Wizard of Ooze

Rush Limbaugh energized 20 million voters with rock 'n' roll and bad-boy jokes. Now he's recalibrated his act, becoming more political, strategic--and dangerous.

As we approach the millennium, this is the astonishing reality of American political life: A radio talk show host occupies center stage. Rush Limbaugh is an unlikely man for the role: a college dropout, fired from four radio jobs, twice divorced, obese, and insecure. Yet he has become one of the most influential forces in the country. Even his mother can't believe it.

If you're skeptical, too, talk to the 73 Republican freshmen. They attribute their stunning victory to Rush Limbaugh, citing polls that show people who listen to talk radio 10 hours or more per week voted Republican 3-to-1.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Limbaugh is the national precinct captain for the Republican Party. And he works the precinct hard, five days a week, three hours a day. Like an electronic ward boss, Limbaugh explains the issues, offers the conservative GOP spin, rallies the faithful, and turns out the voters. It is a virtuoso performance, his harangue leavened by bursts of rock 'n' roll, bad-boy jokes, and moments of self-deprecating humor. It was no mistake that the Republican freshmen anointed Rush the "majority-maker" and inducted him as an honorary member of the 104th Congress at their orientation last December.

Another guy who started out in radio, Ronald Reagan, recognized Limbaugh's importance back in 1992, when he declared Rush "the number one voice for conservatism in our country." But the Democrats have been in denial. Before the Republican landslide last November, Democratic strategists shrugged off Limbaugh's clout. "People who listen to the radio in the morning are normal people," declared Clinton political adviser Paul Begala. "People who listen to Limbaugh in the afternoon are has-been, shut-in malcontents. I don't pay much attention to right-wing, foam-at-the-mouth radio because they just talk to each other. It's 20 million people telling each other how they hate Hillary." It's also 20 million voters, energized and mobilized by Mr. Limbaugh, as a chastened Begala discovered.

Liberals and progressives have consistently misunderstood, ignored, and underestimated Rush Limbaugh and his 20 million fans. That's fine, if you don't mind waking up one day to find Phil Gramm in the White House and an occupying army of Newts on Capitol Hill. But if Democrats and what's left of the Left have any intention of getting back in the game, their first step must be an accurate, clear-eyed assessment of Mr. Bombast and his loyal dittoheads.

The evolution of Rush

When it comes to defining their enemy, Democrats are stuck in a time warp. They still criticize the in-your-face ranter who performed "caller abortions" on air, ridiculed "feminazis," and mocked people dying of AIDS. These hurtful, offensive routines helped Rush build an audience of angry white males, but they also sparked protests.

During a 1990 guest appearance on the "Pat Sajak Show," then CBS' late-night program, Limbaugh was rattled by ACT UP hecklers. To restore order, the entire audience was ushered out and a dejected Limbaugh delivered his final words to an empty studio. A CBS executive said, "He came out full of bluster and left a very shaken man. I had never seen a man sweat as much in my life."

Since then Rush has recalibrated his act. Recently, he criticized "anyone who takes pleasure" in the revelation that former Olympic diver Greg Louganis has AIDS. "It's just sad," he told his listeners. Rush will still resort to a fag joke now and then. He still makes fun of the homeless. He can still be reprehensible. But the new Rush is focused on partisan politics. His show is duller, more predictable, more strategic.

The transformation began in 1992 when the Bush campaign was shocked to learn how much political weight Limbaugh could throw around. In the New Hampshire primary, Rush endorsed Pat Buchanan, and the hard-line conservative scored 37 percent of the vote. The scared Bush team quickly invited Rush to spend the night at the White House and to join Marilyn Quayle in the vice president's box at the GOP convention in Houston. Rush loyally denounced Ross Perot, who appealed to many of his own listeners, and he hit the campaign trail, introducing Bush at a "victory rally" in New Jersey.

Even Rush could not save Bush. But after Clinton's victory, when conservatives were dispirited and leaderless, Rush played a crucial role, offering an optimistic voice that promised a conservative backlash. "I'll never forget those dreary, dark, depressing, despondent days after that defeat in 1992," recalls Bush's political director, Mary Matalin. "All we had to hold us together was Rush Limbaugh. And I can remember sitting in my apartment, by myself, day after day, for weeks on end, and [listening to Rush's radio program] was a centerpiece of my day." Matalin, who now hosts her own cable TV talk show, says Limbaugh was the "only voice in that huge defeat, in the arrogance of the Clintonistas rushing into town, that really kept us collected."

William Buckley's National Review proclaimed Rush "the leader of the opposition." It wasn't long before Newt Gingrich took notice, and he and Rush teamed up to become a heavyweight tag team body slamming the Democrats.

