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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

(continued from page 2)

He will hold court for three hours, just Limbaugh, no guests, only telephone callers. He is the essence of politeness; no caller is ever hung up on, and if the caller clearly expresses disagreement he or she is moved to the front of the long waiting line of listeners to whom Limbaugh will talk on the air. But other than that, what the show is about is Rush Limbaugh: his ideas, his opinions, his view of the news, of the liberal-oriented media. At 1:10 p.m., not quite halfway through his impressively virtuosic, instinctive, seat-of-the-pants performance, he will light up a Partagas Lusitania Double Corona. The cigar in his hand seems as natural as his work, as if it simply belongs there, just as he simply belongs on the air.

"I don't know until that day what I'm going to talk about,'' he will say six hours later. "It's all spontaneous. It's not structured. The show is event driven, not topic driven. I don't decide tonight that I'm going to talk about abortion on Friday. I don't know what Friday's going to bring until the news is made during the day Thursday, Thursday night and Friday morning.''

It is a spontaneity that has been developed over years in radio, many of them, especially in the early part of his career, unsuccessful. (He was, in fact, among the frequently fired.) In the last few years, the Rush Limbaugh story has been much written about in the media: how he was born Rush Hudson Limbaugh III in January 1951 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri to a family whose men had for generations been lawyers. How, at age 16, he worked on air for a radio station in his hometown. How as a college dropout (from Southeast Missouri State University) he became a disk jockey in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, working under the name of Jeff Christie because it was simpler to remember than Rush Limbaugh. How he deejayed in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, left the air to work as director of group sales and special events for the Kansas City Royals baseball team and returned to radio in 1983 as a political commentator for KMBZ in Kansas City. How he moved the following year to KFBK in Sacramento, California, and in the next four years nearly tripled his ratings. How, in 1988, Ed McLaughlin, the former head of the ABC Radio Network, came to him with the idea of going national. And how he has achieved unbelievable success, a success that led to his receiving the 1993 Radio Hall of Fame award as top contemporary network/syndicated radio personality in America.

"What I have done is successfully identified a [niche] and then filled it,'' Limbaugh says in the television-studio office. "I am first of all in the media. But specifically I'm in radio and television, and both of those are show biz. So if you're going to succeed there you have to be able to entertain. In those fields, there's a lot of competition. I call competition 'noise,' and there's a lot of noise out there. You have to cut through that noise. Anybody can go on radio and television and be conservative. Anybody can go on radio and television and be liberal. Most are liberal. You have to have something other than that to attract people. You have to have something that's charismatic. You have to have something that's almost magnetic. You have to have a quality that addicts people. And that could be anything from confidence to voice timbre and quality to demeanor and attitude. Who knows?''

What he does, he says, is "combine two very different forms in my presentation that nobody else does: an irreverent sense of humor--not just laughs, but irreverence--and serious discussion of issues.'' The irreverence, he says, extends to the self-aggrandizement that is a constant feature of the programs. "I love to tweak liberals,'' he says. "My sense of humor is to be braggadocious, to talk about how good I am, how important I am. Because I know it rubs liberals the wrong way. And it is also one of the ways to cut through the noise.''

But, he says, he is not fully comfortable working in an entertainment medium. "I take what I do very seriously,'' he says. "I take myself and my devotion to it very seriously. I think that, in the sense that 50 people depend on me, that what I'm doing is supporting 50 other people with jobs, I have to consider what I do to be important. But in terms of am I crucial to the survivability of the republic?--that's not me. Most journalists in their hearts think that they are the sole guarantors of the First Amendment, that without them the nation would crumble. I don't have that attitude. But I am very insistent that I be understood precisely when I am making serious points.''

He acknowledges that he influences many people. "That is one of the primary reasons that I am obsessed about being responsible about the earth-shattering, serious things I believe in,'' he says. "I will never say something I don't believe to shock or outrage people. I will be satirical or do parody, but the point is always in mind. I do not moisten my finger and stick it in the wind and say, 'What do people want to hear me say today?'-- and then say it. My program is totally about what I think. It's not about learning what other people think. It's not about saying what other people might want to hear.''

Nonetheless, it is clear from the response he has received that many people want to hear what he is saying. "It's one of the main reasons I've been successful,'' he says. "People say to me it's so good to finally have someone saying what they believe. Rather than being an agent of influence, I think I am someone who validates what millions of Americans think and just don't hear expressed in the media. In fact, they are treated to television shows and movies that make fun of what they believe.''

One television show that does not do that is his own. And a look at the audience that attends the daily, late-afternoon taping makes it apparent that there are legions of loyal followers. Most talk-show audiences look as if they have been dragged in off the street; not Rush Limbaugh's. The men arrive in ties and jackets, the women in dresses or suits. They have been encouraged to conform to a dress code, and they will be greeted by one of Limbaugh's assistants as "the best-dressed audience in television.'' They are a reflection of middle America, of honest, homespun family values; five of them are wearing wine-colored baseball caps that declare Rush '96.

Most of the audience arrives bearing copies of his books because they have been informed that at the end of the show he will autograph them. Some have brought cameras, and the aide tells them that when Limbaugh comes out to meet them, a few minutes before the taping is to begin, they will be permitted to take photos. He is not in the least camera-shy, the aide says, and if he spots them ready to click the shutter, he will often freeze in place and smile: "If there is a camera out there, he will find it.''

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