Yes, folks, it's high noon at 2 Penn Plaza in New York City, and Rush Limbaugh is ready to ride and shoot till 3 P.M. over—count 'em, or he'll count 'em for you—520 AM stations across the land. His targets: radical-liberals (in which category he includes Bill Clinton and Albert Gore), feminists ("femi-Nazis" in the Limbaugh lexicon), environmentalists (invariably accompanied by the suffix "wackos"), do-gooders ("compassion fascists") and just about everyone else who dares stand to the left of Coriolanus, Cotton Mather—or Limbaugh himself. "I am the most dangerous man in America," Limbaugh announces to his audience. He then confides to his visitor that this popular catchphrase was coined in the WABC studios by a feminist employee—with whom, he says, he has now become good friends.
Though pro-establishment invective is rarely funny, Limbaugh's trademark barbs are sometimes genuinely humorous. Commenting on Woody Allen's controversial new film, Husbands and Wives, Limbaugh gleefully observes, "Gee, I hope it's rated PG so Woody can bring a date." But it is his determination to provoke controversy—and just plain outrage—that has made him beloved by the right, loathed by the left and the most popular talk show host in the land. Thai's the reason President Bush, who has already entertained Limbaugh at the White House—where he slept in the Lincoln bedroom—interrupted a busy campaign schedule in New York City recently to appear on Limbaugh's radio show.
Yet Limbaugh's diatribes will often careen far beyond the boundaries of even impolite party politics. When feminists attack him, he sneers, "I like the women's movement, from behind." If The New York Times reports more than 35 million poor in the U.S., Limbaugh will announce, with no authentication but his own, "The poorest people in America arc better fed than the mainstream families of Europe." Limbaugh has The Word, you see, for anyone who listens in.
"Rush Limbaugh here," he cries, "with talent on loan from God!"
If paid billingsgate betokens talent, then heaven's coffers, upon repayment, will spill over. At 41, after four years on the air with a program he is pleased to call Excellence in Broadcasting, Limbaugh has become a one-man carnival of right-wing rabble-rousing. He now boasts—openly and often—of 13 million faithful listeners, 15 hours a week. If that's not enough of a reactionary Rush for everybody, he has now—with the backing of Multimedia Entertainment—taken his antics onto syndicated TV with a half-hour nightly over 180 stations. His new book, tilled with characteristic modesty The Way Things Ought to Be, is No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. On the lecture circuit, Limbaugh now commands $25,000 per harangue. And if anyone is still missing his well-hammered points about capitalism, conservatism and the American Way, there's a Rush Limbaugh newsletter, published monthly. Liberals may bemoan the wretched excess of Limbaugh's panegyrics even as they grant him his due. Says Pulitzer-prizewinning liberal journalist J. Anthony Lukas: "While I disagree with almost every word the man utters, I admire the ingenious slapstick he musters on behalf of his opinions. I wish my side of the fence had a showman half so effective." Feminist attorney Gloria Allred of Los Angeles isn't amused. "Bigotry isn't funny," she says. "Some of his ideas are dangerous to women and minorities. His ridiculing of feminist leaders encourage the big lie about women—and big lies have a life of their own." From Limbaugh's side, though, comes his pal, William F. Buckley Jr., with the loftiest of paeans for Rush's work: "It's like a jolt of champagne for most of us, reorientating the day, reassuring us that social disorders haven't disturbed the essential movements of the planets."
Whew! Heady wine, that, for a graduate of the Elkins Institute of Radio and Technology of Dallas. As he shamelessly avers in his book, "The American economy cannot be revived without someone gelling rich: Why not me?" In private, Limbaugh, a friendly, easygoing fellow, is markedly less bombastic about his fate and good fortune. "You may not believe me," he says as lie relaxes in his office, "but what I'm after is security." Noting that he's a partner in his show with Ed McLaughlin, the former president of ARC Radio Networks who brought Limbaugh to New York City, Limbaugh adds, "I simply have found something that I like to do, and I want to keep on doing it for as long as I can. After all, I've been fired seven times, and I don't want to be fired again."
Limbaugh's admittedly checkered career began in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo., where he was born into a family of conservative, high-powered attorneys. (His grandfather, Rush Sr., was President Eisenhower's ambassador to India; his uncle, Stephen, is a federal judge appointed by Ronald Reagan.) Rush frankly remembers that school "felt like a prison." But, he says, "I'd be sitting at the breakfast table, dreading school and meanwhile listening to some guy on the radio who sounded like he was having a great time."
When Rush was 16, his father, Rush II, dispatched his elder son (Rush's younger brother, David, is an attorney in Cape Girardeau) to electronics school one summer, then helped him get a job as a disc jockey at a local radio station. Alter high school Limbaugh managed to avoid the draft (he gives varying accounts of his deferment, including a "football knee"), then moved to Pittsburgh in 1971 to work for station KQV. He was soon fired. "The station manager told me I didn't haw any talent." he recalls, "and advised me to go into sales."
So he did. Fired again, this time from a nighttime talk show in Kansas City, Limbaugh went to work in marketing for the Kansas City Royals baseball team. "Misery set in," he remembers. "I didn't like being behind the scenes. I want to be the reason something happens."
Limbaugh then married—for the second time—a Royals usher named Michelle who was working her way through college. (He characterizes his first brief marriage, to a Kansas City secretary named Roxie. as "a mistake.") He tried radio again, at station KMBZ in Kansas City, but got fired once more because, he says, the station management thought his commentaries too "controversial." In 1984, though, he found a job out in Sacramento, Calif., at station KFBK, replacing someone even more controversial—Morton Downey Jr., who, Limbaugh says, "was fired for an ethnic slur."
There Limbaugh began honing his act on a talk show in which he did all the talking. Ed McLaughlin convinced Limbaugh to try syndication; soon, with ABC in New York City as home base, he was off and ranting.
Success, as it will, has exacted a certain price. After they moved to New York, Limbaugh and his second wife separated. And although he recently had dinner with Mayflower Madam Sydney Riddle Barrows ("Ten other people were there," he said, "so I was safe"), Limbaugh has little time for romance. As he told USA Today columnist Jeannie Williams, "I'm too much in love with myself."
In truth, Limbaugh seems wedded to the limelight. The question remains though: Where is all this success leading? "I have no agenda," he insists, "and no interest in running for public office. I've turned down political fund-raiser after political fundraiser. If I wanted to reshape America, I would go where that happens, to the institutions of policy-making." Yes, yes, but...influence is power, as Limbaugh himself notes in his persistent attacks upon the media, and power does indeed corrupt. In Limbaugh's tirades, and in the virulent "Ditto!" he evokes from his followers when they reiterate his sentiments, there is the distant echo of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), the demagogue in denim who uses his cracker-barrel TV show to manipulate public opinion in Elia Kazan's savage 1957 film satire A Face in the Crowd. Yet Limbaugh insists only that he's right, not that he wants to make everyone as right as he is. "I don't use this program for activism," Rush says. "But if people act on what I say, then that's the icing on the cake."