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Rush's Judgment

Media phenomenon Rush Limbaugh is winning bigger and bigger audiences with his no-holds-barred brand of commentary.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

For Rush Limbaugh, a militant feminist is a "feminazi," but a good cigar is a smoke.

"I think cigars are just a tremendous addition to the enjoyment of life,'' the wildly popular, conservative, radio-and-television talk-show host says between contented puffs on the Ramon Allones Gigante Double Corona he has recently removed from the humidor in his television-studio office on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

It is 7:15 p.m., early evening of a typical, overwhelmingly busy day for the founder of "the most-talked-about radio show in the world,'' the self-described "poster boy for the American way of life,'' "America's vital interest,'' the "lover of mankind, protector of motherhood, supporter of fatherhood (in most cases) and general all-around good guy'' who daily declares that he is "serving humanity with talent--oh so much talent, more than I'll ever need--on loan from God.''

Limbaugh has been described by liberals as "the most dangerous man in America''; he calls himself a harmless, lovable little fuzzball. The truth, of course, is that he is neither; he is an immensely talented entertainer with a definite and often highly controversial point of view, one which he is a master at expressing. So much so that he has become a kind of conservative media Superman, fighting for truth, justice and what he sees as the American way. Even if you hate what he says, you have to admire the ability--and the sincerity--with which he says it.

The day had begun about 12 hours earlier as Limbaugh lifted his 43-year-old, 270-pound body (one caller to his show, jokingly trying to be politically correct, will refer to him that day as "horizontally gifted'') out of the bed in his modest, two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The apartment is not in keeping with the image of someone whose 1993 income has been estimated at between $15 million and $20 million, but the chauffeured Lincoln Town Car he will take to work is.

Work is first his radio show, noon to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, presented live at what he calls "the patriotic center of the universe,'' a studio at WABC-AM, several floors above Madison Square Garden, "where the views expressed by the host are sweeping the nation.'' And indeed they are. The figures for the program are nothing short of incredible. When Limbaugh began his nationally syndicated show in 1988, only 56 stations subscribed to his Excellence in Broadcasting Network, and he had a mere 250,000 listeners; now there are 636 stations in the United States alone, plus the recently added Armed Forces Radio Network. More than 21 million people a week listen to Limbaugh, up to 5 million of them at any one time.

After radio comes television, a nationally syndicated half-hour show that grows each month. At the end of the television program, he autographs for his studio audience copies of his two books, The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So, both No. 1 best sellers. Counting hardcover, paperback and audiotape, there are more than 7.5 million copies of the books in print. And then there is the "Limbaugh Letter," perhaps the most widely read political newsletter in the United States, with more than 430,000 subscribers.

So it is not surprising that near the end of the day, he welcomes the opportunity to relax and to do so with a recently discovered interest--a cigar. "I've only been smoking them for about a year,'' Limbaugh says. "But I've gotten into them like I haven't gotten into anything in a long time.''

It all began, he says, at a dinner in Ozone Park, Queens, in New York, with a friend and the friend's family. "He had his three sons with him,'' Limbaugh says, "and after dinner he passed around some cigars. They smelled just superb. He offered me one, and at first I rejected it. But I finally relented and took it, because it was a celebratory evening. They were pre-Castro Montecristos. And they were absolutely stupendous.''

He was intrigued. The next thing he did--and he insists he is not saying this because of this interview--was to buy a copy of Cigar Aficionado. "I got all the back issues--I think there were two at that point--and I began to go to cigar stores and look at the different brands and cross-check what the stores had with what the ratings had been. I tried different brands. And I guess, like a lot of people, I settled on Macanudos for a while. And then I really got into Ashtons. I thought they were very good. And occasionally I would try a Fonseca. Always a standard shape. I didn't much get into the robustos or the torpedos or the pyramids.''

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