RUSH LIMBAUGH: AN ARMY OF ONE
By Zev Chafets
Sentinel, $25.95, 229 pages
"I know the liberals call you 'the most dangerous man in America,' " Ronald Reagan wrote in a letter to Rush Limbaugh in 1992, "but don't worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me."
For this well-researched and objective study, growing out of an article originally commissioned by the New York Times Magazine, Zev Chafets, author of 11 books and a former columnist for the New York Daily News, spent hours interviewing Mr. Limbaugh on the record, visiting his home, meeting his family and friends and, at Mr. Limbaugh's insistence, even his psychiatrist.
Mr. Chafets traces Mr. Limbaugh's radio career from Pittsburgh and Kansas City to Sacramento, Calif., New York and Florida, along the way dealing with his personal struggles and successes. What emerges is a portrait of a consummate professional, a man driven to succeed, with a genuine sense of humor (unlike his opponents) and a total belief in the good sense and judgment of Americans beyond the Beltway.
Because of his ability to speak to and for millions of normal Americans, Mr. Limbaugh's trashing by spokesmen for the liberal left is understandable, although the vulgarity and personal nastiness of their criticisms can rankle. Mr. Chafets quotes Clinton hatchet man Paul Begala referring to Mr. Limbaugh's "bloated face"; Timothy Egan calls him "a swollen man"; and Ed Schultz, the pudgy host of a little-watched MSNBC program called "The Ed Show" (perhaps to attract other dull people named Ed) issued this invitation to Mr. Limbaugh: " 'C'mon, you fat pig. Let's get it on.' "
Liberal-left spokesmen seem to routinely get passes to be as nasty as they like, perhaps because this is as close as they can come to humor. But it's less forgivable when commentators who claim standing among conservatives also decide to pile on, thereby legitimizing efforts by the White House and liberal operatives to claim for Mr. Limbaugh a place in the conservative movement he has no intention or desire to occupy, then sliming him personally and, by implication, discrediting the positions he holds.
One such attack occurred, Mr. Chafets writes, when Newsweek, "in the process of remaking itself into a left-of-center magazine," assigned a writer, perceived by liberals as conservative, to do a hatchet job on Mr. Limbaugh.
The resulting article was superficial, personal and distasteful, referring to "his private plane and his cigars," "his drug dependency," "his tangled marital history" and, the killer, in best liberal ad hominem tradition, "his personal bulk."
Mr. Chafets deals in some detail with his painkiller pill addiction, which Mr. Limbaugh and those around him discuss openly and honestly. Also, as Mr. Chafets shows us, there isn't anything particularly "tangled" about his marital history. But no matter. The attack earned plaudits from the liberal left.
But not from the right. As Mr. Chafets reports, "Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review [and anointed successor to William F. Buckley Jr.] fired back: 'I find the attacks on Rush from the right mainly stupid. ... Rush is a huge benefit to the Right, and if we didn't have him, we'd have to try to invent him (and probably fail, because so much of his success is a product of his natural can't-be-reproduced talent).' "
Were he still with us, Buckley, who admired and respected Mr. Limbaugh's talent and work and counted him among his friends, would have voiced similar sentiments. And few conservatives, especially those aspiring to be spokesmen, would have dared challenge him. No one wanted to arm-wrestle Bill Buckley.
In the end, Mr. Chafets says of Mr. Limbaugh, "He is a passionate and tenacious advocate, a major political and cultural force who can't be wished away or shouted down or sniffed into irrelevance. Smart liberals will listen to his show, even if they hate what he has to say ... nobody will fully understand American politics and media culture until they get who Rush Limbaugh is, what he does, and how he does it."
Nor, one might add, without coming to grips with Mr. Limbaugh's basic message, will anyone ever fully understand what makes America tick, just beyond the Beltway.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley, 2007).
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