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Book Review: Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One by Zev Chafets

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What do Rush Limbaugh and Bettie Page have in common? They both appeared in Playboy magazine. Bettie Page was the “Playmate of the Month” in January 1955 and Limbaugh was the subject of the December 1993 Playboy Interview. Prior to reviewing Zev Chafets’s biography, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, reading the article from 1993 seemed like a good thing to do. In ‘93 Limbaugh was making a name for himself and well on his way to achieving “top-of-mind-awareness” in political media.

Limbaugh was interviewed by D. Keith Mano of The National Review and it was reported that, at that time, Limbaugh’s audience was larger than the population of New England. In his comments before the interview, Mano stated that Limbaugh presents his commentary, “more as satire than as politics…” and that “…even his detractors sometimes begrudgingly cut him the same slack they give Saturday Night Live.” Mano also reported that Limbaugh describes himself, “not as a social critic but as an entertainer.” Finally, Playboy asks, “Can the Limbaugh phenomenon stay alive? Can the man behind the myth behind the mike survive the four slow years between elections?” [Ironically, that’s where Limbaugh finds himself today, in the second year of the Obama Presidency.]

Also, in 1993, the New York Times sent Maureen Dowd out to meet with Rush Limbaugh. She reported, “beneath the bombast, there beats the heart of a romantic.” Now, here comes Chafets on behalf of the New York Times with a full scale biography. In a meeting with Limbaugh regarding Senator John McCain, Chafets asked if he would cooperate on an article about himself. “In The New York Times?” Limbaugh asked incredulously. “That, my friend, will never happen. If you think the editors of the New York Times are going to do a story on me that isn’t a hit job, you are naive.” Limbaugh was wrong and Chafets wrote the story.

Readers can decide for themselves if Chafet’s book, An Army of One, is a hit job or not. Chafets has authored 11 books covering such topics as media criticism and social and political commentary. His work often appears in The New York Times Magazine. He even tried his hand as a diplomat with an attempt to arrange a golf outing with Limbaugh and the President. Limbaugh, “If any president asked me to meet him, or play golf with him, I’d do it.” Chafets made the suggestion to Limbaugh as a way to reach out and show the country that there were no hard feelings. The President declined.

Rush Limbaugh accepted when Chafets returned with the green light on a book. He consented to several in-person interviews, hundreds of e-mail exchanges, access to his psychiatrist, fiancée, and referrals to friends and family back in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where the story begins.

In Cape, as it is known locally, Chafets learned that Rush’s family dates back to immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania before the revolution. Rush Limbaugh himself would be eligible for the Sons of the American Revolution. Limbaugh’s new wife, Kathryn, is a lineal descendant of President John Adams. David Limbaugh, Rush’s brother, gave Chafets a tour of the town and area, introduced him to childhood friends common to him and Rush and recounted some of his favorite stories of their growing up in small town America. The friends agreed that Rush’s father “Big Rush” had been the most influential on “Rusty,” as Rush was known then, and that he had been basically apolitical until his mid-thirties.

One friend compliments Rusty’s debate skills claiming that he could win from either point of view. An important stop on the tour is the radio station, KGMO, where Rusty, a loyal fan of Harry Caray and Jack Buck, got his start. Chafets’ last stop was the Varsity Barber Shop where Rush had shined shoes. No customers were there. The barber didn’t want to talk and was too booked up to cut Chafets’ hair. Chafets says, “When you can’t get a haircut in an empty barbershop at eleven in the morning, you’ve been in town long enough.”

After stints at an AM station in Pittsburgh and a sales bit with the Kansas City Royals, Limbaugh was a hit in Sacramento. He quickly tripled the market share of his predecessor (in a rather liberal demographic) and was rewarded with a six-figure salary. While in Sacramento his “on-air persona” flowered as he became: “a harmless little fuzzball” and the “Epitome of Morality and Virtue.” He “served humanity” with “talent on loan from God” “across the fruited plain” on the “Excellence in Broadcasting Network.”

Inspired by the disdain of liberals, Limbaugh said he could vanquish his foes with “half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair.” Ed McLaughlin (previously with ABC) brought Rush to New York City, and on August 1, 1988, his show aired on 56 stations across the nation to an audience of about 250,000. In the Friday, August 6, 2010 edition of USA Today, founder Al Neutharth reports that Limbaugh’s show is now carried on “about 600 stations and between 15 million and 20 million listeners.”

Chafets was allowed to visit Limbaugh’s studio in Florida (sans haircut) also known as his “Southern Command.” Surprisingly, not even the paparazzi were able to locate this studio at the height of Limbaugh’s news-making drug problem. They discussed a variety of issues and events which are detailed in the book and cover everything from religion to family, including leisure activities, real estate and airplanes, and of course politics. Chafets puts it all together in an easy-to-read narrative in what this reader viewed as a non-biased report although Chafets has been branded by some as a “closet dittohead.” Perhaps, if you don’t criticize, disparage and defame Limbaugh, then you must be a loyal fan? Is it possible with a lightening rod like Limbaugh to be neutral?

Significant coverage is given to several of Limbaugh’s tactics. Susan Estrich, who ran the Dukakis 1988 presidential campaign says, “Rush is a master at framing an issue and creating a community around it.” His most famous example of that was Dan’s bake sale during the Clinton years. Clinton had asked school kids to have a bake sale to help reduce the national debt (symbolically). Dan Kay of Fort Collins, Colorado, couldn’t afford the subscription to the newly produced Limbaugh Letter and called the show for help. Rush sponsored a national bake sale to help. It mushroomed into an event which 35,000 people attended. Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans sent a chef to serve 8,000 orders of bananas foster. A Colorado advertising company put up 15 billboards to help with the promotion and Limbaugh attended as well. It was a resounding success.

According to Chafets, two of Limbaugh’s most commonly used vehicles are satire and parody. These work well for both Limbaugh and his enemies. For him, he can hide behind the veil of satire and for his foes, well, they can hear what they want, declare it isn’t satire or parody and attack.

His favorite source for ammunition comes from his opposition. Limbaugh takes something his opponents say or do and turns it against them, often with humorous results and frequently controversial. To wit: In March of 2007, David Ehrenstein, a writer (who happens to be African-American) for the Los Angeles Times wrote that Obama was running for an unelected office that exists in the popular white imagination — the “Magic Negro”. Ehrenstein commented about Obama’s alleged “inauthenticity as compared to such sterling examples of genuine blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg.” Limbaugh jumped all over it.




Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One includes chapters on his drug problem, the NFL deal, Limbaugh’s relationship with Fox, and his current status in the world of AM radio. Also present is an eight-page section of glossy black and white photos. There are several references well documented with facts, figures, testimonials, and poll results to clarify Limbaugh’s influence and popularity. The Atlantic named him the second most influential commentator in America. Talkers magazine ranked him first in their list of the 100 most important radio talk show hosts of all time.

In January 2010 — in a survey reflecting Limbaugh’s 1992 declaration that global warming is a hoax — the Pew Institutes annual poll of voter priorities ranked global warming dead last in a list of 21 issues. A June 25, 2010 Gallup poll announced that twice as many voters now consider themselves to be conservative as liberal. Zogby International released poll results on August 12, 2010 showing the President with a 43% approval rating.

What’s a liberal Democrat to do? I say, “Buy this book.” Take Sun-tzu’s advice and keep your enemies closer. Chafets says it this way: “Two decades should have been enough to convince even the most obtuse that Rush Limbaugh is someone you underestimate or ignore at your peril.”

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