be the Beatles.” Does such a man even have a private life? “It’s debatable,” says Colford. “His work has become his life.” Or, as Terry Eastland puts it, “he’s like a priest who has recognized that the ordinary way of life is not for him. In a way he has taken a vow.”

Edmund Morris, Ronald Reagan’s official biographer, has described his subject as “the most mysterious man I have ever confronted. It is impossible to understand him.” Morris’s despair at this was mitigated by the discovery that “everybody else who had ever known him, including his wife, is equally bewildered.” Reagan too is a man whose private self was more or less completely swallowed up in his public life. Interesting that already they’re saying the same thing about Rush.


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