All the president's men are dazed and confused. "I haven't quite got it figured out," admits Paul Begala. "I don't know if it's Gingrich working for Rush, or if it's Rush working for Gingrich, but neither of them is working for America."

As Mother Jones first reported, Newt conspired to crush Clinton's lobby reform bill. At the 11th hour, Gingrich suddenly objected to language in the bill that he himself had added, declaring that it would muzzle grassroots activists. He then faxed Limbaugh, who dutifully warned his dittoheads that the lobby bill was a plot to stifle free speech. By the next morning, congressional phones were ringing off the hook. A Republican filibuster in the Senate finally killed the bill.

When the Clintons unveiled their health care plan and dispatched a bus tour across the country to rally support, Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts put their listeners on red alert, announcing the tour schedule, urging protests, and reporting--often with on-scene phone calls--the resulting confrontations. The bus tour, which had been such an effective technique during the Clinton/Gore campaign, was a fiasco.

Similarly, Rush ambushed the president's crime bill, which had seemed a sure winner. When Limbaugh denounced it as "social pork," Republican strategist Bill Kristol was delighted. He furiously faxed memos to congressional Republicans, urging them to create gridlock and deny the Democrats any legislative victories during the '94 campaign.

"I don't think in the old days we would have had much of a chance," admits Kristol. "The president of the United States said it was a crime bill. A fair number of state and local officials liked it because they got money from it. But Rush Limbaugh and several others were able to label it as pork."

"You cannot underestimate, and you cannot overstate, the power of Rush Limbaugh," insists Mary Matalin. "What he's saying is sinking in out there."

No wonder. Rush has the volume, and he's mastered the language his listeners like to echo. Radio consultants even have a name for Rush's format: "nonguested confrontation." The host is free to pontificate, entertain, and intimidate to his heart's content--with no guests and only a few heavily screened callers to challenge whatever he might say. And he repeats the format for half an hour each weekday on his nationally syndicated TV show. "No one has had this uncontested monologue of political advocacy in the history of U.S. television," complains media watchdog Jeff Cohen of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. "Never been heard of."

The best-looking audience in TV?

Democrats are slowly, belatedly figuring out Rush. But they still don't seem to have nailed his listeners. I regard Molly Ivins as a national treasure, like bluesman John Lee Hooker or the San Francisco 49ers. But she's behind the curve about the typical Rush Limbaugh listener. Rush may be blaring from the AM radio in Bubba's battered pickup as he bounces down some backwoods road on the way to an NRA meeting. But Bubba is only part of Rush's audience. To get a better sense of Rush's core followers, you have to look at his TV studio audience. There, Bubba would be a catfish out of water.

"Is this the best-looking audience in television or what?" Rush asks the adoring, cheering crowd in his New York studio. Most of them are white men--whiter than the Republican delegation in Congress--between the ages of 18 and 54. But they are not trailer park trash, survivalists in battle fatigues, or rednecked Klansmen. They are wearing suits, sports coats, and ties. A few are military men in dress uniform, clean-shaven and pink-cheeked. Women are welcome, as long as they behave. And on the surface anyway, these folks are not seething with anger and hatred. In fact, they appear to be happy, deliriously happy. And why not? Their side is winning.

So who are these people, and why are they listening to Rush? That's what I set out to discover last summer when I began producing the documentary "Rush Limbaugh's America" for the PBS series "Frontline." We crisscrossed the country, interviewing self-proclaimed dittoheads--people who say "dittos, Rush" as a shorthand expression of praise and agreement with their favorite talk show host. It might reassure Democrats to think of Rush's fans as poorly educated, gay-bashing morons. But dittoheads are not just marginalized hatemongers; they are a mainstream political force, and as such they are far more threatening.

A Times-Mirror survey last year split the right-wing electorate into three main groups: libertarians, moralists, and enterprisers. The enterprisers, who represent about 10 percent of American adults, are fiercely partisan Republicans who express the strongest anti-government, pro-business views. They hate taxes and regulations. They are suspicious of social welfare and the liberal media. They love Rush.

"The typical Limbaugh listener is a white male, suburbanite, conservative," says Times-Mirror pollster Andrew Kohut. "Better-than-average job, but not really a great job. Frustrated with the system, with the way the world of Washington works. Frustrated by cultural change. Maybe threatened by women."

These enterprising conservatives are salesmen, engineers, computer technicians, accountants, independent truckers, realtors, and owners of franchise food outlets. They want to make money. But they also tend to be civic-minded, and they vote. They are found in small towns and suburbs throughout the country, but the heart of "Limbaughland" is in the Midwest and the South, now the most populous region in the country.

