At one point in his 7,000-plus-word profile of Rush Limbaugh for this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, reporter Zev Chafets lays out his purpose: “I had come to talk to Limbaugh about his role in Republican Party politics.”
But along the way, it seems Chafets was distracted by all the bling in Rush’s World, so that the piece reads more like an episode of MTV Cribs (complete with the requisite look at what’s in the entertainer’s garage(s) — in this case, “a black Maybach 57S, which runs around $450,000 fully loaded” and “half a dozen similar rides”) than it does an effort to explore the questions posed (and hinted at) by the article’s official Web blurb: “Bush is wildly unpopular. McCain is nobody’s idea of a movement guy. Conservatism is cracking up. What’s the king of talk radio to do?” Sounds promising. But what readers get is more like nine pages of anecdotes confirming that Limbaugh is both incredibly wealthy and incredibly insecure.
Writes Chafets: “Limbaugh informed me that I was the first journalist ever to enter his home” — the 24,000 square feet Palm Beach one; there are five — where, Chafets reports, “a life-size oil portrait of El Rushbo, as he often calls himself on the air, hangs on the wall of the main staircase” and “his staff lights fragrant candles throughout the house to greet his arrival from work each day.” Totally Cribs!
Over dinner in Palm Beach (Limbaugh was, Chafets writes, “tickled… to be taken out to eat on The New York Times”):
Table talk focused on Limbaugh’s house, or rather his concern over my reaction to it…
“When you saw my house today, you probably noticed that it isn’t filled with pictures of me and famous people,” [Limbaugh] said. “That’s not me. I don’t have a home that says, ‘Look who I know!’ ”
“No, you have a home that says, ‘Look what I have.’ ”
Must have been the wine talking.
Insecurity anecdote: Limbaugh tells Chafets that he “assumed there was a fraternity of broadcasting guys in New York. I thought my success would launch me into a circle of accomplished people. Look, I admired these people. Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather — people watched these guys. I thought they would welcome me as one of them. I was wrong.” Really? Limbaugh really thought that he’d be embraced by television news anchors as “one of them?” Fascinating.
Limbaugh on Bill O’Reilly: “Limbaugh expressed his opinion of the Fox cable king. He hadn’t been sure at the time that he wanted it on the record. But on second thought, ‘somebody’s got to say it,’ he told me. ‘The man is Ted Baxter.’” Also, Limbaugh “has a deeply conflicted attitude toward Sean Hannity, his one-time stand in and now perpetual No. 2 on the Talkers list.”
Chafets revels in poking at and stoking that insecurity:
From New York, I sent Limbaugh a teasing e-mail message: “Hannity has been first and hardest on the Reverend Wright controversy and the Bill Ayers thing. Is it possible that he is running a separate Operation Chaos with superior intel?”
Limbaugh didn’t dispute that Hannity was first on the Wright and Ayers controversies. But, he wrote: “Things only take off when I mention them. That is the point.”
Two weeks later, The Daily Telegraph in London published a list of America’s most-influential pundits. Limbaugh finished fourth, behind Hannity. Once again I wrote a message to Limbaugh: “Are we looking at a changing of the guard on the right side of the dial?”
Limbaugh scoffed. “Since when have I cared what the media says?” he wrote. “Media polls are not the measure. Ratings ‘polls’ and revenue are. And it still ain’t close.”
I couldn’t resist. “I wasn’t asking about the media,” I wrote him. “I was asking about Hannity. Hannity can fairly take credit (as he does now, every night) for being more influential than any other commentator in changing the course of this election. That strikes me as new. Or am I wrong?”
At which point Limbaugh, who patiently and graciously answered dozens of my questions, allowed me to invade his bunker and his castle, shared hours of his time, permitted me access to his closest family and most-intimate friends, even his therapist, had enough. “Write what you want,” he snapped across cyberspace.
One thing that Chafets delivers — after compiling many colorful descriptions and comparisons previously assigned to Limbaugh (“I’ve heard him compared to Mark Twain and Jackie Gleason, the Founding Fathers and Father Coughlin. Serious people have called him a serial liar and a moral philosopher, a partisan hack and a public intellectual…” )— is his very own:
Like the great black singers of his generation, Limbaugh took the familiar pieties and ambient sounds of his time and place and used them to create a genre of entertainment, full of humor, passion and commercial possibility. There are many ways to look at Rush Limbaugh III: one is that he is the first white, Goldwater Republican soul shouter.
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.