Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One
By Zef Chafets
Hardcover, 240 pages
List price: $25.95
Chapter One: "I HOPE HE FAILS"
Four days before Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, Rush Limbaugh went on the air and told his millions of listeners what his policy toward the new man in the White House was going to be. He had been asked, he said, by a major American publication — the Wall Street Journal, it later turned out — to write four hundred words about his hopes for the new administration. Limbaugh told his audience that he didn't need four hundred words. Four would suffice: "I hope he fails."
Limbaugh said that he fervently disagreed with Republican moderates who were calling on the party to cooperate with Obama or even give him a chance. This was a reference to a meeting between Obama and a group of conservative pundits that had taken place a few days earlier at the home of columnist George Will. The guest list had been unpublished but was immediately leaked, and it included some of the brainiest right-of-center commentators in Washington. They had ideological differences with Obama, but they had a lot in common, too, including a common language. They, like the president-elect, were products of elite liberal educational institutions.
Obama's goal was to flatter and charm the guests, and by all accounts he succeeded. "He's making good on his promise to reach out to Republicans and conservatives with this post-partisan stuff, whatever that means," Larry Kudlow, a conservative economic commentator, later told a reporter. "I was very impressed. He's a nice guy, terribly smart, well informed, great smile. He's just really engaged. He said he likes to know the arguments on all sides."
Obama had no illusions about converting anyone that night (although he evidently made some inroads with New York Times columnist David Brooks). He simply wanted these critics to recall his smiling face and reasonable demeanor when they wrote about him. He had another purpose as well: to divide his opponents into "good" and "bad" conservatives.
"The Obama message is a crafty one," blogged Vanity Fair media columnist Michael Wolff the next day. "He's choosing these fretting, parsing, neurotic, limp-wristed, desperate-to-be-liked print guys, over the crass, spitting, scary, voluble guys on television and radio, the Ailes-Rove- Limbaugh wing of the Republican Party."
By coincidence, Rush Limbaugh was in Washington on the day of Will's gathering; in fact, he was at the White House, where President George W. Bush threw him an intimate fifty-eighth-birthday luncheon. When word of the Obama dinner got out, the media began buzzing with rumors that Limbaugh had been there.
The following day, Limbaugh laughed at the very idea. He wasn't looking to get along with Obama; he wanted to thwart him. That was the meaning of "I hope he fails." The president was a liberal Democrat, and as far as Limbaugh was concerned, the Republican Party was not in business to expedite or assist liberals. "I've been listening to Barack Obama for a year and a half," he said. "I know what his politics are. I know what his plans are, as he has stated them. I don't want them to succeed. He's talking about the absorption of as much of the private sector by the U.S. government as possible, from the banking business to the mortgage industry, the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don't want this to work."
Some of the moderate conservative pundits were dismayed by this hard-edged approach. The leaders of the mainstream media, who were already comparing the new president to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, were appalled. Here was Limbaugh, raining acid on the parade. "I don't care what the Drive-By Media story is," Limbaugh said. "I would be honored if the Drive-By Media headlined me all day long: 'Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails.' Somebody's gotta say it."
To reinforce the point, Limbaugh appeared on Sean Hannity's TV show on the FOX News Channel. Hannity got his national start as a substitute host on Rush's radio show. His lawyer is Limbaugh's brother, David, who also represents radio host-author Mark Levin. Hannity tossed Rush a softball and he hit it into deep right field.
"I would hope Obama would succeed if he acts like Reagan," Limbaugh said. "But if he's going to do FDR, if he's going to do the new, New Deal all over, which we will call the raw deal, why would I want him to succeed?" FDR occupies a special place in Limbaugh's personal hall of presidential infamy. Rush's father and mentor, Big Rush, was so vociferously anti-Roosevelt that as a young man he was jumped and beaten by New Dealers after a barroom argument. When Rush began calling Obama "the Black FDR," a lot of left-wing commentators were outraged by the racial modifier. They missed the real insult.
"Look, he's my president," Limbaugh told Hannity. "The fact that he is historic is irrelevant to me now . . . Two trillion in stimulus? The growth of government? I think the intent here is to create as many dependent Americans as possible looking to government for their hope and salvation . . . I shamelessly say, No, I want him to fail, if his agenda is a far-left collectivism."