If there is a quintessential Limbaugh listener, we found him in suburban Atlanta: a 33-year-old mortgage banker named B.J. Van Gundy. A graduate of Georgia Tech, a former bartender, Catholic, married, Van Gundy is a fiscal conservative who doesn't want the Republican Party to get bogged down in battles over abortion or school prayer. He's earnest, opinionated. He's comfortable in his business suit, regularly whips out his cellular phone, and drives a Jeep Cherokee with a bumper sticker that reads: "Visualize No Liberals."

Like all dittoheads, Van Gundy grimaces at the notion that he is the member of a cult. "Do I look robotic to you?" he asks. Well, a bit stiff perhaps, but a robot, no. "I think most of us out here listening to Rush like what he says because we already think these things. He's just incredible at saying it."

But what really seems to inspire Van Gundy is Limbaugh's personal success: "He was a loser 10 or 12 years ago. He didn't have two nickels to rub together. And for him to have done this is just phenomenal. I just want my turn next."

Limbaugh's fans are not country club Republicans. They are Kmart conservatives who consider Rush one of them, even if he did make $25 million over the last two years. Their demographics excite strategists like Bill Kristol, who sees in Rush a way to expand the Republicans' base. "He's a populist figure," says Kristol. "The Republican Party has changed an awful lot from the days when George Herbert Walker Bush was the example of a Republican. Conservatism today represents the common sense of the American people."

King Tut

Rush's singular achievement has been to destroy the notion that "funny conservative" is an oxymoron. There had been strident right-wing voices on radio before--Father Coughlin, Joe Pyne, Morton Downey Jr.--but they were mean-spirited and shrill. When KFBK-AM in Sacramento hired Rush in 1984, they were looking for a kinder, gentler conservative. Rush played the angry white guy with a sense of humor. It seems obvious now, but no one had tried it before.

Rush's strength is that his humor and his conservatism both come naturally. Before there was Rush, there was Big Rush, his 300-pound father--a Goldwater Republican and "an imposing presence, physically and mentally," according to Rush's younger brother, David. "We were indoctrinated at an early age."

But Rush inherited his prankish humor from his mother, Millie. While the Limbaugh men are beefy, Millie is Long Tall Sally. She hails from Arkansas, her parents were Democrats, and she set out to be a jazz singer. "I was paid to be a singer for about four months of my life," she recalls with a smile, "and that's been the biggest joy of my life, besides my family."

When Rush, who always hated school, resisted his father's pressure to follow in the family tradition and become a lawyer, Millie supported her son's efforts to become a Top 40 disc jockey. "He got his good sense from his dad and his nonsense from me," she says with a laugh.

At 16 Rush found his calling inside a booth, behind a microphone. He got an after-school show on a tiny radio station partly owned by his father. "It gave him a feeling of superiority," Millie recalls, "and made him feel like King Tut."

But Rush also bears the profound insecurity of a lonely, socially awkward fat boy who skipped his senior prom. He is still, acknowledges his brother, a man driven by old insecurities. The square, the nerd, the guy girls refused to kiss. His first two wives left him. David Limbaugh says it's because his brother is "sedentary." His mother confesses, "I can't imagine what it would be like to be married to him," and adds, "I think he needs a wife subservient to him."

Today, behind a microphone in his "Excellence in Broadcasting" studio, speaking to America over 650 radio stations, Rush Limbaugh is still King Tut. Some analysts speculate that Limbaugh might be tempted to run for office. His fans sell "Limbaugh for President" bumper stickers. But I doubt he'll ever risk it. Despite his immense popularity and political effectiveness, he remains an extreme, polarizing figure. And from what I observed of Limbaugh--he refused to be interviewed for either Mother Jones or for "Frontline"--he is simply too uncomfortable with people. Unlike Jack Kemp or Bill Clinton, Limbaugh hates to press flesh. He is a radio personality, magically transformed by a microphone, a man who prefers the security of his studio bubble to the uncontrolled environment of real life. Inside his bubble, Rush can make wild, unfounded assertions that would doom any politician. And he can avoid the debate that would deflate him in a campaign.

After six months of studying Rush Limbaugh, the image that lingers is of him at the freshman Republican orientation last December: A ponderously heavy man, sweating profusely, silent, uncomfortable, sitting alone in the midst of a noisy, celebratory crowd. At the moment of his political triumph, about to be honored by the Republican members of Congress who believe him responsible for their victory, Rush looks like a man who would rather be home on his couch channel-surfing. Then he rises, assumes his position behind the mike, and once again lacerates Clinton and warns Newt to hang tough. It makes me think of the Wizard of Oz, full of bluff and bluster, until Toto pulls back the curtain.

Stephen Talbot is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His report on the funding of the 1992 presidential campaign, "The Best Campaign Money Can Buy," won a Dupont Award last year.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.