The new administration saw opportunity in Limbaugh's oppositional stance. The Republican Party had emerged from the 2008 election as a headless horseman. George W. Bush had gone home as an unpopular figure; his near-catatonic handling of the financial crises in his last days of his presidency made it clear that no leadership would be coming out of Crawford. McCain ran one of the worst campaigns in recent memory and alienated much of the party's conservative base in the bargain. Besides, he was too old to run again in 2012, which left a void where the party's titular leader should be.
The GOP's post-2008 congressional leadership was, if possible, even more lackluster. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a competent parliamentarian, has the charisma and demeanor of an undertaker. House Minority Leader John Boehner is equally dreary. President Obama and his advisers saw the Republican leadership vacuum as an opportunity to define their opposition before it could define itself. Obama is a student of the tactics of Saul Alinsky, the legendary Chicago political activist and organizer, who taught that the public pays more attention to personalities than to policy. Obama's strategy started with a scapegoat. George W. Bush had filled that role for eight years but he was gone. So were bogeymen like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay. Who should succeed them? Democratic pollsters came up with a clear candidate. The data made it clear: Rush Limbaugh. Democrats had hated him for years. Independents and moderate Republicans were scandalized and offended by "I hope he fails." Even some conservatives thought Rush had gone too far.
Putting Limbaugh's face on the Republican brand seemed like a brilliant move. Obama himself kicked it off, less than a week after taking office. He invited the Republican congressional leadership to the White House for what was billed as a summit meeting meant to mark the bipartisanship the president had pledged to bring to government. Obama implored the heads of the opposition party to begin by supporting his trillion-dollar economic stimulus bill, and then dropped the Rush Bomb. "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," he told them.
This raised eyebrows all over Washington. American presidents don't normally single out private individuals, even powerful commentators, and attempt to put them beyond the pale. They certainly don't do this in the first week of a new term. The wildly popular new president was offering the GOP a choice — a place of influence and participation in the gleaming Age of Obama or that symbol of yesterday's harsh partisanship, Rush Limbaugh.
At Limbaugh's studio in Palm Beach, Florida, which he refers to with his trademark grandiosity as "The Southern Command," Obama's words were greeted with incredulity and glee. Limbaugh had been trying to goad him into a fight ever since the Democratic convention in Denver. For a long time it seemed that the young man from Illinois was too cool to engage and that Rush would have to spend the next four or eight years beating up on Harry Reid, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, and other lesser Democrats. But Obama, for reasons of his own, had called Limbaugh out. Not since Bill Clinton had Rush had such a worthy adversary.
Limbaugh immediately labeled Obama's stimulus the "porkulus bill" and demanded that Republicans in Congress oppose it. He also responded to the idea — being floated all over the capital by White House aides — that he was now the real head of the Republican Party. His vehicle was an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal titled "My Bipartisan Stimulus." The premise was simple: Obama said he wanted a bipartisan administration? Limbaugh would give him one. Let Obama take 54 percent of the stimulus money — $486 billion, which corresponded to the Democrat's share of the popular vote — and spend it on infrastructure projects. He, Limbaugh, as head of the GOP, would take his party's 46 percent — $414 billion — in the form of corporate and capital gains tax cuts. Then they would compare results and know, once and for all, if John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman got it right.
"The economic crisis is an opportunity to unify people, if we set aside the politics," Limbaugh wrote. "The leader of the Democrats and the leader of the Republicans (me, according to Mr. Obama) can get it done. This will have the overwhelming support of the American people.
Let's stop the acrimony. Let's start solving our problems, together. Why wait one more day?"
Limbaugh knew perfectly well that Obama didn't really consider him the Republican leader, and the Journal article was his way of saying so; a signature trick he calls "illustrating the absurd by being absurd." But, at the same time, the sort of tax cuts Limbaugh was proposing were completely serious and, from a conservative economic perspective, logical. Over the years, Limbaugh has cultivated a larger-than-life, intentionally ambiguous persona, which has made him illusive. It is a trick he learned from Muhammad Ali, whose big mouth, braggadocio, and sheer raw nerve enabled him to draw and keep a crowd throughout his long career. The young Ali, still Cassius Clay, invented disparaging nicknames for his opponents (Sonny Liston was the "Big Ugly Bear") and arrogantly predicted the round of his victories, which led boxing "experts" to denounce him as merely an entertainer. The first Liston fight dispelled that notion, but it took the boxing establishment a longer time to finally admit that Ali was not just a champ at the box office but, truly, the Greatest, a revolutionary talent who transformed the way professional boxers worked.
Ali was also controversial and dead serious about his political beliefs. He became a Black Muslim when it was dangerously unpopular to do so, and he paid for it. He was willing to face prison time rather than serve in a war he didn't support. And yet, despite it all, white reporters couldn't quite take him seriously. When he said alarmingly incorrect things, like calling Joe Louis an Uncle Tom, dubbing his fight with George Foreman in Zaire "the rumble in the jungle," or mocking Joe Frazier as a gorilla, they thought it might be just part of the act. He couldn't really mean those things, could he?
Limbaugh is the Ali of the air, the all-knowing, all-seeing Maha Rishi who defeats his enemies in intellectual combat with half his brain tied behind his back, "just to make it fair." He also happens to be the most important and influential conservative in the country, the one indispensable Republican voice. This can be confusing, which is the way Limbaugh wants it.
After the Wall Street Journal article, Rush continued to insist that no true conservative could vote for the president's porkulus bill; Republicans who did would be considered "moderates," one of Limbaugh's supreme insults, and dealt with accordingly. GOP congressmen took this threat seriously, especially after Limbaugh's listeners began bombarding them with e-mail and phone calls. Rush, who is a realist, didn't think he could block the bill, and that wasn't his intention. The Democrats had a clear majority, and he wanted them to pass the stimulus alone, to completely own the spending, which he was sure would prove to be unpopular and ineffective. He got his way, too. Not a single Republican member of the House voted with Obama, who Limbaugh was now calling "The Messiah." Bipartisanship, which Rush considered political and ideological surrender, was off the table. The Republicans were an opposition that would oppose. "I have hijacked Obama's honeymoon," he happily announced.
Not every congressman enjoyed being strong-armed. Phil Gingrey, who represents Georgia's 11th Congressional District, had been a GOP fence-sitter who resented Limbaugh's intervention.
In a moment of candor he complained about the way Rush had been razzing the party's congressional leadership for their alleged softness on spending. Gingrey said it was easy for talk-show hosts "to stand back and throw bricks." In American politics, "talk-show host" is a euphemism for "Rush Limbaugh."
Gingrey was deluged by outraged telephone calls and e-mails. The following day he crawled onto Limbaugh's show and begged El Rushbo to forgive him. He called Limbaugh "a conservative giant" and praised him as a voice of conscience in their movement.
He didn't say the voice, but Rush was in a gracious mood and let it pass.
For the moment, both Limbaugh and the Democrats were happy. Rush's ratings were rising by the day, and his party was doing his bidding. This enabled the Democrats to keep using him as the face of the GOP. Paul Begala, a senior Democratic political consultant and informal adviser to the White House, declared that "the real leader of the Republican Party in America today is a corpulent drug addict with an AM radio talk show, Rush Limbaugh." Begela was looking for a twofer; disparaging Limbaugh and, at the same time, starting a fight between him and Michael Steele, the newly elected head of the Republican National Committee. "Steele is going to need to stand up to Limbaugh if he wants to actually lead the party of Lincoln," Begala said.
Attacking Limbaugh for his drug use was a bold Democratic gambit; President Obama, after all, had confessed to serious recreational drugging as an angry young man. But the gloves were off. Hendrik Hertzberg, a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter who now writes for the New Yorker, said that while he wasn't comparing Obama to Martin Luther King or Limbaugh to Bull Connor, he was reminded by El Rushbo of the fire hoses and clubs that had been deployed against King by the infamously racist and brutal police chief of Selma, Alabama. Former Air America Radio talk-show host Janeane Garofalo offered a woman's perspective. "The type of female that does like Rush is the same type of female that falls in love with prisoners," she said. "Squeaky Fromme [one of Charles Manson's groupies] is a good example. Eva Braun, Hitler's girlfriend. That is exactly the type of woman that responds really well to Rush."
Tina Brown, the former editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, was alarmed by all the attention Limbaugh was getting. She warned that the Democrats were turning him into an iconic figure.
Rush couldn't have been happier. After twenty years in the ring, he knew that when you start getting compared to Bull Connor, Charles Manson, and Adolf Hitler, you're landing punches. Dishing out and absorbing punishment was all in a day's work for the self-described harmless little fuzzball who had assigned himself the task of destroying the presidency of Barack Obama. There were risks — you don't take on the most powerful man in the world lightly — but Limbaugh was prepared to take those risks. "This is my destiny," he told his audience. "This is what I was born to do."
From Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One by Zev Chafets. Copyright 2010 by Zev Chafets. Excerpted by permission of Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.